D. Oscar Horner: A World in Stitches
Oscar Horner is eminently noticeable without demanding notice. He wears bright colors, interesting fabrics, and glasses with tiny, elliptical lenses. At the restaurant where we both work, he moves with grace through the narrow passageways between tables. He never bumps into me, and he bends my ear only occasionally, to deliver a single acerbic comment that always makes me laugh—feats of finesse in our often harrying industry.
Oscar usually brings a “hand project” to work on after he finishes his shift—a scarf or a shawl, sometimes a “mystery knit-along” from Ravelry, a sort of social media site for knitting. “It makes me feel like I'm not wasting time,” he says. “Even just knowing it's on my person is a comforting thing.” Recently, he has picked up cross-stitch. His first attempt was a small rendition of a Tom of Finland drawing. He showed me his second cross-stitch at work one day, as he sat down at the bar. “Look,” he said, holding up the little square of fabric, “it's a double penetration.” I was elated to see such an image rendered permanent, especially in a medium that has historically been associated with femininity, propriety, and practicality.
The double-penetration image is a still from an Instagram story that Oscar recorded at a sex party. He likes the idea of “elevating” these “weird personal things... that could be dismissed or aren't necessarily anything special,” that would otherwise disappear from social media—and thus the collective consciousness—after one day. Now, not quite happy with how the cross-stitch turned out (“You can't really see what's going on,” he says), he's considering making it into a pillow. I can't help but recall a pair of queer-keepsake pillowcases that my mom's friends bequeathed to me after having stored them away since the 1970s. They were beige-on-beige, simple but stylized sketches, two naked women entangled on one of them, two men on the other. I was a little embarrassed by the gift, not only because of my own gay shame, but also because these two women had always referred to each other as “friends,” as had everyone else, and so had I understood them to be, far too long into my adolescence. The pillowcases, for me, were rare, important documents, celebrating something that has been largely left out of the record.
When I arrive at Oscar's Bushwick apartment for our interview, he is wearing chartreuse pants and taking care of a dog named Deb, who keeps standing up to put her paws on his shoulders while he kneels and hugs her. He makes me a coffee in a handmade ceramic replica of an old folding-handle paper cup. “I stole it from my ex,” he says, catching me admiring it.
Oscar moved around a lot growing up—his dad was a park ranger—and, in his junior year of high school, his family landed in a “one-stoplight” town in North Carolina. There were thirty kids in his class at the mostly white public high school. He was probably the only Latino, he says, nonchalantly adding that he was also prom king. When I act impressed, he quickly supplies, “I stuffed the ballots.” I ask him if prom was fun, and he tells me he was “kind of a good kid,” so he didn’t get drunk or anything. In fact, he thinks he left crying, after getting mad at the friend he'd gone with.
Oscar started knitting in high school, when he bought a book and some yarn to make a scarf for his boyfriend. He gets “seduced by the process of making things,” he says, and he likes “trying to figure out how something works.” Now, it seems, he is fluent in a new sort of code. “There's knitted fabric everywhere,” he says, and he's learning how to look at it, how to “read the stitches.” His favorite creation is a mesh romper, which is camel-colored with three-toned trim in pink, neon green, and lavender. He also shows me a “Fred Flintstone crop top” (pretty much as you'd picture it) and a pair of pastel-colored shorts that say BOTTOM across the butt.
I ask him if he has color icons or inspirations, and he answers easily: “clashing.” Lately, he's trying to be “a little more discerning,” since he used to “just grab everything.” When he doesn't like a piece he's finished, he'll undo the whole thing in order to reuse the yarn. “There's something kind of cathartic to destroy something like that,” he says.
While in art school at Pratt, Oscar focused on photography, gravitating toward self-portraiture. His work tended to be “sexually charged or weird or a little uncomfortable,” he says. “It was kind of a vehicle to be more open to people and see what I could get away with showing my classmates.” Though it felt risqué to him then, he says, “It's no big deal now. It kind of pushed me to do more and more things.”
His thesis show was comprised of twenty self-portraits. He produced the work over a period of about six months, booking the photography studio late on Friday nights, when no one could book it after him. “I never really went in with a solid idea,” he says. “I'd just spend the first hour drinking beer and smoking in the closet and looking at Tumblr.” Eventually, he says, “I'd start building little sets, and then insert myself into them,” producing one or two portraits a session and often staying until three a.m.
He named his show “Boy of Paradise,” an allusion to the mating rituals of birds of paradise. “The way I painted myself was a reference to really cakey make-up,” he says, the “ritualness” of our attempts to attract each other. Oscar's portraits are striking, asplash in fluorescents. Sometimes only his face is painted; sometimes his entire, usually nude, body seems to glow. The colors and the saturation make the photographs look like he's flipped the color balance, or recolored a negative image. “The function of makeup and these ideas of beauty can be seen as arbitrary from an outside perspective,” Oscar says. “They end up being ideas of beauty and not actually beautiful themselves.” After his thesis show, Oscar made an “all-knit look” and performed live on his knitting machine for a PS1 benefit with Ryan McNamara.
We end our chat in Oscar's bedroom. I ask him what he has planned for the future, whether he sees himself returning to photography. Possibly, he says, but he doesn't see himself producing a photography show again. “My personal view on art,” he says, “is that it shouldn't be so medium-based.” He tells me about his idea of making an installation of a whole knitted living room—couches and rugs and pillows.
My back is to Oscar's desk; he faces me from his bed. Between us is one of his knitting machines, a contraption that he has explained to me in full and that I still can't make sense of. Along the wall to my left is a clothing rack of colorful tops, many of them his own creations. The shelves above the racks hold soft-sided boxes of yarn and older projects. His latest undertaking hangs on the wall to my right: a hook-knit rug (technically crochet) that will measure about three by four feet. Currently, only the top few inches are done. He shows me the design, a pixelated self-portrait from Instagram. On his desk is a print-out from an app that has calculated, based on the image, how many bags of each color of yarn he'll need, and the boxes and bags of yarn are cluttered around my feet. Here among his creations, in various stages of completion, Oscar appears already well on his way to his vision: an all-knit look, a world in stitches.