The unapologetically queer and unironic work of Scott Treleaven
During the opening week of his solo exhibition of photography, works-on-paper, sculpture, and film at John Connelly Presents, Scott Treleaven’s influence and the seductive power of his work were also in evidence elsewhere. Printed Matter, the independent art bookstore in Chelsea, held a reception for the publication of “Black Book,” a compilation of 10 years of Treleaven’s groundbreaking queer underground ‘zine This Is the Salivation Army. Bound in a black cover, the compilation contains classic Treleaven, Genet-inspired erotic texts, incantatory collages, and photography, all of which brazenly exalt a young queer punk aesthetic.
Radical types including artist AA Bronson and several of Treleaven’s tribe of ‘zine readers and contributors and well-wishers were assembled to pay homage. The evening after the exhibition opening I attended the screening at SoHo House of fashion photographer cum film director Carter Smith’s film “Bugcrush,” which he adapted from one of Treleaven’s short stories. Smith was giddy and thanked Treleaven so much for the inspiration. In fact, this story about young queers who initiate a school chum into ritualistic sex and delirium induced by the bite from a hybrid form of slug—as well as Smith’s masterful direction—disturbed and thrilled me.
By the end of the week, I was a willing Treleaven groupie, and wondered if the seductive influence of his vision works all too well.
While viewing Treleaven’s mystical tour at John Connelly Presents, I was struck by the breadth and narrative coherence of media. The story begins with medium-sized black and white c-prints and intimately scaled watercolor collages that depict orgiastic groupings and single portraits of sexy, devilish, and sweet-faced boymen. Their cultish rituals, blasphemies, and fetishes play in the cinematic key of Kenneth Anger’s 1960s demonic fantasia, “Scorpio Rising,” and in its themes of divination, brutality, and transformation. Anger remarked that “beauty can be a terrible thing; beauty can be twisted and abused,” meaning that beauty shows two competing façades, Treleaven expands this idea in formal and metaphorical ways.
Delicate Japanese chiyogami paper, with its traditional vivid colors and florals, contrasts its formal beauty with Treleaven’s darkly expressive photography. In “Hive” (2005), whose title alludes to the pack, a recurring motif in Treleaven’s work, a photo of a young man, in the guise of a Catholic Saint Sebastian or Hellenistic kouros, stands as a temple to nature and sex. Above him, Treleaven has garlanded the picture’s frame with a pale floral crown. Engorged bees hover around his body, attending to his flesh and celebrating his appearance. His dour expression and slightly bowed head suggest a prince or martyr whose divinity or sainthood is burdensome. His own halo or crown—coronation is another key Treleaven motif—seems too heavy. The way he hides his nakedness with fabric exaggerates his vulnerability. He is a perfect idol.
“Dais” (2005) packs in religious and pagan iconography from Anubis to Lucifer, and classical architecture, another common motif. In front of a temple building, a horde of naked young men appear to prostrate themselves as if preparing themselves for ritual sex or sacrifice. The strict verticality of the picture frame in “Dais” and “Hive,” which metaphorically points to heaven or hell, is a framing device Treleaven prefers. The shape also reminds me of Byzantine devotional icons. In fact, Treleaven’s pictures would work well on worn, painted board that then could fit nicely in the corner of a secret shrine, placed among devotional candles, incense, and porn.
The exhibition runs like a short story whose stars, Treleaven’s boymen—a few of whom are the artist’s friends and make multiple appearances in the watercolors as well as in the photography—verge on adulthood and act in James Dean fashion as though they’re not going to make it. The painted dog skulls, pentagrams, mystic symbols, and writings that punctuate the exhibition gave me a foreboding feeling of death, lurking beyond the black curtain on which the films played.
The suspenseful plot of “Lustre” features two leather clad queer punks wandering through the back streets and alleyways of Zurich where they find garbage bags that contain the bodies of young men whose milky white faces and bodies are littered with flower petals. What follows is a purification ritual in which the two men clean and anoint the body of a fallen comrade. If it is an honorable warrior’s death, it begs the question—what’s the struggle?
Treleaven’s iconography and narratives are unapologetically queer and unironic. For him and for many others, a radical queer symbolism and language exist. And it’s important to stress this point when it has become annoying hip for cultural queers to define themselves out of the gay box. Treleaven’s high baroque religious and historical mythmaking sucks out the fetid, old dusty icons of that box and blows in a mighty, fresh bouquet in which we can exult.