Today we kick off our annual Summer Reading series, in which our writers and editors select their favorite recent articles on contemporary art from around the web. First up is an excerpt from Matt Sussman’s “Nothing That Meets the Eye: Notes on Clones,” originally published on SFMOMA’s Open Space on June 3, 2015. In this essay, Sussman considers the culture of reproduction and copies within the context of Hal Fischer’s Gay Semiotics photography project.
“Taste has no system and no proofs,” writes Susan Sontag at the outset of “Notes on Camp” (1964). “Any sensibility which can be crammed into the mold of a system, or handled with the rough tools of proof, is no longer a sensibility at all. It has hardened into an idea…”
Part of what I am interested in tracing across this series is what happens after sensibilities harden into ideas, or into something else. What Sontag warns against is essentially a process of replication: The “mold of a system” is there to transform one kind of matter into the likeness of something else entirely. When ideas (or, say, a particular work of art) are repeated across different forms and mediums, those repetitions, in turn, produce their own kinds of effects, both spectacular and lackluster. The extent to which what has been re-presented is recognizable as iterative, or recognizable at all (“this looks like a/an X”), also arouses mixed feelings. As many after Freud have observed, things that come back or reappear can be unsettling precisely because they are familiar, close to home.
The man in the photograph appears to be in his late twenties or early thirties. His mustache is bushy enough to make it hard to pinpoint his age, but not so overgrown as to obscure a sweet smile. His Levis, like the rolled-up sleeves of his flannel shirt and his unzipped hoodie, are relaxed; fitted but not too revealing. He leans against a wall, the sharply angled sidewalk beneath his black Converse forcing the rest of him into a kind of lazy contrapposto that is simultaneously sexy and goofy.
He is—as the white, all-caps text in the lower bottom left of the photograph states—an exemplar of “BASIC GAY” street style circa 1977. That’s the year when San Francisco artist Hal Fischer created the image as part of his Gay Semiotics photography project, currently on view again in San Francisco, at Ratio 3, after nearly forty years. The man’s clothing and grooming, as the composite of image and text dictates, make him an identifiable type among other types and in regard to other men who look like him. He could be called, using the parlance of the time, a clone.