Sistler’s work often includes visual puns, as shown in Accommodating Enclosure, the print at left. ”I like that both images are blurred with motion. In one, there’s the euphemism of beating, and in the other, of beating off. There’s some fluidity between them.”
To hear the Chicago artist Nicholas Sistler talk about his latest series of prints—a work five years in the making—you’d think he was recounting a visit with a porn collector. “I had certain ideas of things I thought I’d be interested in before I got there, primarily the extremes of sexual behavior: fetish things, bestiality, sadomasochism, bondage-discipline, transvestism,” says Sistler, sitting in his Bucktown home studio.
In a way, he was visiting a porn collection—Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s. Kinsey founded what is now the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University in 1947. The Bloomington facility maintains one of the world’s largest collections of vintage erotic photographs, many of which Kinsey, a onetime zoologist, acquired himself. (He died in 1956.) It’s not widely known that the archives are open to researchers, including artists, and that 48,000 photographs, mostly taken between the 1870s and the 1970s, are cataloged there in the documentary collection. You mark a list of 44 categories—from “analinctus, heterosexual” to “zoophilia”—and aides bring you boxes to sift through.
“I’ve always been drawn to expressionistic stuff, visually and existentially—noirish visual elements, with shadows and a light source,” says Sistler, 56, a Hyde Park native and School of the Art Institute grad. Since the mid-1990s, he has drawn praise for his miniature paintings, which show exquisitely detailed room interiors from skewed head-on-the-floor angles. In recent years, he has painted in scenes from film noir and other preexisting photo images. The results are pictures within pictures that question ideas about art, truth, and fiction.
When the artist searched the Kinsey Institute’s photography collection, he was struck by the number of masked figures, shown below in RSVP. “Initially, I thought it was fetish costuming—and it could be,” he says. ”Then I realized they may have wanted to be anonymous because they could get arrested.”
At Kinsey, Sistler narrowed down some 4,000 black-and-white photos to 180, then 29, which he digitally incorporated into 15 prints. How could he legally use the images? “It was produced as the pornography of the day,” says Catherine Johnson-Roehr, a Kinsey Institute curator. “There’s no way to trace who owns copyright because no one wanted to put a name on it. It’s a little bit of a gray area.”
Sistler worked with Anchor Graphics for a year to create the photopolymer intaglio prints, a time-intensive process that resulted in uncommonly crisp images. He hired a book conservator to create ten boxes for the complete set—now called Hotel Suite—and invested $25,000 in the project. So far, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Block Museum of Art have each purchased a boxed set, which retails for $8,000. “It’s nasty, some of it,” says Mark Pascale, the Art Institute’s curator of prints and drawings. But the museum’s board, which reviews all acquisitions, didn’t have a problem. “You look at Renaissance art, there’s just as much profanity there,” Pascale says. “Kinsey was certainly interested in the things that Caravaggio was.”
Sistler isn’t concerned about the exploitation factor. “It touches on a really dark, lonely place—an internal place,” he says. “The spaces I’m depicting are internal psychological spaces. To be brutally honest, they’re of my own interior. And they are dark and lonely.”
GO: Hotel Suite shows October 22nd through November 27th at Printworks Gallery, 311 West Superior Street, Suite 105; 312-664-9407.