Robert Andy Coombs photographs present as soberly erotic portraits of the artist’s intimate life, capturing both romantic relationships and friendships with equivalent lust. But that superficial layer only begins to cover the depths of Coombs’s inner world and the friends, lovers and landscapes that have staked their places in his life. “Notions of Care,” a capsule exhibition at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum FIU in Miami, tells a story of the emotional and physical care that Coombs relies on as a disabled man through photographs that liberate him from that deeply misunderstood label. In nine images, Coombs embraces his body as a gateway instead of a limitation; the photographs reveal the intimacy and intensity that anyone close to him might unlock.
The exhibition presents a selection of images from the photographer’s broader series, “Cripfag,” a compound word riff on derogatory terms used for queer and disabled people and the literal embodiment of Coombs’s own identity: a queer man who was semi-paralyzed after an accident in 2009. In that series, he embraces and reclaims these terms unapologetically in a roving exploration of sexuality that reveals how he is loved, fetishized and even feared. Coombs says they were created mostly as a reflection on the medical system’s inability to see him as a whole person after he became disabled.
“Sex education for those with disabilities just doesn’t exist…and my doctors would get so uncomfortable whenever I would discuss gay sex with them,” he says as we tour the show. Working through his sexual experiences by capturing them on camera in “Cripfag” became a blueprint for anyone looking for a more inclusive love and sex.
“Notions of Care,” on the other hand, leans into the more emotional aspects of Coombs’s work, radiating confidence and self-love. They bring to light some of the inner personal narratives that overtake him while he’s being cared for or loved—from the taboo of physical touch between male friends to asking for what you want in a society that sees the caretaker as the most overburdened in the relationship.
“There hasn’t really been a lot of talk about what we go through as a disabled person being cared for,” Coombs says. “I need this person to care for me, but I’m afraid to ask for that.”
Coombs often stages his photographs with the help of an assistant, and his subjects are nearly always friends or sexual partners. They range from focused shots of Coombs’s fingers resting on the nape of a lover’s neck (Hands on Neck II, 2018) to sensitive interplays of shadow, light and sex (Kiss on bed with lens flare, 2019 and Hiram and I, 2019), or scenes of quiet admiration as a friend helps him out of his wheelchair (Add hooking up the Hoyer, 2020). The Hoyer, a medical apparatus that helps Coombs in and out of his wheelchair and into bed, makes frequent appearances throughout the work, and Coombs often charges it with eroticism as a portal of discussion into the private lives of disabled people.
“There’s a group of people who fetishize medical equipment and disability. So I like to play with that idea as well as bring more knowledge to them,” says Coombs.
With nearly all the photographs incorporating the artist himself, Coombs is lately taking more photographs en plein air. His favorite in the show, Nude on grass (2017), depicts the artist lounging in grass, staring introspectively at the lens and reframes an art historical penchant for photographing nude male bodies. Woodland nymphs (2019) lends a playful, mythological quality to the exhibition, while Sunset at Grand Haven Beach II (2017) is reminiscent of La Pieta against the backdrop of a setting sun.
As we collectively consider how our inner and exterior selves remain traumatized from the effects of a global pandemic, “Notions of Care” makes space to reflect on the ways we care for one another. For Coombs, the show is about destigmatizing care as it relates to the lived experience of being disabled. It reveals a small truth of inter-abled relationships.
“I don’t think a lot of people get to see the inner dwelling of someone like me,” he says. “I hope my images help change the thought of caregiving as being work, to something that is to be enjoyed and cherished by incorporating care into foreplay, sex and post play.”
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