Manuel Solano walked into the ocean. Years ago the Mexico City painter and video artist lost much of their vision and had their body covered in scars the size of silver dollars due to HIV-related complications. Manuel hadn’t been to the beach since they got sick. But erotica director and multidisciplinary artist Damien Moreau had asked Manuel if he could reunite them with the ocean, and film the moment. Manuel was terrified to expose the particularly deep scars on their legs, but they were so in love with their collaborator Damien there was nothing to do but acquiesce. The two called the short they made that day “Dreams.” As the film begins, Manuel’s hands twitch, but they gamely disrobe. With each step forward in the California sand, they seem more beautiful. At the end, a wet and triumphant Manuel beams. “I was with you,” they say in a voiceover. “And suddenly I wasn’t scared anymore.”
“I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t made that decision,” Manuel told me when I contacted them for this article, saying I wanted to write about Damien’s unique art and porn career. Six months had passed since December 2019, when Damien and his friend committed suicide in the Vedauwoo Recreation Area near his childhood home in Wyoming.
Many of Manuel and Damien’s collaborations capture Manuel’s journey back to enjoyment of their physical form. The ode to fecundity that is 2017’s “To Lose Yourself is Eternal Happiness” was shown at CDMX’s Museo de la Ciudad in “El Chivo Expiatorio” [The Scapegoat], a 2018 group exhibition on the city’s history of HIV/AIDS resistance.
“If I hadn’t made [‘Dreams’], if I hadn’t gone to the ocean with him that day—,” Manuel faltered. Like many of Damien’s collaborators, they were still raw from his passing. “I consider myself a very sexy and very good-looking person nowadays. I was not that person the week before Damien took me to the beach.”
Perhaps you recognize Damian from having seen him throat fucked while hanging upside from a tree as a top shelf BDSM porn submissive. Maybe you are a fan of his wildly sensual, never-funded erotica—like the “Kangourou” short or the “OHBOY” series—that reflected its creator’s conviction that gender is the last thing that should define our sex. But, if you are familiar with Damien only through these works, then you likely don’t know of his love of Wyoming granite outcrops or his New York City visual arts career. I didn’t, until he died, and then I wanted to know everything—to speak to everyone who knew Damien, to revel in his unfathomable intuition and relentless beauty. I wanted to write about him, and finally, enough time passed that I felt like I could do so.
But, it’s complicated. It is easy to fall into the trap of overly romanticizing a supremely charismatic person who kills themself, but given the pain left in his wake, the prospect is repellant. Mental health is a tenuous and delicate thing, and Damien left much unsaid and undone. More complicated yet is the challenge of writing a retrospective about someone who actively resisted memory. Damien went to great lengths to erase his work from previous eras of his life, purging Vimeo accounts and otherwise obfuscating his internet presence, first when he assumed the name Damien Moreau and again in the years before his death.
After much reflection, I choose to resist Damien’s attempted self-erasure. Manuel’s self-regard is not the only precious thing Damien elevated. To let him eface himself would be to allow the blotting out of those parts of his loved ones and collaborators that he alone was capable of discovering. So, this article is a love song to D., but also to the beautiful souls who allowed me to interview them for it.
Damien Moreau (who would legally change his name to this mysterious moniker in his 30s) was born in Tucumcari, New Mexico. At an early age, his family moved to a horse ranch on a remote prairie ten minutes outside Cheyenne, Wyoming. He was in eighth grade when Matthew Shepard’s life was ended by homophobes in the town of Laramie, which was located less than an hour from Cheyenne on I-80. Shepard’s horrific murder affected him deeply.
He met his best friend Gina Pugliese, or as she is known in his 2016 short “Softcore,” Frances Hex, in high school. “He was a very slender, very asexual person,” Gina told me. “I never saw him as the voracious sexual being he would come to be.” They spent many hours in Vedauwoo building natural sculptures and making fires. “That landscape was really special to both of us,” she said.
What she mainly remembers is Damien’s insistence on versioning reality. He filled notebooks with drawings of a slender, terrifying, spying man who he called Sylvester. “Sylvester was the side of himself that he wasn’t confronting but that he had to incorporate into himself somehow,” Pugliese surmised.
His other visions were less fraught. “For a long time he worked for this little diner chain called Shari’s in Cheyenne, and he would reimagine all of his coworkers as strange creatures and objects,” said Gina. “I remember there was this one waitress there that he would always draw as a bowling pin with big hair and a pearl necklace. He acknowledged the reality of the world around him, but then he would just skew it to be whatever he wanted it to be. That’s what he preferred.”
After high school, Damien went to community college, then spent a year at Denver’s Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design, before transferring to Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston. He completed a residency in the Netherlands where he was inspired by the dancer Rudolph Nureyev and the stories of Hans Christian Andersen. He began to pivot from the painting and drawing that had previously occupied his time to video and performance. His fascination with the human form took flight. Damien’s work from this time often obscures the body, blurs facial features.
Post graduation, he moved to New York City to become an art star. Back then, he dressed like a Victorian era gentleman. Damien worked as an assistant for Jene Highstein, shortly before the artist’s death, and at Mr. Boddington’s, an upscale stationary studio. He formed a close relationship with 1980s Fast Times at Ridgemont High heartthrob Phoebe Cates, for whose Upper East Side store Blue Tree he created a wondrous and furry white horse window installation. Damien showed drawings and paper art at Brooklyn’s Muriel Guepin Gallery, had a studio space at the Invisible Dog Art Center with dear friend and collaborator Emily Snyder, did a 2011 residency at Vermont Studio Center. [These works were all completed under a different name. I have chosen to use Damien Moreau throughout this piece, as I suspect it is what D would have preferred.]
But something rankled Damien about the Big Apple art grind. “The idea of having a nine-to-five was not in his DNA,” said then-boyfriend and fellow artist Matthew Farina. “A lot of practical things he just did not like, from a philosophical view.” Damien preferred making work that had little market value, like a macabre video series of his friends’ disembodied heads that called up his interest in the rumored moments between decapitation and losing consciousness. “He was really interested in transcendence and the afterlife—and not in a religious sense,” said Farina.
“Everything he touched had this angelic quality, the softest caress,” said Emily Snyder. When she went through a bad breakup, Damien suggested they create a fantastical multimedia storytelling project called “In the Wild Times of the Ruby Twins” to take her mind off the hurt. Damien’s power of incredible consideration is remembered by all who knew him. “He always said, ‘I don’t need a relationship—I just need my friends,’” remembered Snyder. “I think collaborations combined two of his favorite things in the world: making art and being really intimate with someone.” In a similar vein, Damien started a performance and video platform titled “Ouroborix”, in 2011 with collaborator Virginia Wagner.
He eventually moved to Denver, citing his disgust for the art world and a need to commune with nature. A chance meeting with Jennifer Doran of Robischon Gallery led to a six year working relationship. “He mentioned that he was at a crossroads in his life,” said Doran, remembering being struck by Damien’s’s intelligence but most of all, his sincerity. “After chatting and leaving Damien to continue to look around the gallery, I immediately went to my partner and said, ‘I want to hire this person who is in the gallery.’ My partner’s response was, ‘But we’re not hiring.’ To which I said, ‘I don’t think I care.’”
It was during this period working at the gallery that Damien began to explore a porn career. He bulked up and first began to refer to himself as Damien Moreau, it seems, when he appeared on Kink.com. He shot for the company over the course of five years for sites like KinkMen’s Bound Gods, Men on Edge, Bound in Public, Naked Kombat, and 30 Minutes of Torment. Ever the equal opportunity slut, he would eventually sub for women on Kink’s Divine Bitches and TS Seduction sites.
Though some may find Damien’s hardcore gangbangs at Kink divergent from the cerebral queer erotica he made in his own projects, he found surprising ways to integrate the two. Kink talent booker Mike Scott was the first person to cast Damien in a pornography shoot, and he vividly remembers Damien’s first successful application to the site, after having tried a couple times to be cast.
“He did this background of metal sheeting that looked like really thick aluminum foil, and had a light source,” says Mike. “I remember his photos because no one had ever really put forth that much effort. The reflections of the lighting that he had set up hitting the metal cast these bright white lines all over his body.”
“It’s not that I knew I wanted to be in porn, but more that I wanted to devote my life to sex and film,” Damien told Kelly Lovemonster in a 2014 interview for our online publication 4U Mag.
“He was always such a natural,” remembers Sebastian Keyes, who directed Damien in many of his KinkMen shoots. “You could tell he was enjoying what he was doing, and he was excellent at it. He was always a go-to model for us.” Damien’s athleticism is apparent in many of these shots in the way he gamely submits to extreme physical stress, as is his joy in pushing his body to the limits of his imagination.
Damien first showed his talent for framing human sexuality when he directed and starred in the luminous 2014 short “Kangourou”, which featured him wearing the Berlin nightlife-esque black and white athleisure chic that constituted his new personal aesthetic. In the film, he masturbates on Denver public transit, trysting with co-star Ryan Patrix in a maybe-dream sequence. Before its deletion, the film racked up millions of views and will forever serve as introduction to Damien’s incandescent world of pure perversions.
That universe expanded over the years via collaborations with erotica sites Summer Diary and Four Chambers and with other pornographer-actors like Viktor Belmont, Freshie Juice, Chico Malo, Isabel Dresler, and James Darling. Over the rest of his life he would have a few collaborations with non-erotic artists, like architectural film artist Jaimie Henthorn. But as often as not, he was enticing creatives in other mediums to shoot their first erotic film with him.
This preponderance of rookie talent in his XXX work was made possible by Damien’s unmatched directorial intuition, an almost uncanny knack for putting those around him at ease. “I would strive to give people the same sense of comfort and permission when they’re in my presence,” says Isaac Linder, one of “Kangourou’s” videographers, of Damien’s on-set manner. “That is an ideal worth striving for.”
I share Isaac’s sense of awe. When Damien came to live with me in Mexico City, we were frenetically productive, in tandem. He contributed to 4U Mag and took photos for my articles for other publications. I was his camera B for the beginning of the “OHBOY” series. He was a dream to work with, calm and thorough and never losing sight of the comfort of anyone on set. He held extensive pre-interviews with on-screen talent. When you were in his lens, you were everything.
Kelly Lovemonster starred in the second episode of “OHBOY.” They say they would never have considered filming a masturbation scene for another director.
“Look, at the end of the day, I think Damien saw erotica as a way of self-discovery,” Lovemonster told me. “He saw the erotic as a way of liberating oneself, truly, from the paradigms of heteronormativity and the patriarchy. Damien wasn’t a capitalist. He didn’t do it for the money. He did it because it truly brought him joy and pleasure, and he loved sharing those images with the world.”
“When he asked me to be a part of the ‘OHBOY’ series, I felt comfortable doing that because I knew that it was going to be shot beautifully,” Kelly continued. “I knew that it was going to be an artistic masterpiece. His aesthetics were unlike anyone else’s. He truly was a visionary. You trusted Damien—not only his vision, but his energy. I trusted everything about him.”
Damien inspired faith. In the summer of 2015, he briefly returned to Mexico City after an ultimately ill-fated move to Los Angeles. While he was here, Damien came up with Lust For Life. It was to be his only full-length film, and focused on a vampire protagonist (played by Adrián López) and his quest to regain knowledge of humanity, primarily via scenes of our IRL friends and the people we were fucking at that time. Similar to Kelly, I would never have dreamed of gifting blow jobs to anyone else’s camera. Apart from his genuine interest in your own desires, his own model experience helped in this respect: how to say no to a relatively vanilla threesome when the person who is asking you regularly submits to onscreen cock and ball torture. Shooting for him meant you could leave polite, heteronormative society forever. Damien made that rejection look so good.
Antone Martinez is a videographer, porn industry professional, and curator of Los Angeles’ Failed Films Festival, in which Damien showed work in 2016, ’17, and ’18. Antone told me that the images Damien created were seminal for his own career. “I felt like when I started to gain momentum in my art world experiences and storytelling, a lot of it was influenced specifically by him,” Antone said, barely holding back the emotion that Damien’s passing still called up. That grief is shared by many who feel like they received prior warning of Damien’s death. In 2018, his submission to Failed Films Festival was a short called “GI” (Damien’s acronym for “Gender Identity”.) I find the short hard to watch.
“It’s really powerful, and it’s literally about him killing himself,” said Antone. “He goes on to critique society and tarnishing of the soul.” Tellingly, “GI” is one of Damien’s few solo works. Before his death, his love of intimate connection seems to have been largely extinguished. He pulled back from the many close platonic and creative relationships that marked his adult life. Damien couldn’t deal with the cruelty of the world. In a 2016 interview, he spoke of an in-process “utopic future narrative about the fall of the USA due to uprisings generated out of the Ferguson riots.” I often wonder what he would have thought of 2020’s ratcheting levels of brutality and impassioned civilian response.
Did Damien Moreau know how important he was to us? I almost hope that he didn’t, because if he did, it was also a dick move to wipe the internet nearly clean of his work before his death. It’s not clear that full resolution copies of the “OHBOY” episodes, Lust For Life, the fetish video he made for ranchera chanteuse San Cha’s “Pocket Boy”, and countless other images still exist. How to express the severity of this loss? Damien needed us to make his art, but we often needed him to articulate barely-parsed sides of our sexual beings. He’d find their best lighting, make sure he captured their finest iteration, and present them back to us, edited for the gods.
Damien did make other solo videos. I discovered 2013’s “Before Life” thanks to Matthew Farina, who sent me a Vimeo account that somehow survived Damien’s periodic purges. Sitars murmur in a low register as Damien appears over a trail’s crest in a gorgeous Wyoming landscape in the single shot clip. He is entirely naked — his lovely form so pale it glows — and is tossing a stick for a brown dog. He looks back only once at the beautiful purple mountains behind him. As Damien approaches the camera, the light becomes overexposed. His face is so beautiful that it seems untenable. The viewer nearly opens arms to hug him, to bring him back to the corporeal plane. But he walks by, calmly throwing the dog’s stick, and is lost to the lens. The viewer longs to swing around, to, at least, watch him walk away, but cannot.
I set out to write this piece to properly honor Damien’s work and to open the floodgates for the other tributes that are sure to follow. But I also needed this process, including the conversations with others who loved him, to let Damien continue walking down his path. He may have turned away at the end of his life, but before he left he taught us that there is unfathomable beauty in our sexuality, in the world, in ourselves. I’m not scared anymore. Thanks for that, D.
Caitlin “Cat” Donohue is a Mexico City based culture writer who has written about sex and porn for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Rookie, Marie Claire, 48 Hills, and other fine publications. Her first YA book She Represents: 44 Women Who Are Changing Politics . . . and the World comes out September 2020 via Lerner Books.