These nymphs, I would perpetuate them.
There’s a myth in Ovid’s Metamorphoses about a water nymph named Salmacis who spies on a handsome young Hermaphroditus—son of Hermes and Aphrodite—from her hiding place near the water’s edge. When Hermaphroditus refuses her advances, she pulls him beneath the water, seduces him by force and sends a prayer to the gods to make them inseparable.
My gaze pulls on an artist’s ankle through the computer screen. In the photograph, he’s nude on a swing save for a satin pink bow at his pelvis that mimics the male anatomy. His toe is pointed at the bottom corner, as if testing the waters on the other side of the screen. All that separates us is a film of static and glass, like a summer lake humming with water bugs.
I think of Lorca’s poem, “St. Michael”: And the water turns cold / so no-one touches it. / Water maddened and exposed.
Sean dedicated this back-bent photograph to me, saying: “My body is your throne.”
Sean’s website is a cabinet of curiosities I lose myself in. Three decades of self-portraits to wander through at will. I meet a hundred permutations of the artist each night I visit his website. He’s male, female, orgasmic, chaste. He looks at me, then turns away. Again I tug on his ankle.
I’ve been pulling him beneath the tidings of my emails which began on the Guardian Soulmates website and became more intimate within a few weeks, letting go of our handles and exposing our true identities.
In his Soulmates profile, he wore a Victorian skirt but his face was unshaved. He called himself Vermeer, which called to mind the word veneer: an overcoat, a protective shellac, shell, computer screen, the water’s skin. If I dropped a rock, would the screen blur in concentric circles? Would he catch it in his skirts? I threw missives in his direction like pinging a lover’s window with stones late at night.
I wanted him to awaken and jump out the window of his blog post. His rope swing would carry him into the center of the pond in my lap. He could shatter the moon on the surface and swim through shards of light.
Sean begins each photo shoot as Narcissus, watching himself in the camera’s reflection. Only by degrees does his reflection become female. Minutes tick by and he applies eyeliner, steps into the lapping waists of skirts, splashes lace along his shaved neck. In the time it takes the sun to travel from one side of his studio to the other, he transforms from self-obsessed Narcissus to Salmacis.
Narcissus no longer gazes at himself but at the water nymph from a different myth. Ovid would be pleased at the artist’s dexterity, skipping stories like stones; bending sex and storytelling to his will. The artist ravishes and rapes himself against a studio backdrop, wresting a frenzied, feminized Salmacian sexuality from his male body. Halfway through a photo shoot he loses himself in the undertow, no longer a masturbatory Narcissus but a victim, prey to Salmacis’ stronger sexuality.
Though I was infatuated with his aesthetics and gentlemanly anachronisms, his coquettishness was infuriating. I was his muse, he said: his J.M. Barrie-like playmate and ideal. I became Sean’s confidante and confessional, a sort of middleman between being his ethereal muse and his platonic girlfriend. He dreamed of constructing a confessional booth for us to kneel in, with holes in the screen just large enough to whisper through; for fingers to pass through so we could steal caresses of one another’s ankles. He would write whole ecstatic emails about small patches of skin touched through such chaste apertures—how he’d swoon!
Sean confessed everything but remained a mystery: he was forty-five, a virgin, never been kissed. No, he wasn’t gay. No, he wasn’t a hermaphrodite, intersexed, an asexual, none of the things I might imagine. Maybe he was trying to convince himself that he’s straight, I thought, like my mom often did after she was put away in a mental institution for homosexuals.
Sean recalls a childhood play in which he was cast as a thorn. He was indignant that he was overlooked for the princess role. Instead, a female classmate got to wear a frock with a crisscross bodice. It was his job to snare her.
He had been stealing his sister’s dresses for years, stashing them in the eaves of the attic, sliding into folds of satin and velvet; scenting the gowns, possessing them. He’d masturbate there, like the young narrator in Proust’s Swann’s Way who pleased himself in the only lockable room at Cambray, hidden away upstairs. The attic was Sean’s adolescent hiding place, too. As the French phenomenologist Bachelard wrote, the house protects the dreamer.
Sean would step into a dress in the attic and become invisible as dreams. Even if he was found, he’d be somebody else.
Sean’s artwork offers a natural history of his Ovidian anthropomorphism and androgyny. Neither human nor animal, neither male nor female. He catches these permutations on film, silver halide pinning the specimen of his studied body to a moment in time. I feel like a gender-bending Actaeon watching Diana undress as I possess him on my computer screen. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses Actaeon was punished and turned into a stag, the very animal he was hunting. If I were caught, I’d be turned into Sean.
There were many more confessions to come. I sent him my copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions with my favorite passages underlined. The book is striped; there are so many lovely quotes. In the Renaissance, striping meant whipping. In many photographs Sean appears similarly abused, strange constellations of red making appearances around his body, always changing like the night sky. A bruise blooms like a pansy, then implodes with a faint yellow light. His photographs commemorate the body’s rich brocade after the wounds have healed. Scratches, welts, the indentations from tight corsets, rope burns.
Once he fashioned a corset from a lampshade armament, the antique golden silk ripped from the curved skeleton much like flayed skin. The cut wire teethes his waist and he bleeds red buttons. His skin is a palimpsest: wispy male hair just beneath the navel, traces of a whalebone corset worn too tight, its form imprinted on his bright skin for hours after he’s removed it—ghost lingerie. The skirts are in there too, ripped, worn inside-out. A sedimentary nakedness.
His self-portraits are Sid Vicious meets a 1950’s Vogue couture shoot in a hand-tinted Lady Hawarden photograph from the mid-nineteenth century. The easy catchphrases don’t apply. Drag queen. Crossdresser. He is neither, and both.
Reductionist descriptors clothe him in the binary codex he shed decades ago. It’s akin to calling Miro a vandal or Warhol a plagiarist. His curious personae walk, jump, tumble, pose, hang, climb, and tightrope their way through a wholly unique universe of photographs rife with subversive symbols, allusions, and narratives. He is unpindownable.
Of course I was obsessed, approaching his chloroformed figures with pupils sharpened to pins—dissecting the him like da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man—arms and legs splayed, his anatomy captured within a circle and square, encapsulated, encaged, explainable in ratios and natural law. I wanted explanations, to measure of him body and soul and hold his litmus strip up to mine.
Were we compatible? Did our puzzle pieces fit?
I carried him around in boxes for months. The box of his studio room inside of the boxes of his galleries on his website inside the box of my computer screen, all compartmentalized into boxes in my mind. To truly undress him I’d have to undress decades of subconscious cultural and sexual conditioning in my own mind. I knew I was reducing his entire being to genitalia, confining our relationship to the inches of flesh that embellish the pelvis. Dumb apparatus, no measure of the soul.
I knew I had to get over the speedbump of his pubis. I’d have to be patient and appreciate his seductions without acting upon them. I had to accept them as play-acting, as playing doctor, playing dress up. I had never dated an adult virgin, had never suspected a partner of homosexuality or asexuality, had never made a man cry with a kiss.
Our early dates were thimblefuls of lust; measuring his passions in spoonfuls like Prufrock who wouldn’t dare bring the moment to a crisis. My mother said, “Honey, I don’t doubt for a second that he loves you. But he doesn’t want to make love to you! He wants to be you!” I can’t count the times I’ve gazed, leered, speculated, examined, stared, and evil-eyed his riddling pixelated pelvis but have discovered neither heft nor cleft to gratify my curiosity.
What does this have to do with his artwork? Nothing and everything. He imagined an idealized, chaste lover gazing at him on his website’s photo galleries. But to have a real woman behind this gaze? A woman with appetites? To have a human hand reach into the screen?
That was never part of the plan.
He let down his hair, a stocking, a rope, a bedsheet tied in knots, and I climbed to his window. I climbed to him nearly every night and cheated on him with endless versions of himself. His emails presented another boyfriend altogether; shy, Victorian, lovely, gentle, selfless, charming. For weeks he refused to talk on the telephone; he was too frightened.
I often examine the minutiae of his photographs; the detritus at his feet, sawdust of industry. The walls of his studio that have been painted a dozen times or more. His battered, paint-splashed floorboards. The hooks and levers screwed into the ceiling of his photographs that support a system of ropes, ribbons, weight sand pulleys so he can suspend himself or tie himself up.
Sean binds and knots himself to his photographs with ribbons, string, corsets of shiny adhesive, transparent plastic tarp, nails, pins, and bows. It is easy to believe that if it weren’t for these contrivances and shackles, his image could just walk out of the photographs. His body is held to his pictures with filaments of light and ribbon. Without ribbon, there would be no picture—he pulls on a ribbon to trigger the shutter release. One end is looped around his wrist or ankle (you can see it in many pictures), the other, the shutter. He tenses the ribbon like an extra-somatic muscle, an external will.
He uses strings and ribbons in other ways, too—his studio ceiling is pierced with silver hooks that support his weight as he flies above the camera. At other times the strings and ropes form a trapeze, a high wire. His entire studio becomes a sentient meta-mind. A knot of concentration. I compared these contraptions to his paralyzing shyness. Over the months I untangled him more and more.
An appreciation for thread, yarn, and ribbon isn’t surprising, given Sean’s many years as an award-winning weaver and textile artist. Now he shuttles his body between the warp and weft of a studio-sized loom, a tapestry woven with filaments of light.
In a particularly feminine photograph, his pubis is covered in flower petals. The bright animals of his thighs are the only indication of maleness. Lorca springs upon me again: Saint Michael, covered in lace / shows his lovely thighs / in his tower room / encircled by lanterns. Surely a woman’s anatomy lies behind the labial blossoms? I inspect the photographs with a fine-toothed comb, stealing bits of the saint like a greedy pilgrim with bloody knees.
In a recent image Sean sits by an open window like peasants in Vermeer paintings—Flemish light a gift in an Oxfordshire sky. He’s a milkmaid with a headscarf like a swirl of vanilla ice cream, an impromptu topknot that seems to melt over his painted white body. His large working-class hands clasp his milkmaid’s genitals beneath the hood of her gathered skirts. Her skin is painted white, crisp white skirts pulled to her clasped thighs that taper to spread ankles; ambivalent body language. No/yes. Her legs are coated in painted stockings, with feet pointing ballerina-like on a plinth of white mattress; a soft and evocative stage set. Sean could be a porcelain figure here. On the floor, three brunette locks of hair are arranged in a row; a necrophagic still life. The narrative is creepy and compelling; a masturbatory scene doused in menace, milk and cool Flemish sun.
Deeper into his body of work, I stop next at a photograph with warm sunset tones. His head scarf is replaced by a strange blurred halo, his face in handsome profile beneath the peach glow. The scrubbed paint wall behind him matches the warmth of his painted skin. He seems to have stepped from the painted background. His torso is flat and bare, as always, and his hips are swathed and papoosed by ripped flesh tone fabrics as though tangled in umbilicus.
I fall deeper into his journal, scrolling down, down, down through years of his oeuvre in a single sitting. I stop and stare, enlarge, marvel, perspire, giggle, cover my mouth, lick my lips, and fall again. I stop at a photograph of five identical figures standing with their backs to me—Sean’s body cloned five times over. Each nude echo contends with a wooden pole, called a ‘thyrsus of Bacchus’ as described in Euripides’ The Bacchae. The phallic maulsticks support his buttocks and balance the strokes of my gaze.
The thyrsus image is rich with symbols and allusions: it was an ancient Greek symbol—precursor to the mayday pole—a giant wand of fennel wrapped in ribbons and topped with a pine cone. Euripides and Homer wrote of the madness a thyrsus could evoke. It was believed that the seed-head dripped with honey. If struck against the ground, a fount of milk would appear. In this photograph of five homoerotic youths, Dionysian milk and honey are aimed at the pale moons of the artist’s bottoms. He is at once man and woman; seed head and moon.
The Grecian theme is redolent of Nijinsky’s choreography for the ballet Afternoon of a Faun (L’ ;Après-midi d’ ;un faune) performed by the Ballets Russes with Nijinsky himself playing the lead role of the ecstatic and masturbatory Faun. The nymphs file onto stage in lines, in profile and with arms outstretched, in order to appear two-dimensional. As Nijinsky had hoped, the nymphs on stage are reminiscent of figures depicted on the sides of ancient Grecian vases. They appear to be one woman replicated over and over, a generic feminine. The photograph of Sean’s cloned blue backsides achieves this Grecian style; it appears as if he is a procession of Grecian youths stealing glances at one another, posing languorously against the curvature of vase or urn.
Keats, in his Ode on a Grecian Urn, asks:
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals?
Unravish’d bride of quietness. My Sean who wouldn’t speak to me except in writing and photographs. What legend haunts about thy shape?
I imagine a feminine alter-ego stepping from his body like an apparition. His body is her favorite haunt. She escapes his skin to find herself trapped within breathless corsets. She cannot escape the whalebone or the scope of the portrait. The four edges of the photograph delineate her world. No matter how he ties her up, beats her, and splays her legs to the camera to post on his website, she can’t escape. And she doesn’t want to; when she runs away, she runs so deep into his arms that she becomes invisible, indivisible from his body.
The etymology of the words ecstasy and enthusiasm are startlingly similar. In ancient Greek, ecstasy meant ‘outside the body.’ Through this ecstasy, Euripides’ Maenads misbehave, become crazed like whirling dervishes, drug-users, Pentecostals, spiritual mediums, transcendentalists, Krishna followers, self-harmers or lovers. The Maenads reached a state of enthousiasmos, meaning ‘inside the god.’ They escaped the body to merge with something greater. This is ecstasy; losing oneself.
In Afternoon of a Faun, the faun steals a long veil dropped by a careless nymph. It looks like a bridal train. He clutches it ecstatically, breathes in its perfumes, wreathes his face and neck in it, and refuses to relinquish it to the nymphs when they return. They reach to retrieve it, but he recoils on tiptoe, grasping it to his body like a lover. Soon he’s alone with the veil and lays it gently down on a cliff. He lowers his body over it. The faun strikes his thyrsus against the ground, two fucks and he collapses onto the veil.
The audience boo’d, we’re told, all but Cocteau who roared with delight. Nijinsky, far from being dejected, performed an encore. Sean performs encores for me, even as I claw at him. I could easily be one of Euripides’ mad maenads, ripping Sean’s anatomy into pieces in a furor, the cursor enlarging his pelvis, making it swell by tapping on it again and again.
A self-portraitist and myth-maker, Sean has been influenced by Rilke, Blake, Proust, W.G. Sebald, Hogarth, Lady Hawarden, Francesca Woodman and Pierrot of Commedia dell’Arte.
Sean’s love of dresses and fabric began in infancy and culminated at Loughborough School of Art, where he wove gossamer confections so delicate, the invisible weave of unspooled cocoon thread was mistaken for machine-woven fabric. He gave me a gossamer scarf of crocheted webs the wind could blow away. I could be predatory just by wearing it; the winged world attracted to my neck. He was too; by then he had left marks and possessed me. He said he would only give the scarf to the woman he intended to marry. He swathed me in webs and I caught him.
In the following months, as I fell asleep in his arms, he would read me to sleep and fix me. Once, after he read Winnie the Pooh, I awoke to a shadow crossing my line of vision slowly and rhythmically as he passed thread through my dress. He was sewing my bodice. I ripped it while running along footpaths earlier that day. The prick, then the hiss of the cotton pulled through the punctured fabric. A whisper of a lullaby embroidered to my dress. I loved being a doll he protected and mended. So many mornings I’d find my clothes hand-washed and hanging, or ironed ready for me.
On the eve of my Oxford University interview, Sean decided I had to have a handmade gown befitting the occasion. With pins in his mouth and a tape measure in hand, he hugged me again and again, his affections measured to the millimeter. He transferred my curves to an endless river of white linen that assumed the shape of a woman on the other end of the sewing machine twelve hours later. He spent the next day tirelessly wrapping houses with electrical wire as gently as he wrapped my waist in elastic.
I never once awoke without a breakfast tray and love notes, a cloud tied to my coffee cup—coffee sieved through a silk blouse because I didn’t like the grinds that filtered through our old French press. I sip my coffee as he rubs my feet with cream. Not at all the self-obsessed Narcissus I expected.
Our pauper’s apartment in Rome springs to mind; his hand-washed and wrung blouses hung over the dark wooden mezzanine of the 17th century apartment like gauzy moths. His white, cream, eggshell, and caramel blouses were translucent as Clearwings. The mezzanine became a showcase of powdery, silken angel varieties: Dusky Brocade, Gypsy, Feathered Thorn, Flame Shoulder. I imagined Sean as an earth-bound angel, removing his wings at night like a suit coat, lining them up along the mezzanine rail and climbing into bed with me, wholly human, divested of ethereality.
This is how I’ll paint him, the wingless angel, the electrician who comes home with sawdust in his hair and cracked fingertips wrapped in industrial tape. He’d play The Goldberg Variations with his padded, insensate fingers, just to say hello to his piano before changing into a gown to baking us cakes for dessert. When he leaves me for work in the morning he bolsters me with pillows:
“I shall wish you a good day, and tuck heavy boyfriend pillows all about you before I leave, you will not be able to budge an inch for boyfriendliness, you shall need to navigate your way out of the bed past crescents and curves and crests and crevasses of boyfriendly mounds, being careful not to tumble down a boyfriendly valley and be overcome by boyfriendly landscape of my body.” His body takes on many textures, shapes, and can exist in two places at once; he can cuddle me while wiring chandeliers to the Oxfordshire sky.
At art school, his calloused and cracked electrician’s hands were twice as large as those of his female classmates. The only male in the arts program, he had just spent five years as an avionics electrician at Woodford Aircraft Factory near Manchester, home of moody beautiful boys from working class families, home of Joy Division and The Smiths. He’d attach cables from the wings to plugs in the fuselage, and lay prone, pulling wires beneath the floors of aircraft. He wired wing lights and defrosters, cabin lights and fans. He would climb elaborate wooden scaffolding built up around the wingless fuselage and climb to the top of the plane’s tail above the hangar, where he often took naps. Sean was invisible up there. He’d awaken hours later disoriented, high up, flying in a sky of steel trusses and fluorescent sun.
These early metal wings coincided with Sean’s perpetual dream of becoming an angel. The diaphanous woven wings, scarves, and dresses at art school were a counterpoint to the plugs, cables, wires, and sheet metal wings of mortal flight. Over the years his obsession with angels, seraphim, and wings drew away from the expected and he began to imagine an angel with wooden wings nailed into his back, a cousin to the wool shirt and the cross. This was the beginning of Sean’s experiments with human architecture—first the wooden wings, then skirts from laths of screwed wood, a skirt that imprisoned him; part nude, part exoskeleton—somatic scaffolds. Next he dreamed of securing himself to delapidated warehouses—his body affixed and painted to the walls like fin de siècle facades amidst scrolls of spent wallpaper, trickles of rain, blooms of mold.
In 2013, when I was incapacitated from a bike crash and couldn’t accompany him on our long-anticipated road trip to Italy on account of severe coccyx pain, Sean sawed a box spring in half, perfectly measured to the back of the van, so I could recline the length of the Cote d’Azur and Italian Riviera. The metal springs left blood bracelets on his wrists but he wasn’t daunted—scratches, bruises, exhaustion: these badges of industry are everywhere evident in his pictures. I experienced Italy recumbent, viewing its magnificence through the theater of the van’s windshield—a stage framed with National Trust stickers, sprigs of Provençal rosemary, and olive branches.
Years ago I asked Sean what he wanted for his birthday. He asked for a miniature antique door. Within a day he transformed our Cotswolds studio space into a miniature house built around the door I gave him, as if the door had remembered the house it once belonged to and willed it into being. In true Sean fashion, the door was left unused; instead, he photographed himself floating in and out of the windows of the house like Peter Pan. The mock-house had parquetry floorboards reclaimed from an 18th century church in Wales, each block held together by wooden pegs.
Sean constantly creates miniature houses, tableaux, worlds. He once pieced a walkway along a beach from this same parquetry—a strange nave so I wouldn’t get my feet sandy. When his space is limited he rolls up his mattress like a scroll and creates worlds on the studio space of his own body.
Like his skin, his studio walls are palimpsests, a thousand masks of paint that correlate to his thousand self-portraits: flowers, hues of bruised peach, Rilke’s Duino Elegies, yellow stars, black stars. His studio walls never end; everywhere we go becomes a backdrop as soon as we find a private moment. His studio walls extend from his house to beaches in Cornwall to the Scottish Highlands. Seagulls and starlings fly through, then he paints over them with a cliff at Land’s End where we dance on the edge of the known world, wine in hand.
Last year he climbed icicled trees in minus-zero temperatures for the perfect shot—half naked— dodging flocks of wild sheep, tourists, and cars. In these photographs his porcelain skin glows in the crowns of barren trees, their branches pencil-sketched beneath his frozen feet. He emerged from this shoot exhilarated, bruised, and battered, his fine garments ripped and embellished with ice, rose hips and thorns.
After his photo shoots, Sean opens the photographs on his computer screen, then photographs them again, second hand. In this way he captures flecks of dust, smudges, odd reflections of light, and fingerprints on the screen—proving that he stood face to face with himself and kissed Narcissus with a click.
Though Sean is a skilled photographer, he prefers these smudges and finger whorls to technical precision, not unlike record enthusiasts swearing by the pops and scratches that make a song their own. The dust motes on his screen, for example, become a strange golden pollen that emanates from his nakedness. The surface of his portraits take on the fine powder of a moth wing.
One night on the way to a B&B in Cirencester, we saw three shooting stars. That night after we made love, Sean dreamed that he awoke in bed and saw a lovely male angel hovering over me. The angel kissed me while I slept, its body floating just inches above me. Sean pushed him away but the angel’s lips remained fastened to mine like a chrysalis to a twig. Sean grabbed him by the ankles, ripped him from my unconscious kiss, and dragged him outside into the cottage’s walled garden where he beat the angel to bits against a feather-strewn bower. Sean told me that the angel had probably come down in one of the shooting stars and that we still had two more angels to fight off. I fell asleep the next night anticipating their kisses and giggling that my boyfriend is such a pure soul, he only gets jealous of angels. Angels that come down from heaven just to kiss me.
Quotes first published in Juked under “Odes.” Milk & Honey: Portrait of a Self-Portraitist.