by Steve Desroches
Everybody is a universe. Within the minds of each of the more than 7.7 billion people on the planet is a unique experience and viewpoint known only in its entirety to the individual. For many, if not most, there’s an innate curiosity about people. There’s an unconscious impulse to observe each other. What are they thinking? What’s their deal? Where are they from? What are they doing? And often times, if we’re honest, it can be about attraction to the physical, or the general spirit expressed, or both. And think of customs and culture here in Provincetown and how often it’s heard that people come to town just to “people-watch” on Commercial Street. We are all voyeurs in one way or another, and not necessarily in the prurient definition of the word. This is the subject of a new photography exhibition, titled Voyeur, at Cusp Gallery that explores this phenomenon featuring the work of artist and gallerist Curtis Speer.
“It’s human nature,” says Speer. “Whether you’re at the airport or at the beach on the street, people watch each other. You hear people say they love to people-watch all the time, especially here. I don’t think Webster’s dictionary definition is entirely accurate. That there’s a negative connotation. There’s this natural inclination to watch people.”
In Speer’s peaceful gallery on Bradford Street that looks out to the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum’s new incline elevator, the cream white walls feature photographs of a variety of sizes of seemingly captured candid moments, stolen glances. Each subject was indeed aware of their image being recorded in these lush still lifes combined with portrait photographs. But within each is that distance that would exist if somehow someone could show you that glimpse or doubletake you did when noticing a moment. And in this case the works are intimate, with a simmering eroticism and a decidedly gay male gaze. All too often when a gay point of view, or an intimate portrait of the male body, is utilized in art it can be dismissed as “just gay art” or even pornography, with no real thought of technique or perspective within, giving power to the established and acceptable, largely straight male expression as the norm. And oddly enough, that dismissive critique can be present in Provincetown, where libertine ways are celebrated, but the Puritanical streak left by however long the Mayflower was in the harbor can pop on through. Undeterred, Speer dives in head first celebrating both the sensuality and the erotically charged, giving voice to an often unheralded aspect of gay culture in art – the look.
Regardless of sexuality there is a commonality of course that some might call flirting or others times an amorous stare. But to gay men that action morphed into a distinct cultural practice called cruising. In a world that forced LGBTQ people into silence and the shadows, it was, and can still be, dangerous to openly express attraction to a stranger. Even just finding other gay men could be a risky pursuit. And getting caught looking at another man, and if it happens to be a straight man, could have violent results. The practice of cruising became vital for community, camaraderie, and yes, sex. And that practice is the subject of two pieces in the show—Cruising, 2021 and Unspoken, 2022—portraying that moment of non-verbal affirmation and communication. It’s how gay men found each other.
“It’s that look that lasts five seconds longer,” says Speer. “And then you know.”
The inspiration for the show was born out of erotic self-portraits that were common in the era of Polaroid film. Before digital photography and out of fear of nude photographs being seen by those involved in the development process, Polaroid film provided an erotic freedom to the masses. And now, of course, that intimate phenomenon abounds digitally. Multiple pieces in Voyeur were shot on Polaroid, and all but one of the rest of the show are printed in a larger format reminiscent of the classic style of the popular instant film. The show is an honest portrayal of an aspect of sexuality, in those moments of looking at a person or a part of their body in attraction.
But it also addresses the self-reflection in both comparison
as well as looking at an image of oneself.
Speer notes a touch of exhibitionism in the work as several are self-portraits. The self-gaze can be an act of voyeurism as its also natural to be curious as to what one looks like from the view of another. Speer notes that after surviving childhood sexual abuse followed by years of morbid obesity and then finally coming out as a gay man, accepting his body and even celebrating it is an act of rebellion for anyone in a culture that can focus on insecurity and bad body image as a marketing tool. Speer wanted to take a risk with the show as incorporating sexuality into art can be a sticky thicket, as people bring their personal feelings regarding such matters, often ones that are deeply held. That’s exactly the points, says Speer. Being a voyeur, an observer, is indeed an intimate experience.
“I just put this all out on my gallery walls for everyone to see the story I’m telling,” says Speer. “I don’t want to tell anyone how to think or feel.”
Voyeur is on exhibition at Cusp Gallery, 115 Bradford St., now through July 24. An opening reception is planned for Thursday, July 14 starting at 6 p.m.
For more information visit cuspgallery.com.