"Peeps," an exhibition that closed this weekend at the James Gallery is an echo from the period in New York City's history before Rudolph Giuliani cleaned Times Square of its porn palaces and the West Side Piers were transformed from sex playgrounds into a more wholesome recreational area. This exhibition began as scholarly research into pornographic peep shows and their milieu by film historian Amy Herzog; here, she has expanded an earlier essay on the subject into a curatorial experiment.

Though porn still maintains an air of sensationalism about it -- even when displayed in a gallery setting -- peep film loops were never at the vanguard of erotic imagery. To call them risqué is kind -they are more often silly, even uncomfortable, to watch. As a genre, peep shows sought to be just exciting enough to coax another coin from their viewers (the smattering of hardcore loops on display here are as off-putting as they are mechanical). As an exhibition, however, "Peeps" poses an unexpected thrill as a raw installation that has transcended its own banality. This show is about looking, but it is also about being seen looking -- as viewers, we are meant to experience the tension between the private acts and their public display. Herzog's work has shown that it is this tension between where one sees and is seen that motivates legal proceedings against pornography.

Mixing loops like Starlight 366 (1966) with photographs from Lisa Kerezsi's strip club project Fantasies (1999-2005), or Andy Warhol's Poor Little Rich Girl (1965) with historical texts presented a curatorial challenge that Herzog confronted not by isolating works in private spaces, but making it appear as though they are. When asked by gallery director Linda Norden, friend and artist Pierre Huyghe suggested that they transform the gallery into a dozen interconnecting cubicles lacerated by holes of various sizes, most opening onto neighboring spaces. Whether peeking into the gallery from the street, or across a pair of cubicles, we are asked to watch others watching while knowing we may also be watched. This teasing, even playful act of voyeurism becomes creepy when we peep into the lone exhibition space that can't be physically accessed. Pierced by opposing portals, the cubicle houses a projection of Jean Genet's Un Chant d'Amour (1950). Watching this short film through a peephole, the viewer becomes a metaphoric stand-in for the film's sadistic prison guard, a man who ogles the inmates through their cell doors.

The unacknowledged spirit of Gordon Matta-Clark resonates throughout the installation. While Huyghe's interest in Matta-Clark is evident in his own work (see Light Conical Intersect, from 1996) the exhibition's design pays homage to the artist, too. Huyghe asks us to climb through a series of circular excisions;upon reaching the end of the row we are confronted by seven of Alvin Baltrop's Untitled (Pier Photographs) (1975-86). These are images of men having sex on the derelict piers of Manhattan's west side; in some scenes Baltrop is the voyeur, while in others he photographs others looking. Of course, Matta-Clark carved large holes into these very piers in Pier In/Out (1973), letting light flood into the abandoned structures while dissolving the boundaries between the interior and exterior space. While the work in "Peeps" is explicit in nature, the gallery's atmosphere isn't a lewd one; rather, the exhibition successfully conveys the social tension of the porn palace in an intellectually playful manner.

["Peeps" Installation view including Matthias Müller's Sleepy Haven, 1993.]