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Jimmy DeSana’s luscious suburban wastelands

If you want to experience the body as an object of disruption amidst suburban wastelands, look to the images of Jimmy DeSana. The Detroit-born photographer was a fixture of the East Village art scene in 1980s New York, and his work demonstrates a studied awareness of gay image makers and forefathers like Andy Warhol and Wakefield Poole. In “Suburban,” on view at Document, 12 images show DeSana’s fascination with the American dream, power, pain, the body as a line or phrase, and luscious gel lights. 

DeSana was part of the anti-art and new-wave movements, so his work is both frenetic and polished. This show focuses on interior spaces and feelings of alienation, likely reflecting DeSana’s upbringing. He came of age at the auto industry’s height only to see his father laid off. The family relocated to Georgia, where his parents split because his father had an affair with a neighbor, and his mother dealt with it by retreating into a strict Methodism. By the time he reached adulthood, the life he’d been raised to expect had become punishing and strange.

While DeSana studied photography in the late 1960s and early ’70s, he became involved with the gay liberation movement and was especially galvanized by the police raid of a screening of Warhol’s homoerotic western Lonesome Cowboys at the Ansley Mall Mini-Cinema. After moving to New York in the mid-70s, he aspired to make work that disrupted white heterosexual orthodoxy, but he also wanted to resist a documentarian approach to capturing queer life and attitudes. Not only could documentary photography help police, but it was also boring! More appealing to the artist were scenes where subjects could not be identified and whose own personhood could be subjective, raising questions about how queer people want or are allowed to exist in certain spaces. This is the artist’s first solo show in Chicago—and hopefully a sign of more to come.