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Aesthetic Intimacies: Reflections on Elle Pérez’s Devotions at the BMA

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Intimacy is openness to encounter. A yielding to the mystery of what can happen when one meets another in vulnerability, unburdened by expectation. Art, as in the case of Elle Pérez’s Devotions, an exhibition of photography at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), invited for me such an intimacy, an aesthetic intimacy.

I forward a consideration of how we engage art (with what posture, from what orientation) through my critical lens of blackqueer ethics (I elaborate further blackqueer ethics and aesthetic intimacy in my forthcoming book, A Living Archive: Embodying Blackqueer Ethics, T&T Clark, London). From this framing, I am primarily concerned with collective practices of liberation toward integration and wholeness. This relationality transcends person-to-person connections, extending to all that can be perceived including art. Aesthetic intimacy speaks to a close encounter with what can be perceived, subject-to-subject.

Embodying aesthetic intimacy, an observer takes on the posture of an intimate, as opposed to a consumer. In a time when supporting the work of queer people of color is a means of virtue signaling for many institutions and (frequently, liberal) individuals, I have wondered what it might look like to, in black feminist mode, refuse this extractive trend. (For more on a black feminist politics of refusal, see Karera, Axelle, ‘Black Feminist Philosophy and the Politics of Refusal’, in Kim Q. Hall, and Ásta (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Philosophy, 2021).

Further, as a blackqueer agender woman and creative, I have wondered what it might mean to engage art before meaning, or without hopes of how it will move me or prospects of how it may shift how queerness and/or people of color are viewed and subsequently treated, or how it might expand the Western artistic canon, or how it might flawlessly represent the skill and worth of queer of color art– that is, what the art might do (for me, for us), rather than allowing it to simply be.

In other words, I have wondered how to approach art ethically.

 

I first visited Devotions at the BMA with my longtime friend, a native Baltimorean and heterosexual Black woman pastor over twenty years my senior. Walking into the gallery opening, we faced a dark, matte blue wall naming the exhibition. Devotions, which a curatorial note I later found stated, “can refer both to spiritual practice and dedication to fulfilling a partner.” Standing in the middle, flanked by two galleries, we were offered the chance to make a choice: I went left, she went right. I was trepidatious about the shared experience of viewing these life-sized pieces; art, that I feared might reveal more of my life I’d dare to show. 

Though we are friends, we meet about once a year and do not discuss my queerness. I could not confidently say what she might feel or think about themes of gender nonconformity and queerness as “Ash” (2020) or in the “Tomashi and Alli” diptych–“image pairs,” in the two outer galleries, “made to correspond with one another.” Or what she might make of the vial of testosterone, preciously lifted in “otherworldy light,” the striking photograph in the central gallery (“t,” 2019).

Devilishly, I smirked to myself imagining how her religious sensibilities might respond to the plastic wrap bondage and the tantalizing touch of one person’s finger to another’s lips, one’s hand to another’s chest, the expression of expectancy and desire as in “Petal.” I wondered how she might think of such moments framed as sacred. Perhaps, focusing on my friend in those moments was my way of staving off my own questions, my sheepishness toward engaging intimacy in public space and toward trusting Peréz, their art, with my vulnerability. I took a seat, surrounded, attentive, awed. “What if we approach photography as an act of devotion?” a curatorial note asked. What if?

In the end, my friend declared that she found the exhibit  “very interesting” with an earnest nod and grin. In our time together, I was prompted to consider what it might take to invite greater intimacy to our friendship.

But, in our time apart, I allowed myself to be seduced. Sitting before the entrancing and far reaching waves depicted in “Ascension (Fire  Island)” and “Force (Fire Island),” another diptych of the series facing one another from opposite sides of the galleries, I sensed in their depths the way these poles function to hold all the messiness, the stickiness (like in, “Pull,” 2020), the sensuality of our lived realities. I recalled these waves that have in my many visits to this (predominantly toned and tanned, gay, white but beautiful) paradise held my nude body and crashed against myself and other blackqueer femmes as we played and laughed and flirted at the island’s shores. Enraptured, I knew I needed more.

 

Elle Pérez. t. 2019, Courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal,
Elle Pérez. animal. 2019, printed 2021, Courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal
Elle Pérez. Stone memory. 2020, printed 2021. Courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal
Elle Pérez. Force (Fire Island), 2019, printed 2021. Courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal

A week later, I took my second visit alone. Sitting in the gallery, I felt the need to jealously guard the space, to stop the heavy footsteps and jangling keys of the museum guard, to quiet the giggles and art criticism of three teenaged young folks, to redirect the  relatively heavy traffic I didn’t know would be present on a Wednesday afternoon. With Elle Pérez’s Devotions, I experienced the palpable trust exuding through the images and the intentionality of the artist’s practice of intimacy with their subjects, the visual commitments to sensuality and texture– of human (e.g, “Wildling Shadowboxing,” 2020), animal (e.g., “animal,” 2019), and earth (e.g., “Stone Memory,” 2020) alike–in both the image and the subjects. I found myself excited, protective, and awed as before, but this was not the intimacy.

Sitting there, I chose to resist my desire to be seen or moved, to imagine groundbreaking futures for our people prompted by this art. From such a posture and even with harmless intent, art becomes utilitarian. In this framing, for instance, art is useful–in evoking joy, thought, social change, or a  standard of beauty–then it is experienced as “good.” If it is not successful in achieving  this or other metrics, it is “bad,” useless. To seek prescribed outcomes is to place an inordinate responsibility on the work. It becomes a means to some end rather than a good in itself; that is to say, art for art’s sake. But, in the open encounter— one such as I found when I quieted my expectations and desire to be known through the art—was an  exchange, a reciprocity that honored both my becoming and that of Devotions.

Where there is aesthetic intimacy, the change that innately accompanies any encounter  is secondary; the encounter through the posture of an intimate is foremost. As with all encounters of one party with another, change is inevitable. The kind and degree of change may vary, and to seek to quantify change is to miss its magic. The art (through  my experiential lens) changed, no longer needing to serve any purpose but to be a good  in itself. It was enough. And I, too, am changed, open to whatever may unfold (even these many weeks later and in the future) from our unencumbered encounter.

Aesthetic intimacy shifts us from positions of consumer-consumable into the relational  reciprocity that can shift the way we perceive art and subsequently artists. How we engage art, then, is a matter of justice, of vulnerability, and ultimately our willingness to perceive and to be perceived just as we are.

 

Elle Pérez’s Devotions is on exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art through March 19, 2023.

 

Elle Pérez. Tomashi and Ally II. 2019, printed 2021. Courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal
Elle Pérez. Tomashi and Ally II. 2019, printed 2021. Courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal

Header Image: Elle Pérez. Pull. 2020, printed 2021, Courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal, via the Baltimore Museum of Art

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