The Candy Boys Escape The Ogre’s Shadow
Crossing the interior expanse of an island such as Santorini, it is the tidal perimeter that we come up against, a shoreline that draws and erases the land’s edges, working at our senses of proximity, touch and hungering scale. The enveloping waves capture and give up the circumference of the island’s boundaries, from granular sand to stone, grass to tree, and the seeming solidity of the surrounding bay. The traversing of one’s physical location as a differently weighted set of conditions are similarly evoked in Leon Pozniakow’s towering ceramic column The Candy Boys Escape The Ogre’s Shadow, 2023, a work in which the disordering pleasures of another’s body are sensually played with and given a libidinally soaked charge. The painted ceramic work is also born out the earth; the clay sourced on Santorini, and the column constructed and fired in sections on the island with the support of Andreas Makanis and Kristy Kapitanaki of Earth and Water pottery studio.
The column – chimney, tower, maypole, radiator, totem or shrine – is located in the hallway of the Santozeum. Like the nodal point of the island in the Aegean Sea, it pulls a gravitational field to itself, one in which the viewer orbits its surface in an attempt to track a set of imagery that the artist refers to as an ‘untethered allegory’. At first, certain themes crest into view, one that seemingly echoes that of Classical Greek design: gods, nymphs and flora – worlds that merge in the heat of colours such as blue, purple and green, but also move of a different gravitational order. Pozniakow riffs along his own archaeological research, the studied and remembered places of Greek histories and desires, as much as its counterpoints of disco, poppers, dancefloors and cut-off T-shirts.
But to discuss The Candy Boys Escape The Ogre’s Shadow, one also needs to step back. Pozniakow’s work queers often emblematic historical artefacts, one reference being the casts of Trajan’s Column at London’s V&A: the twin towering plaster works that opened with the museum in 1873. The extensively detailed relief work depicts Emperor Trajan’s triumphant battle against the Dacians in AD 101–102 and 105–06, but it is formally refigured by Pozniakow as bacchanalian and dream-like, one in which the cusp of past and future shared gratifications is lyrically conjoined. For example, Pozniakow generously leaves the viewer to ponder whether the several male figures carrying white blossoms who float around two men embraced in sex are a reference to the debauchery of the lotus-eaters found in Greek mythology – drug-induced dreamers finding their way out of a prosaic, limiting reality – or the carriers of virginal gifts that offer the romantic coupling a moment that has erstwhile been erased from literature and history. However, the romantic underpinnings are perhaps evident: the artist sketched the putti from Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s rococo-style paintings at New York’s Frick collection, with the addition of jockstraps and hairy chests.
Furthermore, if there are connections to artists such as Ned Astra’s drawings for Larry Mitchell’s book The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions, Aubrey Beardsley’s imbibed figures or even the languorous lines of Jean Cocteau, then they are the shared nerve endings of pleasure as remembered across generations, queer titrates of sex transferred into ink and ceramic. But there is also the strangely Duchampian sounding title: The Candy Boys Escape The Ogre’s Shadow. Here, instead of a bride stripped by her bachelors, we have an oblique reference to Guy Hocquenghem’s text The Screwball Asses from 1973. Both similarly evoke the mechanical, the auto and the perverse, however, Hocquenghem’s text ends with a group of young brothers in a wood who willingly or unwillingly fall into a trap laid by an ogre, ‘machines with pulleys, chains, clocks, collars, leather leggings, metal breastplates, oscillatory, pendular or rotating dildos’. We learn that the boys are ‘condemned to ejaculate until the end of time’, becoming the ‘machinery of a factory without electricity and the slaves of a corpse’, as ‘they did not know that the ogre, in his attic, was dead’. If Pozniakow is promising an escape of the traps laid by the ogre, then there is also something else happening here too, as Oliver Davis and Tim Dean write in Hatred of Sex that ‘there is always the danger that, if you’re doing it right, pleasure will become too much’. Pozniakow delicately leads us to this seemingly contradictory space, one in which desire might start to turn against us, disrobing our imaginary selfhood into ‘shattering’ pieces.
In our era of the pink pound, the jockstrap is one of the gay industry’s most cherished of objects. The centre of any gay-focused shop’s forecourt, the underwear is both codpiece and ass-out framing device. Although a seeming infinity of designs exist – the ouroboros of male vanity stretching limitlessly across millennia and body parts – a key aspect is the elastic tapes that strap the waist and thighs to try and perfectly frame the body’s key sexual assets. It also comes with the added elan of being actual ‘practical’ sportswear. Similar to the codpiece – ‘cods’ meaning in Old English, scrotum – the jockstrap also plays as a metonym: a strap for the titular jock, the young, actively fit male. But Pozniakow’s portly putti are seemingly impervious to any prescriptive demands made by mainstream, commercialised gay culture.
The fascination that Pozniakow has for jockstraps has led to him making the undergarments in handwoven chainmail. Replete with fly holes, the shimmering jocks and briefs form dense pools of silver or brass metal that are arranged over the floors of galleries or that hang from walls under spotlights. No longer a fabric gauze over the skin to cup and hold flesh, this is an armour that protects the wearer entering the battlefield of erotic wanting – the touch of metal yielding to the suspicious fleshy contact of another. Pozniakow’s armament of lust brings to mind Plutarch Parallel Lives in which he writes that ‘when danger comes, an army of lovers stands its ground. The lover protects his beloved; the beloved protects his lover’. Is Pozniakow dressing an army for battle or for the nightclub podium? The latter seemingly today’s place for culture wars and its potential reckoning. However Plutarch’s army is the Sacred Band of Thebes, a troop of one hundred and fifty pairs of men who die in each other’s arms during a battle – a crescendo of spent libidinal forces, of ecstasy finding obliteration at its heart.
It is perhaps telling that Pozniakow’s work coincides with the opening of Gary’s Bar, Santorini’s first and only dedicated queer space. Part of the Santozeum building, the bar was designed and decorated by the Hungarian artist Gyarfas Olah and captained by Bucharest gallery director and artist Robert Bajenaru of Cazul101. Pozniakow’s neon above the bar – a naked Adonis in repose inside an oyster shell – is tied in spirit to the Candy Boy column. The bar itself a further point of queer contact to circle and become ensnared by. A set of mechanisms to be made and remade, nightly.
I first visited Pozniakow’s studio in East London on a damp, summer day. He shares the space with three other artists, each section partitioned by a curtain. Here we sat and drank Yorkshire Tea from a satisfying, industrially sized packet of bags accidentally bought from Amazon. We alighted on numerous topics, from the way modernist interests brought together strands of the visual and applied arts into the everyday as a democratic right, to the unexpected possibilities of falling in love. Scanning the surfaces of the studio walls, print outs and maquettes, it was here in the momentary holding of the delicate surfaces in Pozniakow’s work that I was left chasing the fullness of an erotics that is casual, commonplace, yet heavenly.