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The sequence of images in Mark McKnight’s new exhibition, Hunger for the Absolute, read like a score. The large-format silver gelatin photographs shift from depictions of sexual encounters between McKnight’s collaborators, Nehemias de León and Christopher Barraza, to landscapes of the Southern California high-desert where McKnight was raised. Much has been made of the photographic kinship between the nude and the landscape, both fleshy forms that wrinkle, bend, and scar. McKnight’s exhibition plainly draws this parallel, with photographs of fragmented bodies hung near landscapes in emphasis of their like-structure. The figures of de León and Barraza are made anonymous, but not in the least ambiguous, both queer and Brown with full, hairy bodies—the kind not pictured by the canonical Modernist photographers of the American West (namely, Weston), whose exploration of the nude in the landscape was mostly restricted to thin, solitary white women. Instead, McKnight’s treatment of his subject-collaborators feels more at home with the affective desert self-portraits of the late Laura Aguilar—the photographs less interested in the land or body as objective, static record-keeper, and more in the possibility of fluctuation.
The works deal in the erotic—not only for a tangle of strong, nude limbs, and full-on, penetrative fucking—but also through the particular printing of the work, sensual and hands-on, with entire portions of images burned out, left too long under a bare enlarger bulb. McKnight exposes shadows until they are closed—heavy and totally black. In one image, a shadowy abyss drowns the lower quarter of a portrait of a tree, cutting across the frame like a second horizon line and threatening to swallow the sun-drenched scene. Elsewhere, the afternoon sky is rendered not in some middle grey, but dark, a night sky filled with knotty, chewed-on-bubblegum clouds. (McKnight’s clouds recall Stieglitz’s 1922 Equivalents, only less oceanic, the puffy forms encroaching and statuesque.) In Untitled (Tree Void) (2020), a hollowed-out tree, propped up on its truncated limbs as if on all-fours, offers up its decaying, round insides as a literal black hole—McKnight’s resolve to fill the middle of the image with a circular nothing delighting in its refusal. With no glass or Plexi before it, the flat, black center of Tree Void reflects the viewer in warped and shaggy bits, as if the paper were back in the wet darkroom, afloat in chemicals.
Both the shadow and the erotic insist upon the notion of time in a hostile and slow landscape, the California desert a foil to McKnight’s nuanced, caring portrayal of transgressive sex. Unlike the other images, in which their bodies are close-cropped, the two figures in Untitled (2021) are photographed from a distance. But surrounded by tall, dry grass that looks as if it were carved from the face of the image, blade by blade, the frame feels just as tight, with no horizon or markers of scale and depth. Gripping one another, de León and Barraza face away from the camera—a single shining, hoop earring-punctum their only adornment. Hung beside Worship (2021), in which one of their shadowed figures towers over the other, who lies swathed in thick chains, the power dynamic in Untitled reads a directional domination. But in a close-up version of Untitled on view in a companion exhibition of McKnight’s work at Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery in Brooklyn, the receiving figure, unchained, cradles the face of his partner in a reciprocal gesture more easily understood as tender.
Across the photographs, the dynamics of power—between the subjects, camera, viewer, and land—are in flux. The deep, temporal shadows on the bodies and landscape render both in-progress; underscoring McKnight’s role as an active and sensual observer of a still-unfolding scene. These images were made twice: first in the camera, and then in the darkroom, light revealing and obscuring in tandem. In his assertion that photography is about much more than what can be seen, McKnight insists upon the subjectivity of not only de León and Barraza, but the camera itself. Overprinted, indulgent, and sometimes unreadable, the photographs delight in a visual investigation of the animal-sculptural qualities of the body without monumentalizing or rendering it an object—McKnight’s dense picture-making process a vulnerable, responsive, and revelatory approach to the figure-in-landscape.
Mark McKnight: Hunger for the Absolute runs from February 2–April 24, 2021 at Park View / Paul Soto (2271 W. Washington Blvd, Los Angeles, CA).