Art Miller’s “Habana Series” closed this past weekend at ATM Gallery’s new Chelsea space, but the exhibition’s photographs can still be found on the gallery’s Web site at atmgallery.com and in its in-house portfolio of images.
ATM Gallery recently relocated to West 20th Street in Chelsea from its former home in the East Village, a refreshing change because in this new small gallery the focus is on the art, not the gallery’s architecture. I just happened to walk by and noticed five mysterious black and white photographs that lured me inside.
The images are strangely revealing and unfold very slowly. At first, they appear as documentary-styled photographs of ultra-masculine cowboys on the road, bedding down at a cheap motel. But gradually we realize that more is going on than just sleep. It seems that we are witnessing something hidden, something unspoken, something anonymous––and something as ancient as time.
Miller visited the Habana Inn, a motel in Oklahoma City, over a period of 17 months. By setting up a 35 mm camera inside his rented room he proceeded to capture the underground sexual charge of this otherwise anonymous motel. At night, rooms are rented by your cowboy next-door, curtains pulled back and doors wide open. Sitting in your room you can observe and be observed by men passing by as they stroll the common sidewalk around the balcony. The glass of the room’s window, which heightens the effect of anonymity, obscures the images, creating an effect reminiscent of the red-light district in Amsterdam where hookers stand in shop windows to be purchased. After dark the cruise is on.
It’s interesting that Miller caught this sexual vibe so right. In smaller towns where “gay” life is not as visible as in larger cities, men are forced to improvise. Most of these men would not identify as gay but their sexuality is understood among them. Many are married, church-going, red-state taxpayers who have found other men who express their sexuality in the same way.
Gay men in the big cities might say this is closeted behavior, but I don’t think that it is. This is simply male sexuality in an undeniable form. The option for this sort of encounter is understood by most men, even if only implicitly, whether society wants to acknowledge it or not. Male- to-male sex has always gone on but it is often unspoken even between the two participants in any given tryst. These photographs document the sexual tension latent in even the most conservative cultural setting.
These men are not the disco, Ecstasy, Prada faux wranglers from the Roxy––they are the neighbors, co-workers, and fathers in George W. Bush’s America. At this motel it seems to be understood that what happens there stays there and even though these images have been stolen from this secret fraternity I think Miller exposed them with deepest respect for these men. Not only are the images provocative and straightforward but also they are beautiful and flawless.
With all the recent deconstruction of the male gaze discussed in art, this is a new twist. The male gaze does not always fall just on women.
Miller has been working as an independent photographer since 1984. Master printer Steve Rifkin produced these beautiful prints.