Incubator 23 is thrilled to present Talisman, a solo exhibition of painting and sculpture by Graham Silveria Martin. Text below by Jesse Parker Morris.
“Although…[pre-AIDS]... is a moment that is behind us, its memory, its ghosts, and the ritualized performances of transmitting its vision of utopia across generational divides still fuels and propels our political and erotic lives: it still nourishes the possibility of our current, actually existing gay lifeworld.”
- José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia (2009)
I wander into the park bathroom partly because I know I will write this essay but also because I am always in search of connection to the rawness of pre-AIDS gay life. A life captured in Peter Hujar or Alvin Baltrop’s sunny photographs of Manhattan’s dilapidated piers, where topless men with sideburns and denim shorts drape over the hot concrete. But I’m part of a privileged generation for whom the memory of the AIDS crisis is fading. Though complicated, we can only romanticize the urgency and radicalism of Gay Liberation, how it bred, at the farthest margins of society, what I think of as unprecedentedly creative and daring public sex encounters. On this gray 2023 day I find no one, much less Peter Hujar’s hunky-calfed subjects. I resume my running route, considering how much that urinal has seen in its some hundred years - how much joy or shame it has flushed.
In this body of work, Graham Silveria Martin’s sculptures and paintings, always depicting urinals, evoke Jose Muñoz’s concept of queer utopia : a state of queerness never realized beyond the sensation of its potential. Slipping in and out of abstraction and figuration, the works haunt us, hinting at indiscernible memories, fueling erotic possibility. In Silveria Martin’s works, the urinal is charged with past and future coded exchanges, fleeting encounters and ecstasies. Cruising itself is ghostly. Horny men drift anonymously, in no rush, in pursuit of contact with other entities. They hover, untethered from the inhibition of politics or private lives. The men are undiscriminating in their erotic fixations and these urinals are artifacts that remind us of passivity, ritualized, repetitive use. The viewer’s identity, too, disappears, as the paintings’ porcelain surfaces are rendered matte, unreflective. Still, his militant, formal attention to light produces incredible sensuality. The curves appear corporeal, like clavicles or silhouetted torsos, each urinal’s split mantle delicately pinching a “spreader.”
The artist treats each subject tenderly, as if it were a human figure who might have posed in his studio. In a gallery, however, the installation of multiple urinals anonymizes them. “In this nonliteral space,” Silveria Martin notes, “the objects come in and out of focus. There is not a sharpness I am trying to achieve, they fall out of figuration and into something abstract”. Layered with gesso and captured in watery paint, the edges of the urinals bleed into the canvas, as though they inhabit an unfamiliar and slippery memory. But in the most reflective surfaces, the glazed porcelain is rendered so sharply that one can almost hear the echo of a footstep on tile. It is the sound and rhythm of absence. The negative charge of absent bodies resonates in the gathering emptiness. The sight of nothing becomes the site of haunting, in which presence on the margin is at once abstract and palpable.
While they project the erotic drama of nothingness, the ubiquity of the urinal invites the viewer to wonder about Silveria Martin’s relationship to the subject. “Fascination” the artist says, is a “softened description” of the creative process he admits is in fact “obsessive.” Be it fascination or obsession, this serial repetition nonetheless conjures the homoerotic proximity of the cruising spot, of multiple bodies connected in a single space. The proliferation of the urinal image reminds us of how queer imagination rejects factory-made, intended use through coded desires and practices.
The spreader, the focal point of many of the paintings, resurfaces as sculptures, carefully cast and fashioned into entirely unexpected beings. A pair of identical spreaders evoke Felix Gonzalez Torres’ famous clocks hung side by side, which start in perfect likeness and then diverge; their precarious mirror image anticipates loss. By replicating the urinals obsessively, however, Silveria Martin depicts absence to activate it, to hint at possibility, to make present the unique residue of prior ritualistic use. Both artists use loss to imbue the work with future life.
Silveria Martin’s series emerges from a sense of longing. He possesses the ephemera of the past––the physical urinal literally sits in his studio––with an acute understanding of its unknowability but also its potential to inform and deepen the present and future. Or, as Muñoz would say, to “nourish” them. Silveria Martin’s work attunes us to notice a sensibility that is not lost, freeing us from melancholy. The urinals span the generational divide by evoking, through their absence, a ritual beyond time. For queer people, creativity and desire, sexual or not, has always needed to invent itself from nothingness. Every thing, every place is an opportunity to see where desire leads.
Curated by Angelica Jopling