On the Artist, Maggie West

Maggie West contacted me in early 2016, and asked if I’d model nude for her upcoming book, 23. We were social media acquaintances at the time. I was into her photography, but didn’t quite know why — except that it was clean, engaging, and had a lot of cool colors. Maybe it reminded me of a Dario Argento film, minus all of the violence.

I agreed to model for Maggie at her studio in Hollywood. She set up a few gel-covered strobes and placed them around me. I undressed. We listened to a Vatican Shadow track on her laptop, at my request. I posed, or tried not to, and she took some photos.

The experience was brief and comfortable, and in many ways, typical of a small production. But I walked away with an undefinable attraction to both Maggie and her work.

She’d let me browse her first book, KISS— a collection of photos that I found strangely compelling, despite the familiar subject matter. There was a larger-than-life quality to her portraits of lip-bound couples. It was as if the subjects were replaced by the feeling of their action, and rewound to their youth, so that the moments still rang true.

I also enjoyed looking at Maggie, and found it nice to see her looking back. Several days after our shoot, when I opened my email, I saw myself through her lens; the way she’d chosen me to be. I was a colored dream, half-unfolded. My hands clung loose to my skin.

Months later, I looked back and saw my hesitation in her images. My hands were waiting for a sign, not yet given, to reach out.

***

Maggie contacted me a second time to ask if I’d participate in her photo series, FLUID. She wanted to photograph the stuff that ran through us: saliva, blood, semen, and vaginal fluids. The subjects (our biological mess) would be shown large and close-up, in abstract form, and with Maggie’s signature use of light and color.

The request wasn’t so bizarre. I’d been a porn performer several years prior. The internet was rife with documentation of my fluids. So I agreed, again, to participate.

I joined Maggie at her studio so that we could drool on glass and cut our fingers with x-acto knives. We were like children, spitting and engaging in blood pacts. And like children, we were shy to masturbate in front of each other. Maggie left the room while I jerked off. But I manned the piece of clear plastic on which I’d provided a sample; tilted it back and forth so that my semen would flow in the direction of her lens.

The results were beautiful. Purple and orange light reflected off the bubbles in our saliva, and became like some alien topography. Our blood was juxtaposed by electric blues and white. There was no suggestion of injury or sex. My semen was a texture, like spilt lacquer on paint.

Vice covered the series with the click-bait headline, “Art with Bodily Fluids Has Never Looked This Good.” I agreed with their position, but hoped for something more. Because it seemed — in the age of digital journalism — that all art had been gifted such treatment. Maggie’s work felt unusual. Perhaps it was her sense of style, the spectacle in her colors, or the way she’d made our expulsions look so clean.

***

Maggie and I stayed in touch. We’d talk often about our love of art and literature, and would keep each other company at galleries and readings. Though, as time went on, I found that my enjoyment of such activities grew increasingly beside her.

We sat on the rooftop of The Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, in the aftermath of a book release party. Maggie spoke about her fears, as an artist, and then told me of the things she wished to accomplish over the course of a new year. Her goals were aesthetic and sometimes political, and she talked of a conscious drive to make her art available in the public space.

There were moments throughout our conversation that felt so much like a film — where desire met fulfillment, and in a way that seemed too good to be true. I was so enamored by her work, and how she spoke of it, and yes, the way she looked. But I skipped the part instilled in me by movies; the part where I might have leaned over and kissed her. We were Angelenos, after all, and in perpetual states of ‘it’s complicated’ relationships with other people.

Lucky for me, I was given the opportunity to be less complicated, and to try my hand at loving her.

It became a pleasure, and soon after, the best I’d had in my whole life.

***

I helped Maggie with the installation of her first solo art show, STAND, which doubled as a benefit for the Los Angeles chapter of Planned Parenthood. She’d taken over fifty portraits of people in her community — mostly women — who supported the organization, and displayed them on a wall. The prints were stunning, and seemed to exude a rainbow of light from their paper surface.

Alone, with Maggie, on the day before her opening, I saw the form of what she’d done. But on the night of, when the gallery was full, I saw the work in action.

Maggie’s show opened on November 9th, 2016, the day after the US general election. It was the day that Donald Trump became president-elect, and that Planned Parenthood — an organization that had become synonymous with US women’s reproductive rights — took on a real threat of large-scale, federal defunding.

Maggie’s show drew a crowd, and sizable donations because of it. I watched how those involved reacted to their pictures on the wall. There were smiles and laughter, and other signs of cheer. In short, Maggie’s subjects looked happy, despite how many of them mourned the day.

It seemed a tactic in short use, and one I hoped to see much more of: art that elevated its subjects and made them feel beautiful, and that celebrated the individual in pursuit of her cause. Because I’d seen the activism of dreariness and guilt, and how it worked to do so little. I preferred the strong community that Maggie had tapped into, and how she’d chosen to depict it in its best light.

***

I’ve come to think of Maggie as my partner, friend, and lover. And I’ve watched her work for over a year now.

The images in 23 are representative of her craft; of her interest in bodies, light, and spectrum; of inclusivity; of beauty, pleasure, and the intimate. To see myself on the page, as Maggie felt was right, is a kind of gift.

I can only hope for many more years of her color in my life.