Gay Love

The white sheets cascading in Kelli Connell's Clothesline almost tickle your face. Hung by two women staring at each other, they dangle in the breeze in front of a wooden fence. One of the women, wearing a white shirt, stares forward at her lover, who hangs a white bra on the line. It's a delicate moment between two women -- two women who happen to be the same woman.

I first saw Clothesline a few months ago at a Lawndale show. Now it's back in town as part of "Real Time" at DiverseWorks. Connell teams up with David Hilliard and Joe Schmelzer for this exhibition of photographs addressing issues of gay identity and personal relationships. The show is in the small space, which means it's a small exhibition, and also that it hits you right when you walk in the door.

For Connell's series of digital photos, she takes two pictures of the same female model in two different positions. Once one image is shot, the model hurries to change her look -- clothes, hair, expression -- and then quickly strikes a different pose before any change occurs in lighting. Click. Connell then digitally splices the two images together and presto: A lesbian love affair is born.

The two pics on display here are lovely. I fell for the cool colors and warm emotions of Clothesline the moment I saw it. Seeing the work again only heightened my infatuation with the model, a woman who is two women, neither of whom has any need for anyone but herself.

As the series progressed over last year, Connell's model grew pregnant. This presents a problem for an artist who is trying to create an intimate universe, a universe in which the same girl isn't supposed to look exactly like herself. Hence the ingenuity of Private Conversations, an image taken (twice) outside a house at night. The interior is bathed in light, partially silhouetting the two poses in a bright glow. The model stands inside on the left, pregnant in a red shirt. Her profile faces that of her lover, whose full belly is shielded from view by an air-conditioning window unit. Connell uses tactics typically reserved for sitcom directors, and the resulting composition is dead-on.

David Hilliard's work also deals with gay identity, but its gayness isn't as striking as that of two women staring at each other. The models in his works are standing alone, solitary in their studliness. In Greenhouse, a young man fills a water pitcher. The water trickles out of a green garden hose, situated in a fairly phallic manner. The barefooted and shirtless lad looks down at the sputtering stream. This scene unfolds on the right side of the two-panel installation, while the left focuses on the open door of the greenhouse. We're standing inside the greenhouse.

At first glance, it looks like Hilliard took one picture and sliced it into two panels, but there are double points of focus and the works don't line up exactly. Like many a tourist who wants to capture an entire sunset or an entire mountain range (or a sunset over a mountain range), Hilliard has snapped multiple pics of the same scene. When the chromogenic prints are blown up and hung on the wall next to each other, the result makes the eyes divert back and forth, admiring the ebb and flow of the panorama's crispness. It's definitely worth a look (or two).

Hilliard brings out the big guns for Hulk. A man stands in the middle panel of three, tattooed and holding a bottle with a green label. He wouldn't really set off your gay-dar, were it not for the antiques logo on his black shirt. This man is very important to the composition of the work, no doubt, but it's hard not to get distracted by the booth of carnival toys behind him: blown-up figurines, American flags, plastic hats. The focus of this panel is on the big dude, but the toys, even if they're a tad blurred, echo the work of Andreas Gursky, the German photographer known for his images of 99-cent stores and electronica parties. The trinkets are vibrant, playful, festive. After all, they're in a carnival booth.

In the middle of the left panel hangs a blown-up doll of the Incredible Hulk. The Hulk is accompanied by his pal Spider-Man, but we all know who's the star of this Marvel matchup. The big green guy's the counterpart to the man in the middle. They're two dudes with big attitudes and biceps. A girl stands with a group of friends on the right panel, acting more as a placeholder for the purposes of composition than anything else. She doesn't matter.

Rounding out the exhibition are a few pieces by Joe Schmelzer, whose work is like a more personal version of Howard Roffman's. Roffman, you see, published Three, a book of photographs chronicling the life of three male partners, a few years back. That book now graces coffee tables in gay homes across the country, but it's Schmelzer who has really gone for it, snapping pics of himself and his own two partners.

Noah in Tub, New York, NY is a shot of, well, Noah in a bathtub. His tanned upper body leans over for the water in his cupped hands. His skin stands in stark contrast to the white tiles and tub. It's an excellent photograph of man, water and porcelain, and it's got a twist. The photo was shot from above; you can see the photographer's bare foot standing on a towel over the toilet seat. No big deal there, just a photographer adding himself to the piece. But you can also see another socked foot on the floor, no doubt belonging to someone else who's admiring the beauty of a lover in the bath. There's a threesome going on here, ladies and gentlemen.

That threesome dries itself off and heads for the covers in Three Pillows, Philadelphia, PA. Taken from the foot of the bed after the lovers have left, this print is a simple image of slightly wrinkled sheets and indented pillows. It instantly brings to mind the work of the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose similar image of a vacant bed recently graced six billboards in the Inner Loop. Where Gonzalez-Torres's work was frenetic and tussled, displayed at larger-than-life proportions on the side of the road, Schmelzer's image is calm and inviting -- although it doesn't look like there's much room for anyone else on that bed.

The whole "Real Time" exhibition is inviting. Curator Patrick Reynolds managed to pack some big works in a small space without overdoing it. Clean and crisp, they relate poignant narratives of gay love.

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Keith Plocek
Contact: Keith Plocek