The Israeli photographer Adi Nes is sitting in his West Chelsea gallery, chatting with me about his current show, when a loud bang from the street makes him jump. “It’s nothing,” I assure him. But when it happens again, I see him gird for gunshots.
That would never have occurred to me. Noise is part of my life as a denizen of Lower Manhattan, where a permanent construction crew seems to follow me everywhere. But after a third bang, I’m beginning to absorb his anxiety. Is it just the reflexive response of someone who lives in Tel Aviv, or is it a plausible reaction to a fact I can’t quite face: New York is also a dangerous place?
As America digs in for a war that may last longer and spread further than anyone intends, the art of Adi Nes seems especially urgent. Though its subject is masculinity, its subtext is what unrelenting combat does to the imagination. No young artist has so vividly captured the hidden cost of victory, the fine line between power and fragility, the interplay of arrogance and despair that shapes wartime identity. These portraits of Israelis bursting with a deceptive sensuality force us to confront the complexity that the nightly spectacle called news denies.
For Nes, every mazel tov is also a kaddish. Consider his photo of triumphant warriors carousing in the water, one thrusting his rifle in the air. This is a bitter homage to the famous Life magazine cover of a victorious Israeli soldier after the 1967 Six Day War. In Nes’s revision, there’s an almost ominous gleam in the soldier’s grin. “It’s hubris,” he says. “For many years we’ve paid the price of that victory.” Nes is referring to the entangling occupation of the conquered territories. No wonder he feels worried watching the Iraqi war on TV. “I’m trying to think of the right words to say. Be careful from the sin of hubris.”
Nes is not a political artist, per se. You won’t come away from his work mobilized for protest. In fact, you may find yourself indulging in a guilty pleasure gazing at these wiry boys and chiseled men. You’d expect Israeli guys to look like this: hunks with hard consonants in their names, masters of the promised land—and the purloined one. Nes’s iconic portraits, hinting of blood, sweat, and a thick, cut putz, have the ripe look of gay calendar art. But there’s something subversive in the recesses of each shot. This is what Bruce Weber’s photos might be like if he had a sense of tragedy.
Thumbing through a catalogue of Nes’s work with him as a guide, I point to the picture that first riveted me. A bare-chested soldier stands beside his tent flexing a huge bicep. He wears U.S. Army pants and a kippah on his head. “I dressed him in an American uniform because he’s trying to act like a Hollywood soldier,” Nes explains. “He’s very strong but his power is not real. It’s like a shadow of power.” In fact, the soldier’s shadow melts on the folds of the tent. “You can see from that how much he’s frightened,” Nes says. The tent rope is placed so that it seems to cut through his neck.
Nes grew up immersed in images of heroic fighting men. He has served in the military, and he is gay. This dual perspective allows him to see the ache in the beefcake. Take his seemingly idyllic photo of Israeli soldiers asleep on a bus, their heads drooped back exposing their necks. “Like lambs to the slaughter,” Adi says. “They’re powerful but exhausted. I can see tired men from a tired country.” Still, there’s another kind of submission on display here, and a hidden invitation to lick those outstretched necks.
What makes these images so compelling is the way their eroticism shades into distress. “Art should tempt the viewer at first and then bother him,” Nes says. If I find his warriors disturbing it’s because they attract me. I don’t know whether to worship them or kick them in the nuts. He nods: “You get it.”
With his broad black brows over an open face, Nes seems pale for an Israeli of Mizrahi (or Middle Eastern) descent. He stands in sharp contrast to the men and boys in his photos, all of them deeply tan and smoldering. Clearly he is dealing with idolatry, his and ours.
To call his work staged is an understatement. Each piece is artfully fabricated, down to the golden Mediterranean lighting and the poses that recall Greek myths and Renaissance masterpieces. Caravaggio certainly would have appreciated Nes’s fondness for young Mizrahi men. He grew up around them, so there’s a personal reason for his fixation, but it also carries social and sexual weight. In Israel the Mizrahi are a proletariat, and erotic projections inevitably come with that status. Think of Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Italian filmmaker whose work resembles Nes’s in many ways. As a gay Marxist, Pasolini had an unbroken faith in the sacredness of street boys, and he had the hots to match. But Nes lives in a different time and place. His passion is cut by other attitudes, such as pity and contempt. Under it all is an eye for the inexpressible. That’s the gay gaze.
Nes’s art is all about the ambiguities of intimacy between men—a bond as potent and elusive as a puff of strong cigarette smoke. In fact, that’s just what one of his most resonant photos shows. In this image, a stubbled soldier has blown a smoke ring around his friend’s raised finger. Perceived in a certain way, the puff could be a wedding band—or even a sphincter. To a less aroused viewer, it’s just an artifact of camaraderie. “I can see something in the air that maybe doesn’t exist,” says Nes. “It’s a moment only someone gay can feel. It’s there all the time, but you will feel it only if you notice it.”
Yet, if you leave this show with a stiffie you’ll have noticed only the surface below the surface. “There is always something beyond something and beneath something,” Nes explains. What makes his work more than the usual everyone-is-gay fantasy is that something lies under even the homoeroticism. What is it? I ask. “Desire,” he replies—but not just in the sexual sense. “Desire is the gasoline of human behavior,” says Nes. To regard this fuel as good or bad is to miss the nature of erotic energy and its impact on reality.
People cannot be perfected; desire cannot be contained. This is a very gay epiphany, but also a Jewish one. In Nes’s art, Tennessee Williams meets Isaac Bashevis Singer. But what could be more whitebread American these days than watching a soldier called desire advance across the desert? Our homegrown warriors are not as hardened as the Israelis, or as sultry—not yet. Gazing at their exuberant faces, I don’t know whether to feel moved or repulsed. This complex of emotions has become very familiar to me, I tell Nes. He nods: “Me, too.”
Adi Nes’s work can be seen at the Jack Shainman Gallery, 513 West 20th Street, through April 12.