The act of appropriation seems to be a crucial element in contemporary art and this technique can be said to be also closely aligned with the domain of queer art. Following the course of this development, American artist Stephen Milner now brings to the forefront the surf community. More specifically, through re-enacting archival materials, he showcases an alternative and ultimately suppressed narrative of queer visibility in the circle through his publication ‘A Spiritual Good Time’ (published by Meteoro Editions).
Milner discloses that growing up as a gay surfer has never been easy, as all the images of professional surfers have always been extremely macho and infested with hyper-masculinity. Typically, in surf or sports magazines, the representation of male athletes has constantly been conditioned by them being in the centre surrounded by half-naked women. Such image circulation created a strictly heterosexual image of the members of the surf community. As Milner could never connect with the narratives of these heteronormative magazines, he decided to counter them.
Throughout the process, he started “noticing the tropes of surf and travel photography in magazines and became more interested in the things on the side-lines that were not the focal points.” “I found I was having this strange contradiction, being both attracted to the toxic masculine nostalgia but also finding it problematic. I started cutting/cropping out the bikini girl in the foreground of the wetsuit ads and focusing closer on missed connections coming from my own gay perspective. Instead of concentrating on the hero surfer getting barrelled on the perfect wave, I cut out the male comradery in the bottom left corner of the image and enlarged it. These images were no longer associated with the original image that was mass-produced for print and it was not even close to the original colour negative,” he explains. Therefore, by combining the materials from vintage surf and gay porn magazines and through cutting, cropping and re-printing, he placed them into an entirely new context – that of queer reality.
In the book, there seems to be an emphasis on the tactility of each image as intentionally, the viewer is exposed to the halftone process of re-printing and the pulp of the magazine paper. While highlighting the photographs’ details, Milner also points to the fact that the body of work is mechanically reproduced, not an original. The archive, thus, has been provided with a new purpose – countering the mainstream narrative.
As Milner states: “I see masculinity as a tool to acknowledge and unravel the male through the male gaze.” Despite Milner draws from porn sources, the selected images are not explicit, they are rather tender and intimate. Through his homoerotic gaze, masculinity is presented in a fragile manner – vulnerable to the denial of respect and dignity. In the publication, it appears as if shame and dignity are conditioning one another by intertwining the notions of past and present. On one hand, shame surrounds past memories of not fitting in, while the present is filled with pride and hope for acceptance.
Design-wise, ‘A Spiritual Good Time’ flows like a wave. The sequence is a combination of full-colour images and duotones, all evoking feelings of nostalgia, escapism and longing. The photographs depict male bodies submerged in the sea or while softly touching, pointing towards camaraderie yet marked with subtle erotica and desire. The colour scheme of deep blues combined with sunset hues ignite the atmosphere even further.
The book is accompanied by a free-flow and fragmented text written by Jesse Dorris. His words are hidden under the sheets of cover paper both in the front and at the end, loosely reflecting on surf culture. This unbound pattern can be also seen in Milner’s clever image alternation as one is no longer certain from which source the original image is coming from, subsequently, obscuring judgment and categorization. Through this play of visibility and invisibility triggered both by the image sequence and text positioning, the viewer is led to literally delve underneath the surface, as if one was going for a dive.
‘A Spiritual Good Time’ presents a utopian alternative to the ordinary; one that makes us feel calm and comfortable. The act of appropriation is, in this case, a method of subversion that manages to comment on the problematics of the past while envisioning a utopian queer possibility. A quote from ‘Cruising Utopia’ (2009) written by the Cuban American academic José Esteban Muñoz comes to mind: “Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain.”
is a multi-media artist based in San Diego, California. His works are centred around the themes of masculinity, identity and community which he explores through the media of photography, sculpture, video and installation.
The publishing house Meteoro Editions was founded by visual artist Pablo Lerma in 2018. Originally established in New York City, the USA, Meteoro Editions is now based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Their speciality lies in working with vernacular photography, archives, utopian- and fiction-based projects.
‘A Spiritual Good Time’ is available for purchase here.