In performance

Joe Sinness on desire and partnering as performance

"Richie," one of several large-scale colored-pencil portraits in Joe Sinness' solo exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Submitted image

Joe Sinness’ solo exhibition of new colored-pencil drawings and sculpture at the Minneapolis Institute of Art opens with “Theme,” a panoramic recreation of a scene from the 1980 William Friedkin film “Cruising.”

Sinness chooses the moment when the hunt for a serial killer targeting gay men in the New York City club scene leads Al Pacino’s character, an undercover police detective, into a crowded basement leather bar. There are vertical seams in the drawing that show where Sinness — working in a softened version of his photorealistic style, so that the drawing mimics the texture of 35mm film — has spliced together still images from the camera’s panning shot of the bar’s patrons, who are nearly all dressed in cop drag.

Unlike the large-scale portraits Sinness has also created for the show, where his themes of gay desire and the rituals of partnering are transmitted through a direct gaze into the viewer’s eyes, “Theme” keeps the film’s fourth wall firmly in place. The drawing is mounted above a trough-style urinal with a 1970s-era ring-tab Miller Lite can resting on its ledge, Sinness’ cheeky invitation to “step right up.”

It is at first a paradoxical-seeming introduction to the rest of the show. “Cruising,” with the lurid suggestion that its killer was driven by suppressed homosexuality, was seen at the time as yet another Hollywood exploitation of gay stereotypes, and was met with protests by gay rights groups upon its release. But maybe there is no paradox; the movie got a very different reception when it was rereleased on DVD a decade ago, and modern audiences may appreciate its time-capsule quality, the way it preserves a glimpse of a particular gay subculture on the precipice of the AIDS epidemic.

Sinness said he drew “Theme” from screengrabs of the “Cruising” DVD, assembling up to 75 different images of its dozens of enthusiastically intertwined extras, reallife clubgoers recruited for the film. He compresses those fragments of time into one tableau.

In the main exhibition space, there are sculptural objects scattered around the room like stage props — a shrub next to a man’s naked buttocks, a butterfly imprinted with two men kissing — that abstractly reference the environments where cruising men seek one another.

“There’s a performative element to finding a sexual partner. That’s straight or gay or whatever. But I’m just curious how that’s adapted with gay coding over the years, and how we come to find love and find each other,” Sinness said. “That has changed from the movie ‘Cruising,’ which depicts a very specific kind of performance — cop drag on that one specific night — to selfie culture and applications like Tinder (and) Grindr.”

There are hints of selfie culture in Sinness’ remarkable portraits, drawn from photographs of models. The pervasiveness of social media has taught everyone how to pose just so, and Sinness’ models regard the camera with unguarded assurance. They are performing, but Sinness is alert to the vulnerability in their performance, posing his models against dramatic backdrops borrowed from classic Hollywood musicals, including, in one case, a sky that blazes coral pink instead of blue.

Sinness described the various influences that coalesce in “The Flowers” as “like a fantasy of (the) experience of visual culture that I’ve had.” In addition to film and selfies, he draws on sources as disparate as the low-resolution video of amateur internet porn and medieval engravings. The latter shows up in “James,” a full-length nude whose subject looks directly at the viewer over his shoulder while holding an awkward contrapposto pose.

“In grad school I was really interested in depictions of homosexuals in medieval manuscripts, like (illustrations for) Dante’s Inferno, and the way they would depict homosexuals holding their bodies. It’s a sort of like akimbo, the ‘queer pose’ — it’s sort of a little off,” he said.

“… There was a lot of emphasis with the poses of the people I was taking photographs of to make them seem queer, because they are.”

Sinness shows off his virtuoso draftsmanship in a small drawing inspired by Henri Matisse’s late-career paper cutouts. What appear to be cut-paper fronds arranged on colored paper are all just trompe l’oeil effects created by Sinness’ pencil. These fronds show up in other drawings, too, including “James,” and Sinness uses them like a burlesque dancer’s feather. They can conceal or reveal.

Sinness said he purposely pulls back from the most extreme version of photorealism, which can veer into almost mechanical reproduction. Sinness prefers his images to retain some evidence of human effort and the warmth behind it.

“I guess I do want people to know that they’re drawings, because part of my showing of love and adoration for these performers is just time,” he said. “If you can show the amount of time that’s in any craft, it’s always about love.”

"Devin" by Joe Sinness. Submitted image
“Devin” by Joe Sinness. Submitted image

Joe Sinness: The Flowers

When: Through Oct. 29

Where: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2400 3rd Ave. S.