JTF (just the facts): A total of 31 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white and grey walls in the main gallery space and in a portion of the second room in back. All of the works are vintage gelatin silver prints, made between 1971 and 1979. The prints are sized 11×14 or 16×20 inches (or reverse) and no edition information was provided. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Certain bodies of photographic work seem particularly emblematic of a particular time, place, and artistic mindset, and Siegfried Halus’ flashlit nocturnal nudes seem to provide direct transportation back to the 1970s. Combining an increased freedom with natural bodies and sexuality and a strain of self-conscious mysticism, Halus’ images are documents of a series of communal experiments in personal openness and mind expansion. Staged in the dense woods and streams of Connecticut and the rocky deserts and and towering forests of the West, his pictures capture a moment when a portion of American photography turned toward more subjective and spiritual modes of expression, searching for sacred individual truths found inside the process of art making.
The key technical innovation in these images is Halus’ use of lighting. Employing hand held flashlights, car headlights, and strobe effects during long exposures, Halus is able to bring pockets of light to the enveloping darkness of nature, selectively illuminating the bodies as they interact with each other and the surroundings. The results have the mood of illicit discoveries, where momentarily flared men and women perform unnamed rituals in the darkness, their forms often multiplied out into moving echoes of themselves.
The most straightforward of the pictures set bodies within the context of nature, rather than as separate or in opposition. Human forms emerge from craggy tree trunks like dryads, crawl up from dark caves, kneel near spiky cacti, and immerse themselves in flowing water, the authentic innocence of unadorned natural states and the contrasts of texture (and the relative fragility of the bodies) providing the visual energy.
These simple arrangements then evolve into more complex symbolic structures, encompassing primitive rites and overtly religious and allegorical compositions. Interactions between the genders range from chaste watching and deliberate separation to loose Adam and Eve echoes and seductively intertwined bodies. Men are often seen laying about, perhaps lost in trance-like thought surrounding a fire or sleeping, or even mock dead in some cases, with leaves draped over their limp bodies. Several pictures deliberately evoke the organization and traditional poses of religious paintings across the arc of art history, with a Jesus-like man held by cherub-style children in a pietà pose, or singular male figures held aloft, carried like corpses, or surrounded by the ecstatic waving arms and legs of angels or supplicants.
The staging gets even more overt when cloth sheets and drapery are introduced, creating areas of “in front” and “behind” and allowing for more complex shadow play. In these pictures, nude forms interact with each other as well as various silhouetted ghosts and monsters, the blurring created by the movement adding further layers of ephemeral mystery.
The most conceptually complex of the works use multiple exposures to powerful effect. In some cases, ritual dancers are multiplied out, their forms repeated into doubled crowds. In others, we follow along as one body is seen in a handful of different poses in the same frame, the sequential movement creating a time lapse. These pictures seem to document a spirit leaving a body to wander more freely, or separate instances of a human personality taking physical form. In one memorable image, a bearded man begins by laying in the water underneath a nearby bridge, and proceeds through several steps to bend, kneel, circle around, rise up, and eventually walk out of the water, like a stop motion illustration of human evolution. In another variant, he seems to slowly wake up from his watery sleep, only to stand with extended flapping arms like glorious elemental wings.
All of this free spirited mysticism and personal exploration takes place outside the normal boundaries of society, as evidenced by an image of frolicking nudes set against the background of a sparkling city skyline. The distance between “civilization” below and the naked nocturnal inquiries taking place up in the hills is made physical, the darkness creating a barrier between the two states of mind. Halus’ subjects (both human and animal, as a dog is part of the group) are investigating aspects of themselves that fall outside the usual rhythms of everyday life, and the casting off of both clothes and mental constraints is part of the artistic process being nurtured.
While the entire project can at times feel meaningfully dated and forced, the best of the images tap into something human that has been crowded out and minimized by our own inhibitions and societal constructs. The sense of consciously throwing off masks and roles, and of embracing physical performance as a cathartic and energizing force is still refreshing. Halus’ technical creativity with light, staging, and exposure then turn these set pieces into open ended and resonant symbols, the personal celebration of the freedom of nakedness made more broadly universal.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $3000 or $4500, based on size. Halus’ work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.