Through provocatively staged, mostly boudoir tableaux awash in melding jewel-toned shards, young photographer Eric Tenorio refracts the complexity of life experience and our sexual beings with the extra dimensions of color
by Sean Black
Our senses work together to heighten and inform our complex human existence, from pleasure to protection. So naturally when one of these senses (hearing, in this case) is threatened, our complete sensory armor becomes engaged.
The word “stigma” resonates loudly for me as well as most of us who are HIV-positive. Attuned to its enunciation and significance around disease, we, members of the HIV-positive community, have reclaimed the topic’s power by discussing it frequently, in activist fashion, to openly confront the ways in which our existence, safety, and basic rights of humanity are maligned.
Late this past spring, while preparing for an evening class at a community college, where I teach Darkroom and The History of Photography, the word “stigma” entered my audible reach and I turned towards an open office door. Beyond the doorframe, I noticed my lab tech and colleague Tony with a youthful, fresh-faced, twenty-something man, whom I’d never seen before. Eric Tenorio, a former Chaffey College student, had returned from New York City where he had gone off to earn a BFA in photography from the top-ranking art institution, The School of the Visual Arts (SVA). Like most recent returning post-grads, Eric was seeking employment opportunities, scouting options and returning to the familiarity of his hometown and first alma mater. Tony noticed my glance and took the cue to introduce the two of us.
Unsure of how the word “stigma” had been used or to what extent that it was applied in their discussion, I took the introduction as an opportunity to learn more about Eric and his work as a former student. My pricked-up ears led me to off-guarded visual delight.
Eric Tenorio is an out, queer male of color (Filipino) finding ways to further his alluring post-graduate work. Taking time to enlighten me, he shared and discussed his work—intriguing self-portraits showcased aptly in his most-recent series “Dimensions,” which I found quite powerful. At only twenty-seven years of age, Tenorio conceptualizes, stages, and presents a mature body of work, comprising elegant nudes bathed with colored gels and colored light bulbs, in solitude or paired or grouped with a diversity of dissimilar MSM subjects, most older in age than Tenorio himself, which he holds speaks to the multi-generational bonds of the LGBT community.
There is, at first glance, a Fauvist sensibility appropriated from genre paintings of Post-Impressionism with the use of wild, saturated, beastly colors. Calling to memory Matisse’s Blue Nude (1907) or The Red Studio (1911), the spaces Tenorio chooses are intimate living spaces—a dorm room, a sparse studio abode, a closet, a bathroom, a hallway, all illuminated in brilliant colors, spaces all-too-familiar to green art students eking out their early creative works and making due with available privacy and square-footage. There, too, is a strong presence akin to the work of 1960s and 1970s experimental masters of post mid-century color photography like Ernst Haas, Franco Rubartelli, Naomi Savage, John Svoboda, and the recently deceased Pete Turner. Glowing, thrusting nudes interspersed with more modestly hand-concealed groupings—Tenorio’s synthetic orgies are titillating and literally sublime. And saturated with color.
Additive Color Theory was introduced in 1861 by James Clerk Maxwell, a thirty-year-old Kings College (London) professor. During a lecture at London’s Royal Institution, Maxwell displayed, through the use of sandwiched pictures of tartan, how our naked eye is sensitive to only three colors in the visible spectrum, red, green and blue (the additive or RGB color model) and how then all other colors including black and white are blends of these primary hues. Yellow, in fact, is a blend of red and green instead of green being the sum of blue and yellow. The “Color” volume from my Time/Life Library of Photography (1970) poignantly offered, “the single physical dimension of color paradoxically becomes many dimensions in a photograph, multiplying a picture’s impact in several different ways.”
This contemplative, emotional impact Tenorio’s work creates for me includes restlessness, romance, pride, sensuality and a particular brooding sadness, all indicative of how color not only has the power to suggest time but also its ability to exhume subtleties of personality and emotions. Tenorio’s color-drenched chambers are home to the negotiations of love and dreams, pain and angst, disclosure and resolution. The colors allow onlookers to wander through gateways of the mind’s eye, to meander while psychologically confronting internal conflict; for me, my own mixed feelings of inadequacy, shame, and regret along with my positive qualities while living with HIV. The color-play, in tight quarters, grants me space to heal by reflecting and engaging in a visualized self-love as noted by the acts of posing, caressing, and touching exemplified in Tenorio’s gentle work.
“Art is a creative interpretation of reality which communicates beliefs and emotion, and provokes questions and further discussions. Art makes the viewer confront things they wouldn’t normally confront, especially within themselves. I use photography to create my own version of reality,” shares Tenorio.
His highly colorized and thus altered realities are bathed in shades of Ruby, Emerald, Tanzanite, Citrine and Sapphire, all whispering what each of us wants to hear, imagine, or interpret. For me, the prisms of light subtly eject stigma, chasing it away in the recesses of the ambiguity of space and at the interstices where shades conjoin.
His images Self-Portrait in Window, (2016) and Untitled 2, (2015) both present Tenorio in usually tight spaces, which creates tension for me, a sense of claustrophobia. The hard-candy veneer adds a sticky sweet coating to Tenorio’s cramped, seated, and classically full-figured form just behind bars. Tenorio’s openness with his nude body in stages of dance while upright, subverts notions of the reclining nude and classical form.
“I have always wanted to show people different aspects of who I am, about my life, about my work. And I was trying to show that my work isn’t a one-note kind of thing. I am trying to show people that I am a very complex person and that I am more than the things that have happened to me in my past. With the title ‘Dimensions,’ I found it was the best way for me to explain everything I wanted to get across with my work in the one word without it being complicated with something else.
“I had never photographed with color before SVA. I had only had ever used strobes or natural light. So when I was starting to do my seminar classes and wanting to challenge myself, I bought gels and really fell in love with them. I still constantly experiment and really enjoy trying to ‘feel out’ and to see what these color [techniques] really mean to me. If I think about the color as another extension of myself and how I find myself wanting to be outgoing and sort of an extravagant kind of person. I have a big love for theatricality and like having an over-the-top sense with my work. My earlier work at Chaffey [College] was about theatricality and so I feel by incorporating the color I am adding something to my work, adding another layer because before when I was doing my self-portrait work it felt like just a portrait of myself in my room. I thought it was a very simplistic perspective of my work.”
I wanted to add more to this portrait of an artist, so I quizzed him some more:
Sean Black: Who are the artists that inspired you in art school and more recently?
Eric Tenorio: One of the photographers that really inspired me in art school was Lucas Samaras. I had already shot a few images using gels and colored lights when I was introduced to his work and instantly fell in love with it. His use of color, space, and how he worked with his models was beautiful and something I hadn’t really seen before.
Black and white photography is said to be a reductive process, meaning information is “reduced” by removing the elements of color hues and shades to monochromatic tonality. How would you discuss your work as “additive”?
I would discuss it in a way that I always do, that with my work my use of color is adding another layer, another conversation to it. I want my use of color to spark an emotion or a reaction when you look at my work and not only because it’s a picture of naked men, that there is something more to my images with my use of nudity and color.
As I mentioned earlier, I liken your work to the Post-Impressionist Fauvists most notably Henri Matisse and his work Blue Nude. Is this an accurate comparison you can relate to through your courses in art history?
I can see that, the use of color during the movement and specifically in conversation with Matisse’s use of color and the way the women are posed makes me think of my work; with my use of color and how I pose myself and the people in my pictures.
What advice would you give to other young photographers thinking of pursuing art school and a career in the arts?
I would tell a young photographer to just keep shooting—any idea you have, shoot it. One of the best things I did when I started doing photography is to just shoot as many ideas as I could just to see what works and what doesn’t work. What makes sense and what doesn’t make sense? And what can evolve and grow and what is just a one-time thing. It also helps you find your own personal style and you can start to create work that really connects and flows together. And also to just hustle, hustle, hustle, and more hustle. Keep working hard and getting yourself out there and just keep on creating.
Do you know the work of fashion/celebrity photographer Charlotte Rutherford who did the Marina in the Diamonds’ Froot album artwork? She uses color gels and pushes boundaries with sophisticated lighting and additive color too.
I don’t but I did some research and fell in love with her work; she has such an intense use of color that it just adds another layer to her work and makes the color so important for the image. This is what I’m trying to do with my work, that my use of color becomes something important and doesn’t get bunched into photographs that are just using color for the sake of color. By adding gels myself I hope to give people another thing to look at and to question [in my work] and to wonder about. Really, I am still trying to figure out what the colors mean for me.”
For more information about the artist and additional work log on to his website at www.erictenoriophotography.com.
Sean Black is a Senior Editor of A&U.