This Observer column was originally published in Print, the February 2014 Sex & Design issue. This article contains content that may be offensive to some. It’s not our intention to offend, rather, we aim to avoid censoring our esteemed contributors. We hope you enjoy this read, but if you don’t, please write to us with any concerns.
Secret Behavior, an art magazine featuring the work of collage artists, uncovers deeper interpretations of sexuality with striking imagery.
Whatever your view on pornography may be, one thing isn’t in doubt; its manner of depicting sexuality has become pervasive and now determines the way that many people, especially young people, think about sex. Porn’s artificial—and often extreme—scenarios are imposing benchmarks for what sex is supposed to be. The more vice-like porn’s grip on us becomes, the harder it is to envision and mark out a space for non-pornographic forms of sexual imagery. For those who believe that porn=sex=porn, such an idea might already sound like a contradiction in terms.
Launched in September 2013, the art magazine Secret Behavior is a welcome reminder that sexual representation isn’t—and shouldn’t be—the exclusive preserve of invasive commercial porn and those who offer nothing more than a formulaic copy of its routines and fixations.
“We’re trying to find intimacy and emotion in paint and clay, photographs and cut paper, glowing pixels and staged movement,” James Gallagher, Secret Behavior founder, editor and creative director, writes in an editorial. “We want to reveal what might otherwise stay hidden; we intend to sit and stare at truths and experiences that often just vanish. … We celebrate beauty, ugliness, desire, mystery and solitude. We recognize our common and uncommon mental states, physical forms and sexual experiences.”
The first issue, put together over the summer using some of Gallagher’s severance pay after he was downsized out of a job, lives up to this confidently non-prescriptive promise. I’ve mentioned Gallagher in this column before. He’s one of the more interesting artists in the thriving field of collage, and his pieces are notable for the consistency and control with which they focus on the bodies, sexuality, states-of-mind and existential condition of his protagonists, who are usually cut from black-and-white photographs found in old magazines.
Even though these pictures were presumably the porn of their day, Gallagher finds another quality in them by fragmenting the figures, obscuring their faces with other pictorial elements and avoiding anything too explicit. The images are intimate, often uncomfortable, and charged with powerful emotion. Gallagher stands out as a collage artist with an unusually distinctive and personal vision.
He has also worked as a curator of exhibitions of collages by fellow artists, and it’s a measure of his skill as a selector that Secret Behavior so palpably embodies his point of view, while opening its pages to work by many other artists. This ability can be seen to mesmerizing effect in an eight–page visual feature titled “Beings.” Gallagher organizes each spread as a simple grid of seven pictures with captions occupying the eighth space. The juxtaposition of collages, photographs and other artworks is masterly, forming a visual essay around the issue’s theme of “anonymity.”
One spread, for instance, has masked faces and figures: heavy-lidded female eyes stare, as if distracted, through a tear in a canvas painting; a man’s face is partially covered by a veil of white paint like a wrestler’s mask; and all the features have been excised from a photograph of a woman’s face, leaving only a flattened frame of flesh.
Secret Behavior began life as a Tumblr (www.secretbehavior.com), which still exists, and a comparison of the two makes the advantages of paper-based publication even clearer. Some of the pictures in “Beings,” the aforementioned feature, have already appeared on the Tumblr, but their collisions in that setting depend mainly on chance. The deep column of images, a kind of scrollable, randomized collage that’s mostly off-screen, reconfigures itself automatically as new images are added at the top. In the printed magazine, Gallagher can’t show as many pictures, but he’s able to put those he selects into precisely calculated positions within the visual dialogue. It makes one wonder why art magazines don’t make more inventive aesthetic and critical use of the inherent possibilities of layout.
This sensitivity to how the parts interrelate applies to the 132-page publication as a whole. To communicate successfully, a magazine needs to fully embody and interpret its content. When the task is performed inadequately, the content seems muffled. In Secret Behavior, almost every feature feels taut and vigorous thanks to the intelligence of the visual editing and the flow of well-sized images against the text blocks and white space. In an “exploration” titled “The Healing Center,” Gallagher shows three full-page photographs by Carrie Levy of naked women looking vulnerable, turning away from the camera and concealing their faces. I examined the entire series, “Domestic Stages,” on Levy’s website and these pictures, all shot against plain walls, are adroitly chosen by Gallagher to intensify one another as a group.
Secret Behavior has a number of images that are sexually explicit without coming across as pornography. The most charming are Dan Gluibizzi’s depersonalized watercolors based on photographs of swingers found on the Internet. There’s a fascinating feature about the Danish artist Jesper Fabricius who presents details cropped from 1970s porn mag photos in an occasional publication titled Space Poetry. Gallagher has singled out a handful of the milder pages.
One of the most incisive editorial ideas, which is accompanied by some of the best writing (by Francesca Seravalle), is a layout that compares photo-studies of women, taken with different motives by the Czech photographer Miroslav Tichý and the Dutch photographer Paul Kooiker—both highly regarded. Yet, a story about an artist from Philadelphia who advertised for men willing to photograph their feet at the point of orgasm when masturbating holds less interest. The pictures are dull, and apart from some splayed toes, the feet don’t say much.
I asked Gallagher how he’d position himself, as a manipulator of sexual images, in relation to the flood of porn. “I think that the overwhelming amount of porn online has made it more challenging to find and connect with work that is sexual,” he says. “Tumblr is a great example of how porn can swallow up all things—the art, my attention, my time, etc. I follow tons of people, and some are able to merge sex and art nicely. I’d put my Tumblr in this category. But with the constant reposting of images, things get pretty muddy, and it leads to porn. I’m always thinking about how far to go, or not to go, with sexuality.”
That’s certainly a pressing question in our visual culture today. Sexuality is always a challenging subject to mediate since there’s a fine line between contemplating the experience, meanings and aesthetic of sex with dispassion and becoming turned on. The bluntest way to visualize this is to imagine the effect it would have to retrospectively introduce a genitally explicit sex scene into a film dealing with relationships that’s regarded as a perfectly judged masterpiece.
The sexual arousal in the audience that might then result would disrupt and hinder the detachment needed for dramatic and aesthetic reflection. At least for the duration of that new scene, the film would’ve changed from being an artistic experience, engaging the mind and emotions, to being a sexual one, also engaging the body. (This hasn’t stopped serious filmmakers from experimenting with the inclusion of real, though not necessarily erotic, sex.)
What I mean to suggest is that some element of aesthetic framing or filtering is needed to move sexual imagery from being regarded as a potential masturbatory aid to a more nuanced form of communication that encourages us to think about the nature of sexuality. There’s a fundamental difference, in this respect, between a collage by Gallagher or a watercolor by Gluibizzi, whatever their source material, and explicit photographic or filmic imagery that exists merely to arouse the viewer.
This is Gallagher’s first business venture, with crucial editorial assistance from Keith and Mike Newton, and he intends to publish two issues a year and, eventually, quarterly. I hope he finds an audience and that Secret Behavior gets the chance to develop. He wants the magazine to have a strong sense of humanity, and we badly need publications that can visually interpret sex in all its glory, complexity and strangeness without succumbing to the exploitative, oppressive conventions and often dehumanizing miasma of 21st century porn.
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