While Night Comes On Gently
Clifford Prince King
September 26–November 7, 2020
Text by Mandy Harris Williams
It’s small details that signal care around the gallery, and in tension with those, some that signal waste—bound by the first photo in Clifford Prince King’s show, “while night comes on gently.” Safe Space (2020) opens to the familiar Prince King warm tan-yellow duskiness, the nutty smell of Eco Styler Olive Oil, with an oil serum nearby to best the hair’s slip, it’s grasp and tack; James Baldwin is in hand, No Sesso is at foot, and the neatness of these details, the ecology that they become, the peace they arrive at, feels nurtured, beautified, sincere.
At the opposite end of the show (or perhaps, in the way that a gallery is both directional but also cyclical, it is less of an opposite and more of a point before the beginning): a visual counterpart, grotesque in that it is (technically) organic waste, Night Sweats (2018), recalls night terrors. Many experience night sweats but they’re regular for Prince King, who took the photo within a few days of his HIV diagnosis in 2017.
I look around the room, for structure, order, decisiveness, scanning these juxtaposed, disheveled but elegant sets: sparse, loving, productive, bodily, existing here, unashamed of decay, and the work of the night and days before. It’s hard to know the story here: is this a slope into decay, or a triumph out of it? A quick glance around the room provides uneasy solutions. There is texture and contact, skin on skin, sweat, hair, and humanity, love and absence swirl around the images, full as they are sparse. Love and loss fill the images like yin and yang holding each other tightly. A bit of one quality in the other. I look for a hand to guide me through this minefield, one I’ll cross with hope for love, no doubt, love is apparent, shining through like that soft tan sunlight.
I find that hand, throughout, providing sustenance, specifically in the first 6 photos: glamorous ones with acrylic/natural (look) nails in Safe Space; again in stately, tender I Told My Baby to Meet Me on 24th Street (2020), between seeming lovers; through hair in Untitled, Bell Bottoms (2020) I notice hands considering shared texture, softness, the material sustenance of the Afros, sweat, and tan skin, crisp but desolate in an un intimidating light, backgrounded by an undecided tableau and plastic packing scraps in the cavernous extended room; in For What it’s Worth (2019), a post hookup portrait, an unsure hereafter, a hand reaches out with a washcloth, without clarity on the source of providence. Intimacy without surveillance? Or intimacy without care? So, too, with the next photo, I find faceless providence in outstretched hands, coupled with the suggested of the hereafter: Our Last Blunt Together (2019). And a last outstretched hand beckons the dawn of a new era, in The Day I Learned to Love Myself (2018). Tenderness and lack move in ebb and flow, destabilizing the aesthetics of what safety looks like, while nodding that it is, indeed, present.
Older works round out the show, the bed series, neat, because it is sparse, here again, taupe sheets, worn-in wrinkled creased, and sweated in. Jacorie (2017) with that uncertain distant gaze, somehow more posed than others, and somehow more stripped back, stark, but unclinical. Grapes (2017), it’s irreverent faceless reminder of sweetness, flirty. And now I confront the final image, once more: Night Sweats (2018). By the time I’ve come back around to this work, tenderness is not quite so straightforward as I’d imagined. I’m reminded that night sweats are the debris of the body healing itself at night: that work is done at cardiovascular cost and it’s not pretty. Healing is work. For all of the safe spaces, and connecting, there is a waste to that process. This too, is part of our cycle. We stretch out our hand back and onwards and only to see it returned with the expect some debris in our palms. Tenderness has a silt.