Seb Patane’s Glee is an ongoing series of collages, begun in 2019, in which anonymous men are seen posing against images of angels’ wings. Each photograph originates from social media or dating apps such as Tinder, Grindr and Scruff. The artist had observed the trend for gay men to pose in front of ‘readymade’ pairs of wings – usually murals in the urban environment, but sometimes sculptures or neon installations. In Glee, the trend has transformed into a repeating motif – an object through which Patane examines notions of pose, queer self-fashioning, and the conflation of art-historical and social-media iconographies.
Each collage in the series is an appropriated image that shows, in turn, a ‘found’ image juxtaposed with a body. Patane plays upon and magnifies the generic nature of his source imagery by anonymising the human subject: the head of the man has been lost, almost in the style of ancient Greek statue, through an act of Surrealist superimposition. A cut-out picture of a speaker effaces – replaces – the head, turning the man into a kind of cyborg.
A moment of tongue-in-cheek self-fashioning thereby becomes the occasion of an exquisite-corpse hybrid: beautiful body meets sleek machine. The repetitiveness of the online formula – a man endowed with angel wings, as if by accident – belies an apparently endless variety of clothes, wings and poses. The stances of the men range from the mock-heroic (a fist raised skywards) to the brazenly suggestive (a hand clasping a crotch) to the mundane. This variety is mirrored – redoubled – in the motley speakers that Patane has introduced, ranging from high-spec sound systems to vintage radios. Ostensibly incongruous, the designs of the speakers tend to echo the underlying imagery, creating a subtle interplay of contours and colours – a formalist reverberation.
In each ‘angel’, the act of collage – subtractive yet additive, incongruous yet possessed of its own interior logic – owes something to Dada, for instance to the anarchic non-sequiturs of Hannah Höch, as well as to contemporary artists such as Linder, in whose collages the negation of meaning (the disruption of straightforward ‘sense’) is equally an opening-up of meaning and a means of critique. In Patane’s series, the act takes on a specifically – and poignantly – gay inflection. The anonymisation of the subject reflects, at one level, the anonymity of many gay assignations. It speaks too of the leadenly formulaic nature of self-fashioning in the age of social media (and indeed before it: the ‘Castro Clone’ was a phenomenon of the 1970s in San Francisco), although Patane is equally alive to the individualizing details in each picture: throughout Glee, he maintains an almost musical balance of repetition and difference. From a longer historical viewpoint, the occlusion of the subject’s identity calls to mind the suppression of gay rights and identities, or the erasure of lives caused by AIDS.
And yet, for all these subcurrents, Patane’s angels are defiantly exuberant. They celebrate queer identity, channelling the double mood of self-affirmation and playacting that characterises the original photographs. The collaged speakers seem to symbolise the vocality of the images, casting the human subjects as angels in a numberless chorus. The shifting poses, the permutations of style, the garishness and extravagance of the painted murals – all these elements combine to produce a parade of icons, in which particulars of time and place recede. In this regard, Patane’s angels share something of the unearthliness of their art-historical counterparts – the dreamy cherubs of Raphael, say, or the epicene youths of Michelangelo’s Manchester Madonna (c. 1497) – whose heavenliness is, after all, little more than the striking of a pose.