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Steve Harwick is an incredible photographer. He shoots formally stunning images that exist in the uncomfortable place between portraiture and performance, between candid pornography and exalted iconography. But if I saw Steve’s installations, and didn’t give him the benefit of the doubt I’d think we must be from different planets. I prefer Adderall over Monster, thrifty drunks with dubby drums over mall goths with guitars. There was a time when those things were more opposed, less so now. I don’t know if I ever owned a Beanie Baby. If I had that or any tchotchke, any enduring link to childhood, it’s something I’d rather forget. When I was a kid all I wanted to do was grow up. As an adult, I don’t miss childhood. This isn’t to imply I have good taste. It’s to admit I’m bad at bad taste. It doesn’t take a Sontag dissertation to know that means I’m not invited to some parties.
There is that mini-TV with the built-in DVD player though. I had a unit just like that one. I’d re-watch Gummo, Elephant, Belly, Trust, King of New York —movies I read about in magazines. I’m sure I kept stacks of magazines and zines on that TV, same as Steve. Zines especially were lifelines filled with personalities who decided they’re worth photographing, people with ideas and attitudes worth extensive comment, and critical engagement worth spreading. You might say the internet does that now, but you’d be wrong because it doesn’t. It could, but it doesn’t. The internet is engineered for the algorithmic middle of the road, a superhighway with lanes laid out by admen and admins. Types that’d make you puke in your mouth after 30 seconds of small talk. When Prince said the internet is like MTV —that it’ll be fun for a second and then we’ll forget all about it— I think he’ll soon be proven right.
Steve and I both love zines and leather, and he produces beautiful zines of beautiful people in beautiful leather. Flesh lit up by bright flashes, couples showing off their love styles, future pinups exhibiting their tattoos. Here are bodies in singular moments of self-development. If there’s one good thing to come out of the internet, it’s the proliferation of avatars. Identities that can be picked up and abandoned. Infinitely customizable hybrid personas cherished for all their slippages and transformations. I think Steve has an eye for people finding their avatars in fleshy form. His gaze is never clinical, never pandering. He combines the obsessive tenderness typical of zine makers with the unsentimental play of someone binging Second Life and Monster Energy. It’s a perspective all his own. To see his photographs collaged and blown up, his polaroids lovingly encased in glass gives that perspective the monumentality it deserves.
There’s a Kenneth Patchen line I’m probably misremembering that I think Sontag, Prince, and whoever invented Second Life would all equally appreciate: “I love to watch the skeletons trying on new bodies.” Who gives us skeletons permission to try on new bodies? Someone like Steve. Because Steve knows nothing keeps you chained to your fleshy forms and habits as tightly as respectable taste. If the elevation of emo, Beanie Babies, and Monster Energy to the height of the heavenly bodies in ecstatic experimentation he photographs is a shock to taste, that’s by design. If you can’t get over initial judgments of those things, how are you going to open up to everything else? They’re the keys to Arcadia, the badge worn by a community bound by love and leather.
— Miles Pflanz, 2020
When a surgeon does exploratory surgery, he operates in a medical theater…other doctors snatch to see the methodology of the panacea invasion. Similarly, I can see Steven Harwick’s exhibit “SKiNFLiCK” as a single body being explored. We as participants are witnessing the surgeon examine the pieces: the sculpture, the photos, and the videos as a single body being explored.
There are his photo portraits from his zine Bound Leather (the skin). Clockwise around the gallery in each corner and against each wall, are different installations —or organs—and sculptures, which are like limbs. The sculptures in some cases have boots in them, albeit heavily covered in cement, to suggest weight if thrown in water. They are proactive, frightful but still lovely. He uses cement in a more placenta-like way, not in a covering-up-a-mistake-or-hole type of way. The cement gives weight, but in its strange drips, gives life too. His use of color and obfuscative techniques aren’t nostalgic or corny. They are like watching Steven’s style being born. I say “being born“ because this is the first large one-person exhibit I’ve seen of his. It’s exciting to see the first or second or third chapter of a life’s novel unfold in an interdisciplinary work.
So generously given to us at a time when most people are afraid to leave their houses, during a pandemic so large it could be said it’s Godzilla in an ant farm. Steven has shrunken Godzilla and turned the beast into a rideable little monster with a sexy leather saddle, with his friends being invited to ride and be themselves in all their glory: their courageous, fearless selves. Steven’s got in one corner a stuffed animal covered in cement on a pedestal. It gives off a harshness akin to a happy Hallmark card plush toy that he’s made his own now.
I’m not used to writing about artists’ works. I can’t possibly do the artist justice, but I can lift the metal gates in front of my own eyes and tell you about it. Shames transformed, colors re-examined by way of pairing them in an exploratory fashion like “what would happen if a mirror was next to disintegrating rubble?“
Steven Harwick’s show takes the risk to seek a new panacea for culture the way a surgeon explores the body. It’s a tall order, I know. For the most part, many artists don’t even know, nor do they need to know, life’s design. It’s so complicated. In any case, “SKiNFLiCK ” is wonderful, and Steven Harwick’s work is willing to see new light or a new dawn in mourning.
From a poem sent to me by Steven the other night by Sufjan Stevens, this exemplifies his philosophy in such a lovely way:
“I want to be living in fullness always.
We must continue to live in fullness for those who no longer have life.”
— Kembra Pfahler, 2020
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We live in a time where BDSM aesthetics are often oversaturated, misrepresented, and coopted by the white heteronormative regime for profit. Where photographers who shoot hot people on Instagram have become unpalatable, redundant, and almost laughable. I appreciate Steve’s work for the fact that it’s a complete departure from the aforementioned conditions: the problematic and cringe-worthy voyeuristic politics of much contemporary photography—especially those focused on capturing scenes of people— is absent from the ethos of Steve’s work. At the show, Steve and I laughed about high-strung academic debates about “the line between porn and art” that we witnessed at art school, and how irrelevant that line of questioning is.
Steve’s perspective on kink is one of a fellow participant, and not an idle observer. You can feel the love in how he captures the energy of his friends and idols. When I see Steve’s work I think: “Oh yeah he’s one of those friends who would really know what angle you want to be photographed from and make u look good at all costs.” I love seeing models treated as people, not objects, as the subjects of art.
Having the extreme privilege of being a personal friend of Steve’s and being able to visit his apartment, I thought about this at his show. His home is such a wonderfully curated place-exactly-it feels like a place (70’s, dreamy, grandma, camp, Romantic ambiance). Steve’s show is a sort of retrospective of Bound Leather Zine all in one place for the first time. It occurred to me how I could recognize a lot of corners of his apartment as backdrops for some of the portraits. This idea of one’s life and art having no separation. A full universe of creation and fantasy made real; literally living in one’s own art; immersive world-building; is to me one of the most comprehensive and elevated forms of art making.
When an artist like Steve creates a whole, considered universe and lexicon planned down to minutiae, every possible moment stylized and consequently belonging, it inspires the audience to consider the beautiful details of their own life: what their fantasy world might look like, who they may be, limitlessly. Steve’s work is a reminder to me that we all create our own realities, and that mine too, could be just as hot.
— Danny Orlowski, 2020
Steven Harwick’s Instagram handle, ‘schmuck.everlasting,’ is a reference to a really amazing young adult novel called Tuck Everlasting, about this magical man who never grows old, and I think that’s a fitting place to sign off with a shameless plug not only for our first show at URSA NYC with Steven Harwick, which is called SKiNFLiCK, which you are getting to enjoy if you are reading this essay on the web now, but for my new gallery, URSA NYC, in general.
The reason why I can’t let the gallery game go–and why I’m responding to the pressures of this time by starting a new gallery–is that I love to play and create with my friends in a space, and to really respond to the excitement that I feel looking at people’s work, and experiencing their art in these small backlit screen-size bites that we are blessed to be able to have so much access to in today’s world, by trying to break the fourth wall and kick through the screen like the Kool-Aid Man to say:
‘What if we could live inside these fantasies? What if we could breathe life into them, and really make them real and make a place where you can come and experience the work at human scale, meet the artist and have The Endless Sleepover, where you never have to go home and you never grow old and you’re in heaven on earth with your peoples in this life, while we’re all still here together?’
…So, inside my fantasy, Schmuck Everlasting is my homie and Tuck Everlasting is my goal with this gallery, just like you can look up in the sky and see Ursa Major the Mama Bear and Ursa Minor the Daughter Bear, Having A Kiki for all eternity, no matter where you are in the world. Pointing the way to the North Node of karmic fulfillment and spiritual evolution throughout time of your Immortal Soul. That’s what I want to do, and thanks to my friends and family, am able to do, is provide a happy, peaceful playground for our consciousness and creativity. Very much akin to the caves where bears hibernate, or the caves where our forebears made their art at places like Lascaux, by the light of the midnight sun.
It’s an LED light in this gallery now, for them it was a campfire, but it’s still the same. Come sit around the campfire, let’s talk, let’s laugh and let’s Do Our Thing. Let’s Act Like We Know and Complete The Cipher: We‘re Here, We’re Not Going Anywhere, We Gon’ Be Alright. Holler At Your Bear, URSA NYC — this is just the first show and I couldn’t be happier to be sharing my world with you: If I Got It, You Got It.
A Very Special Request goes out to MY Mama Bear Betsy Sagan, and her brother Tomas Galaty, for perhaps unwittingly, but oh so fittingly, inspiring me to lead off this gallery with a show that pushes past the boundaries of art and transgression that I witnessed them debate when I was a kid in the late 80s and early 90s, back when Senator Jesse Helms was coming after the National Endowment For The Arts for sponsoring work from Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, and Karen Finley. My mom is very committed to the free exchange of ideas and information and expression, I would say, but she used to always somewhat balk at defending these artists accused of ‘obscenity.’
She would say something like, ‘I’m all for freedom of expression, but why do these artists have to be so PROVOCATIVE?! It’s just…Not Nice, sex is PRIVATE. Sacred.’ And my uncle would say something like,‘You’re right, sex is sacred, and so is art, and so is the right to free expression, in both sex and art. And that is exactly why these artists MUST make this work, and why artists must have a right to show and make whatever work they want.’ And they would keep going at it, orbiting around these points, eventually yelling at each other, and then my mom would cry.
…Well, this one’s for you, both of you. Thanks for opening my mind.
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