Casey Kaplan Gallery
525 W. 21st St.
Tue.-Sat. 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
Through Jun. 24
Jeff Burton’s sixth and not to be missed solo show of photography at Casey Kaplan revisits the rich palette of Southern Californian dreamscapes, Hollywood glamour, and demi-god sexuality, themes which he has developed over the last 15 years while also working as a still photographer on porn films. Burton had a dual role—as an outsider, a stand-in for an unknown viewer, he surreptitiously peeks in on on-set hanky panky; as an industry insider Burton is well placed to critique porn’s unending obsession with physical perfection.
I became aware of Burton’s photography when a series of his work was published in a book called “Untitled” in 1998. I instantly became a fan as did many other fashion editors and art directors. Tom Ford owes much of his pioneering erotically charged art direction to Burton’s photography. Ford’s campaigns for Gucci played up narrative ambiguity, hedging into the realm of porn without showing the money shot. In fact, if you’ve seen the latest ad for Tom Ford’s eponymous line of eyewear, which shows a gorgeously full and luscious set of butt cheeks hovering over a guy in shades—yes, the photographer is Burton.
If you’ve watched a large amount of porn like the average gay man, you are well aware of the visual tricks that are designed to raise your temperature or blood, as it were. The more porn you watch, the more deliciously ironic and visually instructive Burton’s work becomes. While the porn biz relentlessly leads up to the money shot, Burton’s gaze alights upon everything else in the frame except the goods, such as the set dressings, props, and random objects such as a bowl of fruit or a swath of fabric. Bodies function as props as well. Burton disallows easy pleasures and often offers only a leg akimbo in one image or a tangled mess of bodies in another. Yes, the money shot can be glimpsed if you watch the DVD. He’s offering a more exciting opportunity to flex the imaginative muscle by urging viewers to finish the story or flesh out its contours much in the same way Burton redefines the narrative outline of the scene, the bodies, and their interaction.
Burton’s images are suspensefully erotic. He captures the moment of hushed expectation just before the kiss or the fuck.
A perfect example of narrative frustration is an image in which a slim white body whose fluid arabesques drape and follow the contour of a bed frame. The frame looks like a gorgeous piece of furniture and Burton has lit it and the body wonderfully. Yet, it’s impossible to tell whether the guy in the frame is being pounded in his mouth or ass or at all. Burton forces me to think about the scene, to savor the possibilities. Lazy eyes, which are so accustomed to taking the passive role by having sexual imagery inserted into your cornea from every direction, are being asked to wake up.
Burton punctuates his own work with a selection of washed out transparencies, recovered from porn shoot from the 1970s. In each transparency the viewer can still see the black pen marks left by the skilled art director’s Sharpie as he has cropped the shot, smoothed a body’s line, or clarified the action. There are also diagrams in which the image has been left out and only an outline of the bodies and action remains. They look comic in a Haring-esque way, naïve as if a 10-year-old traced over the images of sex acts, which makes them a bit disturbing, suggestive, and taboo.
Hollywood and L.A., where Burton lives and works, make an appearance in his exhibition as characters in themselves. The sparkling water of an aqua blue Hollywood pool or the impossibly neatly trimmed lawn of a Beverly Hills mansion help to illustrate what we think of as the SoCal quest for perfection at any cost. Part of the enjoyment a New Yorker gets in making fun of L.A. is the knowledge that under the exaggerated perfection is a layer of gross decadence. No one knows this better than Kenneth Anger whose book “Hollywood Babylon” so wonderfully exposed the hypocrisy. Anger makes an appearance here in photographs that show him bruised and bandaged, a victim of an attack that took place at his L.A. home, which Burton documented.