Jack Pierson’s Dreamy, Erotic Hungry Years



Jack Pierson, Grease Monkey, 1990. Courtesy the artist and Cheim & Read, New York.


This October, Damiani will release The Hungry Years, a collection of photographs from the eighties by the artist Jack Pierson. The images, taken during the height of the AIDS epidemic and featuring many of his friends, are striking for their dreamy introspection, their melancholy, and their celebratory homoeroticism. Pierson has worked in many forms, including sculpture, word sculpture, bookmaking, drawing, painting, and photography. (The Paris Review published a portfolio of his word pieces in our Summer 1992 issue.) Eileen Myles, a friend of Jack’s, wrote the introduction to The Hungry Years, which we’ve published below, along with a selection of Jack’s photographs. —C.L.


Last year we were in my apartment and Jack was talking about going on a trip to Florida in the eighties and I’m of course thinking that Florida means something particular to someone (like Jack) who is from New England because New England sadly has about as much past as America has got—it’s branded by that New and of course New England is anything but new. Really it just wants to be old and it isn’t so you see those of us from New England just traveling around the world, shaking off those chains of the sharp quickening weather and that sad desire to be classy or old usually betrayed by our quaint speech—wicked or our loafers, or deliberately well-worn clothes in New England’s endless imitation of “real,” which is a copy of those who we think know about something older—we think they own stuff, Harvard and the Swan Boats and that Swan Boat accident and all that cold-weather food. So when this person goes south and not because he’s training for the Red Sox and not old but maybe he’s running away from something, hitching a ride on somebody else’s vacation, their buddy’s family owns something down there, maybe a deal of some kind is going on, or their parent’s place on the beach is empty for a while anyhow they go. According to Jack he took some pictures in response to I’m guessing the lightness, the eeriness of the bright buildings and the palms and the Florida tendency to be another America, professing to be new not old and failing at it. And explaining himself about that first burst he took he said, “and I kept using the camera there.” I love that there. What is that. Not Florida. But some new world you’re in. What if you got knocked out of your world for this reason or that. You’re kind of in between. You look around and you think this place is good. Not Florida but the world. Shit happens so fast. They’re going to pick up a couple of guys for a purpose, Leo’s friends and the guys’ bags are packed and they’re standing under a telephone pole like it’s a mast. Everything looks like a movie in a way in this already in-between world of Jack’s. The white buildings surrounding the little men accidentally their white shirts and the blue creeping up or falling down and there’s also a lot of ground. What’s important is the anticipated meeting with the two but it hasn’t happened yet and it looks Pasolini somehow but I’m not going to bother with that. If the world is a film and I don’t have to stage it but I decided to keep using the camera there. Here’s another picture. The kid has a boner and he’s so comfortable with it. Does he even know as the darkness of the trees confront him but he’s not there yet. Jack’s is a poetry of almost. The kid—he sees me, he sees us and I’m looking back with my camera. In a way the most exciting thing is the joy of the person seeing or saying. The night the beautiful dyke tips her head, we were all so drunk and she’s got one of those George Washington hairdos you know kind of a triangle and she tips her head that way when she explains I know god. No kidding. I’m not going to pretend that I’m not one of the pretty boys or performers. I am also under that tent. My head is tipped as I’m standing there in my young thin torso (I’m a pale redheaded guy, kind of butch—till I open my mouth) and as we all know head tipping is speech. It’s colloquial. Raquel’s tiny white-girl nails freak everybody out when they see this picture. Whoa. And white bands of morning come up across her baggy jean legs she looks kind of Matt Dillon-y and was explaining the way she liked it with “her ladies.” Long time since we’ve seen Raquel aka Rocky around. I kind of think she might be dead, she was very young but this is her crack at a feature. She takes it. It is hers. If I wasn’t in shade when I turn around in that three-quarter portrait you might think what a jerk but the light is blinding on the beach and if I can explain being a man at all it’s a slight smile and the animal knows he’s safe in this exact second everything is good. I wanted to hold that monument by myself. A tad darker than chill and my dad had it, too. Finally there’s nothing odder than a man. The buff portrait of a man basically exposing his nuts as the foam of the sea is crashing around and the clouds pile high in feminine adoration of him and his muscles which are also pretty feminine. When a woman has her shoes off under the table and she’s selling a man a line of shit even the dog knows hooray I can get away with something now. Loretta has incredible grace. You know just what she means. This is a person capable of winking, of working, of flirting. She likes her eyes dark they are dark and she is sizing you up. Am I Jack? There’s more than one Vanessa Thibault but in the moment in her gold bikini on the boat Vanessa was sensing some danger. Oh no, she said in that deep Vanessa voice. That’s not good. In the eighties you really didn’t see women with pumped up tits so the frame, her entire body did all the work, then the makeup and the unerringly tough but full of doubt personality. Once you put tits on the whole thing went right off the rails. I met her on a boat and the world as it was doing then as never before was giving it up and I was borrowing the intimacy which was my need. Even my disability I suppose. That’s why I love and know so many people who we used to call crips. I mean if you were going to spend your life on wheels you might as well make a joke and join the world. Wealth is certainly a disability. The dying part on the lawn drives you nuts and the only other thing in the picture that’s dying is you. That’s why the rich are so sad. They can’t control that. A hustler on the other hand is selling his sadness. That look in his eyes. What do you call that stuff that is not chenille. Those raised stripes on a bedspread. Cotton and used to be on motel beds everywhere before everything went synthetic. And before boys worked out so you just had to be skinny and starve and be pretty enough but not too too much. You clearly prefer the ones that look like a kid you went to grade school with. Him grown up but still him. Him again. Sitting on the edge of your bed. We’re always thinking right. This filmmaker was talking about the problem of the cinematographer who gave her more beauty than she could stand. Enough! I use part of the palm trees on a not so beautiful day and if you slap on an address like Ocean and 5th you know what I mean. The world is abstract, like a piece of music sometimes and allowing that then punctuating it with a fact is the style I want in the movie of this. Or at least I started this way. There is nothing hungrier or hornier than a drive-in. Now it’s just kitsch but in the eighties the sixties and the seventies were still in very good shape. We were supposedly meeting there in the day to arrange things for later on and of course to be seen. You’ll never not catch a guy looking up. Every man I know is a queen. I mean on any given day. Okay maybe just right now. The hairdo like a coxcomb. Is Chantal’s jean jacket bleached. A young face is all flesh and yet she is clenched. Her nature is clenched, cold hands ciggy hanging down. The blur of the world is the history of art. You know like if this were in a museum it would be those geometric-looking castles and trees going back up there toward infinity. I write about this. I love photography because it makes choices for you and the person or what you’re looking at makes some more and finally you are kind of what stops the action of the swirling world. I saw that, I ask that. The incredible oldness of the young. The younger they get the older they get. Babies are like old women and men in ridiculous dresses. It’s like they’ve arrived still knowing what they had from before. For a little while. The world demanding they forget about that. Tory was empty by Sunday afternoon. I mean if you see a fuzzy photograph like this quart of milk and the fruit know that what you are getting is a rough drawing. Fuzzy is an action in time. Feeling is the subject of my work. I didn’t say that but it feels right at this moment you know to drop it in. It feels true right. And obviously the grotesquerie and the staid mockery of a yellow wall. I’m flirting with the guy by calling him last real cowboy. Fear in his eye I think confirms it and it’s voluptuous, too, somehow don’t you think. I don’t know who I am. We’re just passing through these frames, these arcades wandering through the world in our bodies. Sad animals. And we prefer certain bodies like we prefer certain woods. Animals have preferences. Everybody does. Preference is animation. Giving it a soul—time does it for a body or a rusted ceiling with so many of these bulbs missing and each leaves a small black hole. The tawdry side of life is celestial. The rich may not know that at all. They begin forgetting everything. Like babies. Considering who we are about to have for president I think we live in hell. I would really like something sweet. That’s too bad there aren’t any dates left. Coffee does not do the trick. But I continue to swill. One lamp or two reflected in a round mirror and we can see the tiny bolts holding it in place and the shape receives the illumination. It’s a chintzy sunny rusty day in a motel. It’s all theater. It’s all activity. There’s nothing dead about decor. And of course humans made it. Someone thinking for a moment that this is pretty. What was that, what did they call it the site a few years ago where people wanting to have sex were in all these little cubicles. It was like you could turn it. I did the worse thing which is my whole class went online and we sat there looking at these guys. My student, John, was one of them. It was his scene. Anyhow it was such a violation. I’m thinking of it because Alexis and Mario appear to be in one of those rooms. We can’t even see photographs as still anymore. It wasn’t but it’s different now. Isn’t that the point. Whenever I felt it I kept using the camera there. Disco ball, fan hand. You know like when a queen puts her hand to her chest. Like this. Does a woman do that. What was the original of that gesture? Some old movie? I think photography, too. I really do. Signage gets old and implies something it never meant like the wasting of youth perpetrated by the falling down architecture of one of these helping institutions. Like Jack gives the photo a shove with his caption-y titles you know I just lift these public words off the wall and then I make my own words. You could say it’s poetry. If you wanted to be a fucking idiot. What else could it be. Ads? For what purpose. Lucille Ball is a sign. The squalid nature of a plant exposing itself. Masculinity all plumped up on a bed. Not flaccid but yielding. The flora is engulfing. A glass motel holds day because of the dark encroaching fronds. The world is echoey and Jack takes a picture of that. When a woman is looking down at a counter, reading something, writing something it’s prayer. Are you alone some guy might ask but it’s way more beautiful than that. It’s the torque in the guy’s shirt as he looks at the television set and it’s the color of a rusty night (with a big window) that you’re never entirely in. And it’s so precious to be inside of that. All of these (and in part because it was new) felt like unearned but graced entries. Lynelle looks up and she looks like Maria Falconetti. In a way despite the beautiful dot city lights this photo is all about neck. Janet’s dark muscles such pathos as she turns. Like a homage to a time from inside the time. That thing still lives in the chemistry of the photo. The backward writing, the neon, the long dead flowers and someone looking out. The dark dark night that makes everyone feel like kids but we mean to go out in that soup and be adult in it which I think is new. —Christmas 2016


Janet and Lynelle, 1990.


Neon Baltimore, 1990.


The World, 1990.


Ocean Drive, 1990.


Ocean and 5th, 1990.


The Call Back, 1990.


Me, the cat, Speed, 1990.


Eileen Myles is the author of twenty books, including the forthcoming Afterglow (a dog memoir). They live in New York and Marfa, Texas.