michael bailey gates, one boy a thousand feelings
Shining bright like a certain something in deepest Brooklyn, Michael Bailey Gates is barely out of his teens and already taking the art world by storm. Photographing himself and his entourage with playful passion, this wunderkind has vision.
Michael Bailey Gates
Michael Bailey Gates is an artist born of the internet. The photographer began posting his idiosyncratic work on Flickr at the age of thirteen, using the community he found on social media as a way of transcending his rural Rhode Island town. As the likes racked up, he met friends and fellow artists, paving the way for a move to New York. He lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant with his friend and collaborator Claire Christerson. Art is everywhere in their cheerfully haphazard basement apartment, from racks of costumes used for Cindy Sherman-like disguises, to work by friends hung on a green-painted wall, to a backyard filled with discarded sets and paint.
Michael often appears in his own photography, sometimes in costume but also natural, contemplative. One memorable self-portrait shows him shirtless, smoking a cigarette, and looking upward. He is angelically handsome, and has begun modeling for other photographers, appearing in recent CK One and DKNY campaigns. Walking in Shoreditch this summer, I passed a larger-than-life Michael on an American Apparel billboard.
"Being a boy is about knowing when to step back and give somebody else a chance. Being a boy also means you should try and be a girl. Even if you're a massive bro, paint your nails and understand what it means to be a girl as well."
Partly out of necessity, the young photographer has always featured his friends in his work. That friend circle has grown from his redheaded high school muse Shannon, to internationally renowned artists. As a devoted student of people, his community is key: "I used to put my photographs online because I had that online community, and now I have this real life community so it's a little more special for me." From fellow rising stars India Salvor Menuez and Petra Collins, to iconic artists Alice O'Malley and Kembra Pfahler, his new New York life is rich with influence. He is also drawn to the fringes of society, notably the politically charged queer group the Radical Faeries. "In some way or another they're all connected and that's really nice, to be under a tent of people who are really intelligent with gender and sexuality in New York," he says.
Michael is quickly finding his own voice in this micro-universe. As he says, "The mass amount of work I encountered about gender was cynical, or hard for me to access because it was so negative. With Claire, we started thinking of ways that we could revolt. The way we make work about sexuality is by revolting through joy or play." Michael captures young people reveling in their otherness, using costumes and sets to try on ideas and act out their imaginations.
There is a deeply personal motivation behind Michael's interest in gender: "I can't even remember how I felt in high school. The queers in New York are so amazing that they make you forget what it was like to feel like such a freak." Because that's what New York has always been for talented, artistic outsiders: home.
So for someone with gender on the brain, what's the definition of a boy today? "Being a boy is knowing when to step back and give somebody else a chance. It's really great for a boy to be a footstool now. I also think being a boy means you should try to be a girl. Even if you're a massive bro, paint your nails and understand what it means to be a girl as well." Wise words from a young man who ventures honestly into the feminine world.
"I've learned a lot about gender from the artists I photograph. Aggressive thinkers with courage is what creates change and these artists do just that."
Despite his internet admirers, fashion gigs, and influential older mentors, Michael remains inspiringly industrious. The work comes first. When I ask what a typical day is like, he describes one filled with experimentation and hard work. If he's not making the casting rounds for modelling jobs, he's scavenging the city for cheap materials, or working long and hard into the night. "I like the feeling of my hands being busy. Some people do yoga, some people go for a run, but I like my hands to constantly be on something. Kembra introduced me to an idea called available-ism, making work from whatever is available, and that's my main driving force right now. Like, I just found 300 pipe cleaners on the street, what can we do with this?" His home is filled with the evidence of available-ism, street debris spun into sculpture.
Making art in New York means joining the historical legacy of countless talented Somebodies who leave Anytown, USA for the big city. For someone so young, Bailey Gates is deeply aware and indebted to the city's past. He sees the ghost of Keith Haring everywhere: "I like his work because it's positive - that inspires me a lot. When I'm walking through New York now I always look for him, which is really strange because I see him a lot, in people that are walking around. His high hairline and glasses, wearing a red sweatshirt and jeans. I feel like he's still here."
If you're curious, Bailey Gates' teenage Flickr site is still up; he doesn't believe in taking it down. As he explains, "Leigh Bowery always said that embarrassment is the least-explored human emotion. Don't be afraid to be embarrassed. I keep all my work online from when I was 13 because it's so embarrassing. It's really important to look back and think about where you started, retracing your steps and recreating that work again. Because you're always going to learn more, and it's going to get better."
Text Rory Satran
Photography Michael Bailey Gates