Jess T. Dugan: Every Breath We Drew
Among the most moving contributions made by LGBTQ artists to new aesthetic and political perspectives are photographs – forthright, often sensuous testimony about self-concepts, social roles and gender identities. Mind-altering troves of recent contemporary portraits and studies of intimate or informal human interactions, expand upon the example of revolutionary photographers of the past several decades. Nan Goldin and Catherine Opie, among many others who have portrayed their own “abject” identities and experiences, have inspired a renewed faith in the truth-content of self discovery and self-declaration, and in the extraordinary importance of such diverse individual truths in the composition of a dynamic, creative world.
Depictions of and by members of so-called “infrequent society” have long since found their way into mainstream venues, even becoming a constant in the programming of contemporary museums and not for profit art spaces around the world, among them our own Cleveland Print Room, Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Transformer Station. That’s a good thing, I believe, in many ways, not least because the works in question challenge both themselves and their audience to be brave, and to be subtle. Building on a recent LGBTQ artistic renaissance, and on photography’s long history as a humanizing, often surprisingly partisan mode of response, much of this work is intensely autobiographical, as personally revealing as it is unapologetic. Taken as a whole, ongoing projects (which include works as diverse as Alix Smith’s six year photo-portrait project State of the Union, and Iranian performer Katy Jalili’s Brand Activist gifs, available on Vimeo) present multiple mapping techniques, exploring the world-wide terrain of gender subjectivities. From that point of view the arts are presently hosting a momentous reclamation movement, partly political, partly environmental, in that a principal concern is to preserve and nurture important human funds of experience. They aim to redefine, to shore up, the humanity and the sacredness of whole populations.
Jess T. Dugan’s color photographs in her solo exhibit “Every Breath We Drew” are selections from a body of work that the Biloxi, Mississippi native began in 2011, a year after she earned her Master of Liberal Arts degree at Harvard University. She went on to receive an MFA from Columbia School in Chicago and is the founder of Strange Fire Collective in Chicago. Dugan teaches and exhibits in different locales around the country, from Snowmass, Colorado to Chicago.
The photographs at “Every Breath We Drew” show persons either singly or in pairs, embracing, soaking, stretching in uncluttered natural and domestic situations. Often there is water – a young man, as it may be, is seen in a bathtub, arms crossed above his head, or an older figure emerges, apparently nude but shown only from just above the crotch, from the blue of a swimming pool, leaning on his palms, his ribs prominent, his nipples missing, due perhaps to surgery. Neither of these figures is Dugan, but we know from the artist’s biographical materials that during this period she (the pronoun she uses here) underwent chest reconstructive surgery, perhaps for reasons of gender identity. Several of the persons photographed for Every Breath We Drew could be read as Dugan’s alter egos, or understood both on their own terms and as images the artist uses to think about changes and continuities in her appearance. There is only one overtly female-looking person in the collection of personalities shown here, and even she has a boyish haircut, as do the rest. Most have tattoos (Dugan herself has birds inscribed across her upper chest); some are very young, just boys, others are older men. The majority are bare-chested, though one young man in a plaid shirt is seen from behind, and every scene whether on a bed or in the pool, is wrapped in gentle shadows and morning light. There are still life-like interior scenes – two pillows on a bed, a wooden kitchen table with two chairs, so that a kind of mise-en-scene emerges. Yet those aren’t exactly like real things; they’re more like semi-abstract symbols of intimacy and shared experience – like plus and minus signs.
Really the exhibit adds up to a many-sided self portrait, assembled from selected others, and from friends, lovers, and family – but each bearing on the subject, which is the artist herself, and her transformations. Dugan conjures from her cast of selves, visions of a composite young man, alternately mature and immature, wading or immersed in the shallows and depths of our species. At “Every Breath We Drew” she photographs not a community or family in any ordinary sense, but a community of selves, breathing, embodying the strange and beautiful new flesh of changed lives.