What makes an image queer? What constitutes a queer history? Ryan Patrick Krueger’s debut solo exhibition, “On Longing,” invoked these questions and explored what’s at stake in their answers through five works (all 2022) that contain and reframe vernacular photographs of coupled men between whom some form of affection can be discerned. Anchoring the show were two vertical, human-scale wood cases leaning against the gallery walls atop mounds of black sand. The units’ interiors are papered with ephemera, as if they were exuberant bulletin boards. One case, titled Dear David (Semiotics #2), contains more than fifty black-and-white snapshots the artist sourced through eBay, and operates as a kind of homage to and extension of David Deitcher’s bellwether 2001 book Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840-1918. While the photos are anonymous and undated, the print sizes and clothing styles situate most of them after the period in Deitcher’s project and before the 1969 Stonewall Riots—an era shaped by the “lavender scare” and heightened policing of public gay intimacy. The ambiguously amorous images are paper-clipped to the stamped and addressed envelopes in which they were mailed to Krueger, behind which printouts of the original eBay listings are partially visible. This contextualizing material, and the ways the sellers coded these pictures as of queer interest, feeds into the artist’s own queer gaze and desire to possess them. It’s a moving assemblage.
The men in these small, candid shots look back at us familiarly, frozen in their moment of capture. From the widely varied yield of their search terms—which included “gay interest,” “male affection,” and “close male friends”—Krueger has picked out a particularly joyful fraternity of ghosts indexing a range of intimacies not determined by overt eroticism or aggressive masculinity. Many of the images are from photo booths, picturing young men with tousled hair positioned cheek-to-cheek and smiling brightly, often in military uniform. Others, shot in what seem like backyards, show men in various states of tender, gleeful entanglement: carried on shoulders, arm-in-arm, seated close together with their legs gently overlapping. In all, their queerness is gentle, quotidian, and unimperiled. The collection—which the artist began amassing shortly after coming out seven years ago—comes across as wishful, as an attempt to reimagine white male homosexuality without dominant cis-gendered frameworks, in which Krueger seems to feel implicated and also outside of. Here, then, is an impossible community fabricated from an ambivalent longing to belong but also be apart from.
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The second wooden case, standing beside the first like its other half, is titled For My People (Semiotics #1), and evokes the era leading up to the AIDS crisis. Real and photocopied pages from several texts—including Jonathan N. Katz’s foundational Gay American History from 1976, a 1991 issue of the now defunct queer Portland alt-newspaper Just Out, and images from Hal Fischer’s iconic 1977 annotated photographic series “Gay Semiotics”—overlap to form a chorus of declarations from the margins. WE’RE YOUNG, WE’RE QUEER, WE’RE HERE!! reads a headline in Just Out, while a Mattachine Society poster states HOMOSEXUALS ARE DIFFERENT. These words crowd around the center of the piece, where a silky red tie (a turn-of-the-century gay signal, prior to the “hanky code” Fischer diagrams) hangs next to an ACT UP protest poster bearing one of the movement’s emblematic slogans: KILLING TIME IS KILLING PEOPLE. In a small font beneath that slogan, a quote by David Wojnarowicz speaks to the “ten pounds of rage” replacing each T cell disappearing from his body and driving his nonviolent resistance to this “public and social murder.” While more didactic than its partner, this piece serves as a poignant and succinct synopsis of the despair and passionate will to survive that characterized much of gay life during this period.
The two-hundred-pound mounds of black sand beneath each of these sculptures nod to Felix González-Torres’s poetic piles of candy and suggest a body’s worth of ashes anchoring fragile, unprotected archives of unstable evidence. The wood boxes themselves call to mind the spare containers in which the bodies of those who died from AIDS in the ’80s—often estranged from those who were legally recognized as family, forced into indigence, or otherwise unclaimed—were buried in unmarked potter’s fields. They also evoke intimate world-building spaces or expressions of a kind of fandom—like Max Ewing’s legendary 1928 installation, “Gallery of Extraordinary Portraits,” a photo-covered walk-in closet—where queer life could be safely and semiprivately conjured and celebrated.
On the walls opposite the sculptures are two large-scale horizontal adhesive pigment prints that feature, respectively, details from unspecified high school yearbooks from 1953 through ’64, and a black-and-white photo from an undated and unattributed negative. In the latter, a young man dressed in dark, wide-legged pants resembling a sailor’s trousers smiles broadly while carrying another man in his arms. In the former, the cropped yearbook shots locate potential indications of queer relations: a group of young men streaking at night across a lawn; portraits of four male students grouped on a page; loving inscriptions in which students wish each other “the best to you in the future.” Krueger zooms in on these nearly imperceptible moments as if to accord them overdue care and attention, while also underscoring their tenuousness, or the possibility that these relations may not be what they seem. A hand aiming a gun appears amid the selection—a jarring symbol presaging violence. The image forces us immediately out of the curated past and into the present, where “don’t say gay” and anti-trans bills are not headlines from faded clippings but the news of the day, like a gun handled by school boys and all too likely to fire. Mounted on top of both these works, black brackets hold lit candles, adding a memorial air.