HOWEVER enlightened we might think our views on gender and sexuality have become, open affection among men remains something of a taboo. In popular culture, we only see it tempered by humour or aggression (see: every buddy flick ever, most team sports). For gay men -- even the white, educated, urban gay men who've benefited most from changing attitudes and increased protections -- those affections often remain hidden as a matter or self-preservation.
The legacies of legal, medical and religious discrimination, the enduring trauma of the AIDS crisis, and the continued, constant threat of homophobic violence are at most distant subtexts in Intimacies, the current exhibition at Martha Street Studio. Just the same, the historical need for secrecy that these conditions engendered seems to have had lingering effects, with each of the show's three artists creating subtle, furtive and highly coded expressions of male attachment and desire.
Kegan McFadden offers a series of subdued, text-based silkscreens, Fifty-six four-letter names of men I met between 1981 and 2008, remembered in chronological sequence (approximately). There's the suggestion here that "love is just a four-letter word," but McFadden's involvement with the men is unstated, ambiguous and not necessarily romantic. (The first name, "Alec," almost certainly refers to McFadden's great-uncle, whose 1995 murder has been the subject of other artwork and curatorial projects.) Viewers bring their individual associations, recognizing or misrecognizing names to reconstruct their own tapestries of personal relationships.
Despite the rigid conceptual framework, McFadden's material approach is more tender. The individually framed prints mill about the gallery floor like guests at a party, each one unique by virtue of occasionally clumsy experimentation. Colours bleed into one another gently, the text becoming illegible in places, mimicking the faultiness and imprecision of memory itself.
Jim Verburg's Untitled (zero sum game) is more highly mediated and less outwardly expressive still. The two stacks of folded newsprint broadsheets (an edition of 2000) bear no text and only the most limited imagery: two circles of buzzy, tightly spaced stripes and concentric rings, one on each page. When the prints are unfolded and held up to the light, a third, solid black circle printed on the reverse becomes faintly visible, creating a ghostly Venn diagram connecting the two, hinting at an otherwise invisible connection.
Verburg regularly employs simple geometry to explore complex emotions, romantic love in particular, and here the theme of intimacy carries through to the work's format: the broadsheets are free to take, offered as a gift, and the work can only be fully experienced when held in hand.
That same tactile quality is a feature of Denis Lessard's Douze historiettes, an edition of 12 postcards. Having an acknowledged "thing for beards," the Montreal-based artist pairs crude sketches of disembodied facial hair with evocative fragments of narrative correspondence -- lyrical accounts of chance encounters, quietly erotic remembrances and the odd sweet nothing. The postcards' confessional, conspiratorial tone is complicated by the fact that intended recipient is never directly addressed. Lessard mailed out copies of the postcards to dozens of individuals, not all of them known to him personally -- in the context of the show, even that subtle gesture of exhibitionism is striking.
Taken as a whole, Intimacies reads like a collection of surreptitious notes and ephemeral secret messages. The works' reticence and deceptive blankness speak to painful histories, but they do so poetically, teasing at currents of sublimated affection and desire roiling just below the surface.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.