On Tenderness

A Review of "An Excess of Quiet: Selected Sketches by Gustavo Ojeda, 1979–1989"

An Excess of Quiet: Selected Sketches by Gustavo Ojeda, 1979–1989. Edited by Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué and Erich Kessel Jr. Introduction by Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué. Soberscove Press. 240 pages

“A political art, let it be/tenderness…” This first line from Amiri Baraka’s poem A Short Speech To My Friends, first encountered on Instagram (via poet Anne Boyer) and then in the pages of Kevin Young’s significant new volume African American Poetry, changes something for me and is a line I hold onto. Tenderness operates here as the political power of the minor, the intimate, the im/possibility of being together. I have not figured out what it is exactly that impacts me so deeply reading this, only that I hear this line over and over again as our moment of crisis continues. I wonder also if this political art of tenderness is part of what makes the recently published sketchbook An Excess of Quiet by Gustavo Ojeda, edited by Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué and Erich Kessel Jr so resonant. The sketchbook is somewhat like the journal: seeing how someone else sees the world and what they observe. Ojeda’s sketches are quiet, lines in a longer poem observing the simultaneous isolation and connection in a city, namely New York. Ojeda-Sagué and Kessel Jr structure the book in three sequences of sketches. In the first sequence, Ojeda focuses on subjects he observed on subways looking away, eyes closed, in their own world. Many are asleep, that most private state. The tenderness comes through Ojeda’s focus on observing and letting his subjects be somewhat opaque and elusive. Ojeda’s look doesn’t feel voyeuristic so much as a hoped for coexistence: recognizing how much every person is their own universe. The figures are largely shown alone but in every one of these drawings there is some hope or possibility of connection: within the subway car, Ojeda and those he sketches can be together in their solitudes.

Baraka’s poem continues “low strings the fingers/touch, or the width of autumn/climbing wider avenues, among the virtue and dignity of knowing what city you’re in…/I address/the society/the image/of common utopia.” Fingers touching become the movement of trees, autumn leaves falling and city space: here human connection is intimately related to being rooted and to creating a better society. This movement from the human to the city seems to be the sound of the low strings of Ojeda’s sketches as sequenced by Ojeda-Sagué and Kessel Jr. The second sequence shows various bodies more fully, frequently as carefully observed nudes, and how they inhabit space. The third sequence is largely absent of bodies and composed of city landscapes in fragment. Ojeda-Sagué writes in his riveting introduction, “much like the paintings, the sketches are deeply invested in silence, but ecstatic in their quietness.” This mix of silence and ecstatic feeling is perhaps endemic to many queer archives, negotiating not simple visibility but something more complex. Looking at Ojeda’s work, one is struck by how cities themselves form and are formed by bodies: Ojeda’s dark, hazy and sometimes sublime cityscapes surely speak to a queer longing for connection, a sense of place and utopia as opened by Baraka. Looking at these sketches perhaps helps us to understand how peopled and full of longing Ojeda’s empty cityscape paintings (the most known segment of his practice) truly are.

Ojeda died of HIV/AIDS-related complications in 1989, at almost age 31. The gift of this volume and the focus on this “minor” work is the opening it provides into more fully understanding the artist’s complex sensibility. Ojeda-Sagué also writes, “…I argue that Gustavo’s position is an instance of aesthetic ideals held by a person within a sociopolitical context, a gay Cuban exile living in New York’s East Village who found the painting of a particular street corner or the sketch of a sleeping face a necessary, and perhaps provocative, blend of mundane and otherworldly.” A lot of the work which seems to receive attention in queer art history is, in all kinds of senses, loud. It is interesting to think what political and social power there might be in looking to different archives, in listening to silence and quietness, and in moving toward tenderness.

Further Reading: I recommend The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, another way of looking at New York, loneliness, queerness and art. As well, in conceiving a political queer move to the utopian, I would turn to Cruising Utopia by José Esteban Muñoz.