Stephen Barker

Reheating the Cold War
Identities in transition at the Bernard Toale Gallery

Mark Valentine
Contributing writer Bay Windows and South End News
March 20th, 2008

Stephen Barker's current exhibition, "The Archivist's Wig", now showing at the Bernard Toale Gallery through March 29, offers an exceptionally strong historical narrative. Combining photography, sculpture and other media, Barker constructs a dual focus on gay male identity: simultaneously mining the rich Cold War era and proceeding up to the present day circumstance of the omnipresent eroticized gay male image.

To achieve this end, "The Archivist's Wig" concerns itself with the story of Guy Burgess, pulling us back to the beginning of the Cold War era - a time of intense rivalry between the two emerging superpowers and thus an era of intense paranoia. Burgess, whose early life was fictionalized in the play and film Another Country, was a British-born diplomat and double agent whose defection to the Soviet Union caused a scandal in 1951. Burgess was no stranger to scandal; his homosexual desires placed him squarely at odds with British society and ultimately his country as a whole. Burgess was not quiet about his desires or his politics. This led to his alienation, which in turn became a self-reinforcing dynamic, as his alcoholism would abet further sexual and political indiscretions. Burgess' eventual treachery solidified his position as the ultimate other.

Photography is the principal method of conveying the narrative; even the government documents included appear courtesy of the photographic process. Save for one piece of sculpture (more on that in a moment), Barker has even included vintage images inside of other sculptural elements of the exhibition. Barker has literally plastered the walls with references to the dual lives that the mid-twentieth century gay male was forced to lead. The various double-exposed faces that line the upper portions of the gallery walls direct the viewer with their multiple gazes - they pointedly look out at each other as well as the exhibition and its viewers.

Accentuating the more aggressive views of the larger photographs at the top of the gallery, smaller-sized multiple-exposure photographs hover around the lower half of the fleshscape that Barker has wrapped around the gallery. These works mimic vintage porn but are decidedly of the present moment, a product of how we view and review ourselves and those we desire through the unmediated realm of cyberspace.

The series "Nine Bachelors: Guy Burgess In America," underscores Barker's overarching narrative of dueling identities, while taking a more submissive tone. Text (either a press clipping on Burgess or an FBI document detailing their surveillance of his American exploits, blackened with official redactions) is mounted against a void and juxtaposed with Barker's black and white photography of a naked male lying abed in an anonymous room, back turned towards the viewer. Each of these "bachelor's" backs is adorned with tattoos that range from the innocuous to works of heavy religious and sexual intensity. These bodies evoke a feeling of vulnerability, but also of anticipation; they are open for our inspection, like the life of Burgess.

Burgess preferred to pick up hitchhikers, driving around in his 1941 Lincoln Continental. Barker, with a clear nod to Dada phenom Marcel Duchamp's "The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)," places the metal [passenger window] frame of a '41 Continental within the confines of this exhibition. Like Duchamp's bizarre meditation on the psychosexual dynamic, Barker's own "glass" sustains a crack, a rupture in time if you will, through which we can, like Burgess, stare at a man of our desires - another image of a naked man's back, sharing a frame with the negative space that holds the documentation of Burgess' infamy. Amusingly, even one of these documents references Duchamp's piece in the headline "Guy Burgess: stripped bare!" another example of the doubling inherent in Barker's socio-psychological construction.

Stephen Barker
Bernard Toale Gallery

Francine Koslow Miller

ARTFORUM, Summer 2008, pp 444-445

Beginning with "Nightswimming," 1999, a series of grainy photographs documenting the murky corners of Manhattan's gay sex clubs, Stephen Barker has focused his camera on the eroticism of anonymous desire. His latest project, "The Archivist's Wig," 2007-2008, a layered combination of found and fabricated photographs, wallpaper, and sculpture, takes as its subject the life and times of the notorious gay cold war double agent Guy Burgess (1911-1963), a British diplomat turned Soviet spy and defector. An array of ink-jet prints made from scanned negatives of Barker's own new still lifes and beefcake shots, shown alongside cold war-era porn, relevant news clippings, and declassified FBI records, loosely narrate Burgess's political and sexual crimes.

The files acquired by Barker were made after Burgess's 1951 defection; Barker also borrowed images of the exteriors of '50s gay bars from the National Archive of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History in New York, and uncovered a trove of old film canisters and worn books in the dusty attic of a gay porn store. The artist has coupled images of these artifacts with items from his personal collection of vintage erotica and cyberporn to create an installation that simulates a climate of homophobia and anticommunist paranoia.

"The Archivist's Wig" was arranged as an integrated grouping of prints mounted or leaning against bare or papered gallery walls. The repeated designs of Barker's wallpaper, which include images of circumspect and redacted FBI files and gay haunts, along with gay porn, seem to reference the repetitive nature of Burgess's behavior. The installation was crowned with "The Influence of the Planets," 2007, a series of twelve larger-than-life-size headshots of expressionless trophy men. In each slightly off-kilter image, two or more negatives have been superimposed using PhotoShop. In Untitled (Eddie), 2007 a handsome black man exhibits extreme walleyes; the subject Daniel (from behind), 2007, is two-faced, like Janus.

In "Nine Bachelors: Guy Burgess in America," 2007, sharply focused photographs of the tattooed backs of naked men gracefully posed on pillows are coupled with news clippings and declassified documents. The latter describe long-shrouded FBI interviews with various hitchhikers with whom Burgess caroused during the period from 1947 to 1951, conducted by agents seeking evidence of his treachery. The anonymous nudes identifiable only through their first names and tattoos, which vary from simple inscriptions to an elaborate portrait of Christ crowned with thorns serve as stand-ins for Burgess's hitchhikers. Untitled (Ray), 2007, depicts a man who sports a tattoo of a devil knocking down bowling pins with a skull, coupled with the bold inscription GUY BURGESS STRIPPED BARE (here, as elsewhere, Barker tips his hat to Duchamp).

Hitchhiker, 2007, may be a cracked-glass-and-chrome take on the Large Glass, but it is also an actual window from a 1941 Lincoln Continental, the same model Burgess used to pick up his "bachelors." 50cc, 2007, presents pairs of blown-glass vitrines on wooden tables, half covered in beeswax. Based on Duchamp's Air de Paris (50cc of Paris Air), 1919, in which the medicinal serum in a vial was replaced with air and the container then sealed, these elongated vitrines are containers for vintage porn; their mirrored bottoms reflect the old Kodak prints affixed to their tops. Barker's obsessions with the sociology and psychology of the darker aspects of the gay male gaze make for an intriguing investigation of a moment when homosexual pleasure and political subterfuge were conjoined.