In the Zone
Boystown:La Zona de Tolerancia
Through September 2001I meet these night women in broad daylight. At Southwest Texas State’s Wittliff Gallery are black-and-white stills of border-town whores, on exhibit. As I step inside, I’m pursued by the laughter of a couple of local frat boys, echoing through the room.
“Hey, I know her!” one of them jokes as he points to a portrait of a black-haired woman seated at a folding table and nursing a bottle of Carta Blanca, the softness of her exposed breast contrasting oddly with the steely death-ray shooting from her eyes.
“What are you gonna do,” his partner asks, “if you see your Daddy in one of these pictures?”
They crack each other up, and I chuckle along with them. We’re the only ones in the gallery, for the moment, meaning the only women present are those in the pictures. So the yuks sound a little like the stuff of sword parties, like loading dock jokes about titties and beer. Our mirth hints at some shared experience, I assume, of prodigal nights spent in Boystown.
The name Boystown, a generic term for the cat-houses dotting the Texas-Mexico border, is also the title of this show, and its printed counterpart, the fourth book in the Wittliff Gallery Series published by Aperture Press. Along with these things the name also conjures up images of oases, or of hell-holes, depending on how much you’ve had to drink or on which end of this ancient transaction you stand.
The Texan practice of going whoring in Mexico has been passed down through generations. One libertine that I know personally, a guy called Trey because he’s the third man to hang his name on an old Lone Star family tree, speaks of his and his Granddaddy’s trips to “The City of Pleasure.” He seems to describe a kind of cowboy rite of passage, where modern-day cowboys escape the mundanity of the college campus, or the boredom of brush country hunting camps, to beat it on down to La Zona Tolerancia in search of sex and exotica.
You might wonder by now why I get hung up on all of these men when I’m supposed to be talking about the ladies of the night.
Maybe it goes back to that name, Boystown. Many of these souvenir shots, taken by prole photographers not for art’s sake but to try “to make a buck in a hard world,” show at least two pairs of eyes looking back at the camera: those of the pleasure seekers as well as those of the service providers. These customers, the men, from the teenage boy caught feeling his whore-mother’s breast as he rests his own head tenderly on her shoulder, to the dime-store Elvis cracking a toothless grin, are the ones who make these shots compelling. Captured in solitude, the girls offer little more than blank-faced banality. The more complex stories depend on the appearance of the patrons.
Some of these frozen good-time moments, captured by eyes, which we are told, are indifferent to anything but that prospective buck, couldn’t be more narrative if they had been scripted and staged. The individual shots are untitled (while the photographers remain uncredited by their curator, Bill Wittliff), leaving the viewer to name them. One of these accidental allegories, let’s call it “The Puta and the Pig,” shows a very pretty young woman being groped by a round, lip-puckering, cleavage-handling Anglo. The expression on her face is one of utter misery.
It’s difficult for me, someone who views these subjects from a relatively distant vantage point, susceptible to myth, to tell if this particular scene, and to some extent the entire exhibit, might merely wear stereotypes that fit, or if there’s something a bit more manipulative going on here. Looking at these images, I’m laughing with those fratboys on the one hand, and also feeling the stern hand of my own liberal guilt. But that very response feels manufactured. I suspect that Wittliff & Co. have anticipated an outraged reaction from some viewers, and so try to head it off at the pass by including shots that provide a kind of pat recognition of the exploitation inherent in the situations they depict. I sense manipulation at work in the very arrangement of the photos on the gallery walls. They didn’t forget to throw in a couple of shots of the beaten prostitutes, the prostitutes whose babies are being cared for by abuelita, and so forth, to remind the viewer that 1) it ain’t all fun and games in Boystown and 2) Wittliff & Co. knows it ain’t all fun. And weirdest of all, that recognition seems to perpetuate the exploitation. It’s that familiar patronizing view the good ol’ boy art/lit establishment holds toward Mexico (cf. All The Pretty Horses): Ain’t our brown, bare-breasted sperm depository below the border, er, Ol’ Mexico, even when it’s brutal, pretty gol’ dang romantic?
Boystown, the exhibit, is supposed to be made entirely of found images, printed from the discarded negatives of the souvenir photographers. The premise invites the viewer to believe that it takes the artful hand of the curator to make the objects “surpass their makers’ limited intentions.” Why then do many of the portraits of the women seem so conceptual? Take, for example, two shots I call “The Pair of Pairs.” Here we see two working girls in full plumage leaning against a car fender in one, those same two totally naked in another. And what about another pair of portraits, of a single woman who wears different wigs and makeup while she stands, on separate occasions, before the same blank white wall? These recall Richard Avedon’s show “In the American West,” where a similarly heightened realism works to make its “marginal” subjects even more strange and alien to their audience than they might be in real life.
A quote by Bill Wittliff in the program guide/ printed version of “Boystown” says, “I don’t know why these pictures pull at me so, but they have for more than a quarter of a century now, and they are pulling at me still. At times I find them touching or funny or incredibly heartbreaking, and always, always, all too human.” It’s an apt description I suppose, and it hints at my own unsettling ambivalence toward the images. In so many of these the general atmosphere of beer, ash-trays spilling cigarette butts, los labios and painted, dead actress eyes of even the most woebegone whores, is weirdly inviting. Collected together these pictures begin to hint at my kind of party. The best of these surpass the simple false advertising of the rest and beckon the viewer toward a tawdry Shangri-La of the mind. When I think of the subject-matter realistically it fades, grows ugly. But when I allow it to blur into something a little closer to my ideal, I start dreaming of some debauched paradise in the desert. Some of the pleasure of viewing this show, and the myth it reinforces, lies in getting suckered into believing in Shangri-La. Plus you get the added bonus of being able to soak up the sight of these cowboys, mariachis, pachucas and putas, lost now in time, without any of the hungover regret and self-loathing deflation that usually follows a real night in Boystown. Yet both the art and the life seem to share at least one thing in common. Whether you experience Boystown in three dimensions or whether you play the role of le voyeur sexotique in an art gallery, the element of exploitation seems to remain intact.
Bob Pomeroy has written for the New York Press and other publications.