The young man looking out at the camera is grinning, his hair shaggy and face painted. To all appearances, he looks happy.
"Michael at Butterworth Farm Party (circa 1979)" introduces us to artist Forest Kelley's late uncle Michael, while the surrounding exhibit which bears his name imagines what life may have been like for a young, gay man living in rural New England during the years between the 1969 Stonewall uprising and the Rock Hudson's 1985 death from AIDS.
"He was curious about the world outside the rural town we grew up in," recalls Kelley, who was 5 when Michael committed suicide. "My uncle was an artist and an intellectual. These were uncommon characteristics and that's why I feel a kinship with him."
That closeness motivated Kelley to take possession of Michael's personal effects: a steamer trunk and cardboard box, each filled with art supplies, 8 mm film and ephemera. He hadn't intended for his investigation to transform into an art project, but rather as a means to understand who Michael was, what his motivation for suicide might have been and whether he was comfortable with his subjectivity as a gay man.
As Kelley's understanding grew, he began to see the project not only as an opportunity to tell his story but to posthumously realize his uncle as an artist. In conjunction with Kelley's photographs are works made from Michael's own 8 mm film, helping to confuse the boundaries of authorship as well as giving his deceased uncle a voice in the work.
Emily Smith, 1708 Gallery's executive director, sees an evocative quality to the pieces that reflect Kelley's attempts to capture feelings.
"It's provocative and topical and it feels almost like a film reel," she says. "Forest doesn't see his role as telling the story for his uncle so much as talking about his uncle from his point of view as a photographer and nephew."
It was while talking with a friend who said "all of my heroes are dead" that Kelley grasped he was referring to gay men who'd died from AIDS. In that moment, he realized in a visceral way that he, too, was living in the absence of a mentor and that his own life had been redirected by the history of AIDS and homophobia. He began to see it as an opportunity to show the psychological burden that weighs on those who, like him, live in the wake of untimely and unexplained death, particularly from histories related to AIDS, suicide and homophobia.
Many of the photographs are staged re-enactments. Kelley's aim is to make tangible the memories, stories, hopes and fears that live in his imagination and those of others who knew Michael. He'd been working on the project for a while without knowing how or if he'd represent Michael in the work. In 2013, he was invited to a 40th anniversary party for Butterworth Farm, a gay back-to-the-land commune Michael had visited.
On the third evening, he met a man with a striking resemblance to Michael.
"I felt as if I were meeting my uncle in this place he'd visited 30 years earlier," Kelley says. "Since that serendipitous meeting, Achilles has stood in as Michael in the project."
The process of making photographs is a collaborative one. He shares stories and ideas with Achilles and others to discuss ways to bring them to life using emotions, feelings and state of mind. "My collaborators aren't simply posing. We're attempting to channel something real."
Although his uncle had lived in a one-room cabin on Kelley's parents' property, he had few memories of him until this project. "As I learned more about his life, I began to understand how similar our interests were. I'd be a different person if I'd grown up with him. In a way, doing this work has been a journey to connect not only with him but with a lost version of myself."
Kelley hopes the exhibit reminds viewers that histories resonate into the future and that one experience - or even death — isn't necessarily the end of a story.
"Learning about Michael is an opportunity for me to show his generation that the struggles they faced aren't taken for granted and that their subjectivities are valued or, in some cases, missed," he says. S
"Forest Kelley: Michael" runs through June 9 at 1708 Gallery, 319 W. Broad St., 1708gallery.org.