Sarah Christianson’s “When the Landscape Is Quiet Again: North Dakota’s Oil Boom,” Art Practical

Natural gas flare, White Earth River Valley, September 2013, by Sarah Christianson

Natural gas flare, White Earth River Valley, September 2013, by Sarah Christianson

“We all wanted this oil development. We just didn’t know what we were in for. Even half of what we got would’ve been too much.”—Carole Freed, fourth-generation rancher, Watford City, ND, May 2013

No single photograph in Sarah Christianson’s When the Landscape Is Quiet Again: North Dakota’s Oil Boom gets one’s blood boiling. Her images of her home state—which has, in several booms since the early ’50s, changed from a predominantly agrarian economy to an industrial one based around oil extraction—elicit a slower-burning experience of rage. Rather than focusing on obvious signs of destruction, Christianson’s photographs (paired here with generously informative captions) collectively emphasize the insidiousness of the waste and danger that are often hiding in plain sight.

Christianson occasionally enhances the tone of a scene through dramatic framing. A well on the border of a farmstead is shown through venetian blinds from the interior of the farmhouse, like an intruder spotted by the besieged protagonists of a horror film. In another photograph, several wells perch over a cornfield like so many robotic farmhands, while in the foreground, a tiny sign along the bank of a sludge creek warns of hazardous chemicals in the area. But in most of the other photographs, the land’s exploitation and its sinister effects are depicted even more subtly, or are invisible altogether. Christianson doesn’t overlook the abandoned wells, the disturbed earth along the pipelines, or the swirls of black oil collecting at a spill site, but this is not disaster porn. Rather, by not focusing solely on these more ostentatious (and expected) pieces of evidence, Christianson’s photographs convey something scarier about the degree to which fracking, mining, and drilling have become an irrevocable part of North Dakota’s ecosystem and its inhabitants’ way of life. (continue reading)

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Alonzo King Lines Ballet Moves from Stage to Page

Michael Montgomery, photo by RJ Muna

Michael Montgomery, photo by RJ Muna

The cliché about ballet dancers is that they are “light on their feet,” that they “float” and “soar” across the stage. I’ve always felt the opposite to be more interesting: nobody reveals a more solid connection to the ground. Even if balancing only en pointe, a dancer looks more immovably earthbound than most of us would passed out on our bellies.

Yet this is not something one can really perceive in a live performance: that special solidity gets upstaged by movement, grace, the illusion of weightlessness that is the dancer’s currency. But in a photograph you can see it: the imperturbable lines that root the body to the earth, gravity visibly manifest in stony calves and meaty feet.Courtney Henry C_Book_AlonzoKing_121108 3517-14

San Francisco-based modern ballet company Lines has always had the most fascinating publicity photography, combining the talents of beloved Bay Area photographers like Marty Sohl and RJ Muna, resident designers Sandra Woodall and Robert Rosenwasser, and artistic director Alonzo King, whose eye for choreography and attitude favors the androgynous and athletic over the pretty. Its new book of photographs (interspersed with somewhat esoteric axioms by King himself) is a treasure trove of images by Muna and Sohl, many never-before published, all revealing why Lines has come to represent the most avant-garde of an essentially avant-garde artform, as well as why the two photographers’ work is so much more than commercial. In its pages, dancers grapple with each other and with their own bodies, stretching and folding in on themselves, defying the neat gender roles of classical ballet in unexpected postures. Stand-alone images are scattered amongst series of five or six images that show the progression from one movement to another, allowing us to see the subtle shadowplay of tensing and relaxing muscles as the models change position, or shift their weight from one leg to the other, or change lead. There are a few printing problems (at least in my copy), with some images appearing a bit “dusty.” Other images could benefit by being shown at a larger size within the page layout or by not being printed across the gutter, but in all, Alonzo King Lines Ballet is a visual treasure that, unlike the performance itself, one can take home, and return to again and again. It is not simply a coffeetable book for dance aficionados; it is a reflection on the human form and the vastness of its language.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post.

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The Embarrassment of Riches: Bulgari at the De Young, Huffington Post

Liz Taylor wearing the Bulgari "green set"

Liz Taylor wearing the Bulgari “green set”

In case you were wondering, the technological highlight of the De Young Museum’s “Bulgari: La Dolce Vita and Beyond,” is a clever interactive portfolio devoted to the Italian house’s queen collector, Liz Taylor. Upon turning each page, a digital image of the icon wearing her baubles rises out of the book and floats up the wall before vanishing in a silent poof. The gimmick is an apt expression of the level of gravitas the subject of the exhibit is treated with, and possibly, warrants. Also projected onto the walls on continuous loop are dozens of editorial, advertizing, and paparazzi shots of other bedecked celebrities throughout the decades. Even the first several pages of the show’s catalogue read like a laundry list of starlets and socialites who bought and wore Bulgari’s designs in its heyday of 1956-1990.

The emphasis on starry clientele is indeed distracting — what should be a part of the Bulgari story, secondary to aspects of the work that stand as exemplary regardless of its popularity with the famous at the time of production, is given a primacy that implies that a large part of what makes Bulgari’s work museum-worthy is the mere fact of famous people liking it. Of course the exhibit features pieces from the Liz Taylor collection, including the emerald brooch and collar Burton gave her as engagement and wedding gifts, respectively. Neither the catalogue nor the Bulgari reps who attended the preview stated, upon being asked, how much Burton paid for the pieces or how much Bulgari paid at the Christie’s auction to buy the pieces back upon Taylor’s death. One might wonder why they were keeping shtum about the “green set”‘s sale price; the figure is easily searchable on Christie’s website*. But that coyness, that not-at-the-dinner-table-darling silence about money, contrasts laughably with the tone of the show. Who do they think they’re kidding, implying that it is somehow inappropriate or beside the point to speak frankly of cash with regard to an exhibit plastered with celebrity faces, celebrating a commercial enterprise that caters solely to the rich? Even the catalogue itself states that Bulgari’s ascendence in the early fifties had much to do with the influx of Hollywood money, as, besides the Pope, the only people in Rome who could afford such luxuries were visiting American stars. (The Art of Bulgari, Delmonico Books, pg. 27)

Tubogas choker, 1974 Two-color gold with Greek silver coins 27 cm (top) and 41 cm (base) x 7 cm Bulgari Heritage Collection, inv. 404 N607

Tubogas choker, 1974 Two-color gold with Greek silver coins
27 cm (top) and 41 cm (base) x 7 cm Bulgari Heritage Collection, inv. 404 N607

But OK, if we take for granted that there are reasons based in artistry that justify this show, let’s examine the work and what is said about the work that supports that claim. There are two innovations cited as “revolutionary.” Bulgari broke with the French-derived tradition of separating jewelry to be worn in the daytime and that for the evening (yellow gold for day, white gold for night) by designing evening jewelry using yellow gold. It also altered the norms for gemstone pairings; tradition had dictated that gemstones of a single color be paired with white diamonds, but Bulgari introduced jewelry sparkling with many-colored gemstones as well as white diamonds.

Think of that.

Coco Chanel revolutionized fashion by designing corsetless clothing for women, forever freeing them from the oppressive, rib-cracking, liver-crushing whalebone cages that had restricted their physicality and breathing for centuries. Levi Straus revolutionized fashion by producing an inexpensive, durable pair of trousers that became the best-selling item of clothing in the history or the world. Bulgari revolutionized fashion by giving carte blanche to society ladies to wear necklaces featuring more than two colors at a time and yellow gold to dinner parties.

Of course, multi-colored jewelry has been de rigueur in tribal- and ethnic fashion-loving sets for millennia. And no one durst suggest to an middle- or upper-class Indian woman that she may only wear her yellow gold in daylight. In fact, most people, who don’t have the money to buy multiple sets of jewels for different times of day may well have felt they had no reason to consign what pieces they had to daytime- or nighttime-only. These “revolutions” are only relevant, or even noticeable, to the rarified echelon of people who feel compelled and have the funds to follow new sets of rules as are laid out for them by whomever they’ve designated as the arbiters of their taste. Bulgari’s innovations only serve to expose the hopeless hokeyness and small-mindedness of moneyed Western taste.

Necklace, 1972 Platinum with turquoise and diamonds 39.1 x 17.8 cm (with 5.1 cm extension, not shown) Collection of Jennifer Tilly

Necklace, 1972
Platinum with turquoise and diamonds
39.1 x 17.8 cm (with 5.1 cm extension, not shown) Collection of Jennifer Tilly

Some examples of Bulgari’s output over the decades reveal an insensitivity to the nature of the materials it utilized in their construction. There is a homogeneity to the treatment of stones, regardless of their unique characteristics: find a blemish-free rock, sand it into a cabochon or cut it into facets, group it with other rocks of the same substance with a minimum of the gradations or subtle differences in color as happen so often in nature. Take for example the necklace (above), bracelet, brooch, and ring from the collection of Jennifer Tilly. It’s made from turquoise, diamond, and platinum. Now, turquoise comes in as many shades of blue as the changing sky, as well as greens and yellows, and often bears considerable variation within a single rock. It is also often veined with a spiderweb matrix of iron ore. Its crevices and deep wrinkles are as much a part of its craggy face as its hue. Even polished and smoothed down with time, and deepened in color by the warmth and skin oils of the wearer, turquoise retains a rugged, boulder-like quality, its blemishes like the hard-won scars of its formation from ancient volcanic rock. It is the anti-precious gem. The cabochons Bulgari used, however, might as well have been formed from melmac. They are each perfectly uniformly pale blue, perfectly unmarked, perfectly smooth, perfectly symmetrical. Why even use turquoise at all if you’re going to reject so many of its native qualities, and what uptight, unsophisticated taste prizes such bland, regimented uniformity? It’s like photoshopping a woman’s laughlines out of her portrait: in return for a generic surface smoothness, you erase the illustrations of her character, her experience, the signs that she has lived and known joy.

Of course bits of “perfect” turquoise large enough to use in jewelry are rare; separating out unmarked specimens from the mother rock creates immense waste and yields very little. That turquoise like this is considered suitable for fine jewelry has much to do with its rarity, which translates to greater monetary worth. And as a commercial business, it makes sense that Bulgari would use only the rarest and most expensive materials.

But it doesn’t quite make sense that an art museum would host an exhibit of work that owes so much of its value to commercial, rather than artistic, virtues. And the case for the work’s artistic merit is rather weak. It’s not non-existent, it just gets lost in the glitter and movie star headshots. Even this would not be too objectionable if the work were presented in a different context, one examining the class of people who patronized the studio, or American luxury vacationing in Italy in the ’50’s — something sociological, rather than trying to shoehorn what feels like a giant advertizement into the context of an art exhibit. The presentation of the work and its place in the world of fashion is more simplistic than one should expect from an art institution.

Necklace, 1962, with pendant/brooch, 1958 Platinum with emeralds and diamonds Necklace: 37 x 2.7 cm Pendant/brooch: 4.9 x 3.4 cm Formerly in the collection of Elizabeth Taylor Bulgari Heritage Collection, inv. 6676 N2169, 347870 P393

Necklace, 1962, with pendant/brooch, 1958 Platinum with emeralds and diamonds Necklace: 37 x 2.7 cm Pendant/brooch: 4.9 x 3.4 cm Formerly in the collection of Elizabeth Taylor
Bulgari Heritage Collection, inv. 6676 N2169, 347870 P393

Consider again the Taylor jewels, specifically, that “green set,” possibly the most famous of Bulgari’s repertoire. Yes, they are glorious, and she was resplendent in them, as evidenced in the displayed photos. Indeed, images of her bedecked in this these particular pieces, or wearing them attached as one, are among the most famous of that period in her life. The catalogue even features a photograph of her wearing the brooch, with her legendary lavender eyes retouched green to match the emerald (what?!). And yes, the prices Burton paid for the gifts for his mistress and subsequent wife were, for the time, shocking. But Burton also bought her a yacht. And a plane. And disgorged his wallet for her at Pucci and Harry Winston and other top-tier couturiers and jewelers. Yet it was the green set, and the photographs of Liz adorned in it, that came to symbolize the morass of scandalous adultery, conspicuous superconsumption, press-baiting, and alcoholic overkill that marked the pair’s celebrity in the ’60’s, a decade during which said antics threatened to engulf both their careers. Liz and Dick’s stratospheric visibility gave unprecedented wattage to their money-flinging; ostentation itself blushed at the epicness of their shopping expeditions. And shimmering on the apogee of this mountain of wretched excess (for the pair managed to nearly wipe out their collective funds at times as well, necessitating that they take on certain movie projects for the money alone**) is the emerald and diamond Bulgari collar and brooch duo. If Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? represented Taylor and Burton’s most sublime artistic collaboration, the green set represented a both covetable and garish lifestyle made possible by the old Hollywood studio system juggernaut that was fast losing influence. Swanning around Europe in the most expensive baubles they could find was a bit “old world,” and put them strangely at odds with the evolving zeitgeist of the 1960’s.

None of the informational materials the museum offers talk about anything like this, that is, anything that might deliciously complicate the tone of the show from self-congratulatory (and self serving — this is yet another show to feature pieces from the personal collection of the Fine Arts Museums’ president of the board, Dede Wilsey) to something closer to objective insight. The context is kept narrow enough that you’d never know there might be anything to say about the objects other than,”Ooh, purdy.” But presenting an uncomplicated, glossy view of its subject is the advertizing agency’s job, not the museum’s. And it doesn’t matter whether the jewelry suits one’s taste; even if one loves what one sees, to be left dazzled but unchallenged is to be failed by an institution whose mission should be not only to dazzle but to enrich, educate, inform, and even disturb.

*At Christie’s auction in 2011, the green set’s necklace fetched $6,130,500, and the brooch, $6,578,500. I’ve read estimates of Burton’s original purchase price for the necklace itself at $250,000.
** This is described eloquently and hilariously by the man himself in The Richard Burton Diaries, Yale 2012)

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post.

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Nan Still Stands: “Nan Goldin: Nine Self-Portraits” at Fraenkel Gallery

Shadow of a dead bird on Simon’s window, Stockholm, September 2013 © Nan Goldin, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Shadow of a dead bird on Simon’s window, Stockholm, September 2013
© Nan Goldin, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Herr God, Herr Lucifer,

Beware

 Beware.

 Out of the ash

I rise with my red hair

and I eat men like air.”

 Sylvia Plath, Lady Lazarus

Though the collection is small — only 9 photographs — “Nan Goldin: Nine Self-Portraits” nevertheless invites one to compare the existence described therein with the one, the many, revealed in previous collections such as her diaristic Ballad of Sexual Dependency and I’ll Be Your Mirror, her 1996 survey exhibition at the Whitney and its catalogue. There’s an evolution apparent in the woman portrayed in Goldin’s previous works and the current show.

Tube tops and scuffed satin pumps have been replaced by blazers with shoulder pads. Where her makeup had smudged and run on skin dewy from heat or exertion, or simply from staying up all night, it is now drawn in hard, precise lines or absent altogether. Self portraits in dingy club mirrors have their equivalent in a new self-portrait in a mirror, but this one is a beautiful, time-damaged antique in a palazzo in Venice. The settings of Ballad and Mirror were often cluttered, trashed, even, and look like they smelled of  sweat, cigarettes, unwashed hair, and booze. The settings here are uniformly cleaner, and look like they smell fine or not at all. The lighting is often softer, more flattering. It’s all gone a bit middle class. There is almost no suggestion of the life that was lived and described in Goldin’s earlier works; indeed, although the premise of this exhibit is different from those, focusing on Goldin herself rather than Goldin and the various personages within in her close circles, the absence of other people lends a heaviness to these images when one considers that many of the people Goldin photographed over the decades, her close friends and the inhabitants of that bohemian world of lower Manhattan in the ’70’s and ’80’s, were felled in the AIDS epidemic or lost to drug overdoses. Here she stands “as witness to the common lot/ Survivor of that time, that place”i – alone, and in settings sanitized of the gritty theatricality of her former haunts.

Although she was clearly not a passive sitter in her earlier work, when she turned the camera on herself in those years, the “face” she gave often conveys a softness and passivity, or at least a neutrality, a quiet presence that sometimes is upstaged by her more presentational subjects — the drag queens, the more showily emotive girlfriends, her glowering ex-lover. She often appears with no expression on her face at all, even when staring out through blackened eyes after she has been beaten by her then-boyfriend. Or she listens with eyes downturned, pouting almost imperceptibly as a man sidles up to speak more closely to her. The most she expresses through her face is an occasional wan smile or the demoralized, red-nosed moment before the tears fall.

But in these self-portraits on display at Fraenkel Gallery, there has been a switch. Instead of featuring others playing their respective roles in her life, she seems to have assumed multiple roles herself. The locations and situations are more ambiguous but the experiences she reveals through her face have intensified; it’s like more of her personae have come out to play. In one, she sits at a clean marble vanity mirror, notepad in hand. In her blazer, with a calm smile and direct gaze, she looks as if she could be giving herself a pep talk before an important business meeting. In another, she stares out the frame into the hot light of a brilliant sky with the wall-eyed omniscient gaze of a visionary mystic. In Shadow of a Dead Bird on Simon’s Window, Stokholm (2013), she stands smoking by the open window where “the smudge of ashen fluffii” still marks the pane. The cold toughness in her eyes, almost a warning, wouldn’t look out of place were she flanked by a row of heads on pikes.

In my hall, Berlin, November 2013 © Nan Goldin, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

In my hall, Berlin, November 2013
© Nan Goldin, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

But perhaps the most provocative piece is In my hall, Berlin (2013), in which she stands in unbuttoned trousers and a bra, high-waisted panties askew over her hips, one thumb in her belt, her eyes knowing and defiant, her lips curling into a smirk. One doesn’t often see a woman of her age present herself in this way. Her body is lush but looks “lived in” in the way that women are taught to be ashamed of and hide. But she’s wearing lingerie — as opposed to underwear — made from black and blue peekaboo mesh, the kind that reveals all the bits it pretends to conceal. She looks incapable of shame, oblivious to self-doubt, invulnerable to “dependency,” hungry, and like she fully expects to get her fill. And yet in another, earlier, photograph, in bed with her lover and looking up at him tenderly, she is too timid (possibly) to have taken off her bra before the act of love commenced. The Nan of In my hall looks like she’d toss her bra over the bedframe and climb on top.

Much of Goldin’s earlier work, the work that made her name, captured the vivid atmosphere of a world of which she was a part, and which now only exists in our cultural mythology and the memories of and artistic documents created by its survivors. The world of “Nine Self Portraits,” on the other hand, is interior, and its atmospheres are psychological, transmitted through her eyes and mien. It is more like a journal than a diary, an account of her inner, rather than outer, life. This work is less showy but more complex and quiet, its subversions creep up on one rather than smack one in the face.  One hopes that this is a world she will continue to explore and share as generously as her previous ones.

i“No foreign sky protected me, /No stranger’s wing shielded my face./ I stand as witness to the common lot,/ Survivor of that time, that place.” – Anna Akhmatova, 1961

ii“I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/ By the false azure of the window pane./ I was the smudge of ashen fluff, and I/ Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky…” Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire

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Curation as a New Translation: Diane Arbus at Fraenkel Gallery, Huffington Post

DIANE ARBUS Two ladies at the automat, N.Y.C. 1966 © The Estate of Diane Arbus

DIANE ARBUS Two ladies at the automat, N.Y.C. 1966 © The Estate of Diane Arbus

I am not cruel, only truthful—
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Mirror,
 Sylvia Plath

Diane Arbus famously brought a dispassionate but probing voyeurism to the marginalized and pariah of our society. Her treatments of the denizens of the mainstream are no less discomfiting. In “Diane Arbus 1971-1956,” Fraenkel Gallery has assembled 60 photographs of the late artist and grouped them according to themes strained from Arbus’s notebooks and letters. Images appear in reverse chronological order in groups under “The Mysteries that Bring People Together,” “Interiors: The Meanings of Rooms,” “People Being Somebody,” “Recognition,” and “Winners and Losers,” headings chosen and curated by Jeffrey Fraenkel.

The categories are hardly beyond questioning. In the coyly-titled Two friends at home, N.Y.C. 1965, what is apparently a lesbian couple stand in their bedroom. One, in a skirt, pointy glasses, and a feminine updo, rests her arm around her lover’s shoulders. The other, in pants and a man’s shirt and slicked-back, cropped hair, looks at the camera, with her hands in her pockets. The image would make sense under “The Mysteries that bring people together.” It could reasonably fall under “People Being Somebody” — after all, one could deduce from the women’s costume and toilette that they self-identify as “femme” and “butch.” Depending on one’s views on love and its pitfalls, and the fact that one woman looks hard into her lover’s face, while her lover in turn looks away — it could even reasonably be included as a witty addition to “Winners and Losers.” But Fraenkel has placed the image with “Interiors: the meanings of rooms.” This compels one to examine the room the lovers are placed in with a mind to divining its significance, and possibly to give it more interpretive weight than if one were simply considering all elements of the picture equally. And so the eye falls on the crumpled bed, admittedly bestowed importance if not primacy by the photographer by its large and central place in the composition, and the fact that aside from the windows, it is the brightest thing in the frame. It is also the scene of their perceived crime, for even in a progressive city like New York, in the years preceding Stonewall there were still laws limiting the rights of LGBT people, as well as widespread casual harassment and prejudice. The “meaning” of their room is different from that of other couples’ rooms: it is not only the seat of intimacy but a hideout from the nosy hostility of a benighted era.

 DIANE ARBUS Couple arguing, Coney Island, N.Y. 1960 © The Estate of Diane Arbus

DIANE ARBUS
Couple arguing, Coney Island, N.Y. 1960
© The Estate of Diane Arbus

Thus Fraenkel’s categorization draws historical and social context into the picture, steering us to consider it through an interpretive lens determined not by Arbus or by our own proclivities, but by Fraenkel himself. One can resent the imposition or be grateful for it — indeed, there are worse people than Jeffrey Fraenkel to be guiding one’s examination of photographs. His exhibit from earlier this year, “The Unphotographable,” demanded (and rewarded) a rigorous intellectual engagement with the pieces, the unphotographability of which was in many cases due to the fact that the subject was an idea rather than a visible object — the moment of death, a dream, the passage of time, the enormity of an event like 9/11. But while in that show, it was understood that many of the artists had been grappling with that subject — how to photograph something that isn’t “so readily seen” — the themes of this show were not chosen by the artist but by the gallerist showing her work, themes that he gleaned from her notebooks and correspondence and that he determined to have special importance, and then grouped the images according to his own interpretations of them. It is a muscular, even manipulative, curatorial conceit, and one that invites skepticism. However persuasive are Fraenkel’s extrapolations, they necessarily say more about Fraenkel himself than they do about Diane Arbus. However one might wish to achieve some hermetic communion with her work, one ends up examining it under the considerable influence of his subjective take on it.

Of course that hermetic communion is impossible anyway; Arbus’s fame is too great and many of the images in the current exhibit are renowned in the canon. Even the less well-known ones lend themselves to being viewed as examples of the scholarly sang froid that won Arbus her place in the pantheon. Such photographs as A blind couple in their bedroom, Queens, N.Y. 1971, which depicts a couple relaxing in each other’s arms on their bed, a representation of tenderness so much like any other except for that thing that is not quite right about their eyes, or Santas at the Santa Claus School, Albion, N.Y. 1964, men of mid- to late-middle age who in their youth one might assume had different career goals from this — “Diane Arbus: 1971-1956″ is full of depictions of both marginalized people and the marginalia of the quotidian, depictions that are neither judgmental nor particularly compassionate, revelations of the kind of lives we might dread to lead, without the assuasive evidence of redemption. The people she referred to in her letters as “retarded,” “freaks,” “morons,” “mongoloids,” “idiots,” and “imbeciles” (which, even in that era of unreconstructed attitudes and language, one suspects were not the kindest words to use about her varied subjects) appear without sentimentality, without the sort of visual euphemisms an artist might use to soften a difficult and fearsome subject. Take Five Children in a common room, N.J. 1969: mentally and/or physically impaired kids play or just sit in probably the world’s grimmest common room (bare walls and a toddler’s tricycle, it seems, were deemed enough to create a jolly atmosphere for these children, one of whom appears to be a teenager). They live with conditions each of us counts ourselves lucky not to be burdened with, and fear to pass on in our own progeny; they scare and shame us — “What if that were me?” “Why is he smiling like that?” “Why do I complain about anything in my life, ever??” Yet Arbus doesn’t labor to show their humanity, or offer any sort of palliative to our traumatized sensibilities. Even her photographs of people who aren’t necessarily “freaks” showcase her unmerciful truthtelling.

DIANE ARBUS Veteran with a flag, N.Y.C. 1971 © The Estate of Diane Arbus

DIANE ARBUS Veteran with a flag, N.Y.C. 1971 © The Estate of Diane Arbus

Veteran with a flag, N.Y.C. 1971 doesn’t appear extraordinary at first. He wears a nice blazer, a clean shirt with a starched collar, and his Veterans of Foreign Wars hat, and he holds an American flag. He could be taking part in a Veteran’s Day parade celebration. But he’s relaxed his grip on his flag, which seems like it might slide through his fist at any moment. He is distracted — by what? It could be something happening in the street, or it could be what he has seen, as a veteran of any of America’s grisly 20th century wars. The look in his eyes doesn’t exactly scream, “‘Murricuh!”. It just screams. Possibly something more like, Oh woe is me, to have seen what I have seen, see what I see. It is hard to resist making deductions from the pairing of that cheap, crumpled flag with the abject expression on the soldier’s face, and that is also what makes the image hard to look at. Some of Arbus’s subjects were marginalized by nature; others by their society or their place in history. She takes what we don’t like to look at and shows it to us anyway, offering no cheap promises to reveal some hidden beauty in it. One gets the sense that Arbus expected her viewers to be made of sterner stuff than those who would require a side of uplift to make their hard truths more palatable.

All of this aligns with the received interpretations of her work, or at least doesn’t deviate too dramatically from them. And so one could view the images in “Diane Arbus 1971-1956″ as emblematic of her oeuvre and fame. But then there are those categories again, which at first seem so arbitrary, not least because many of the images could be made a case for as being equally suited to the categories that they don’t appear in. But a strange thing happens when one does regard them with Fraenkel’s delineations in mind. As in Two friends at home, the focus of the photographs is no longer the subjects themselves, or the “freakish” things about them that inspired Arbus to seek them out, but rather something more complicated, possibly unphotographable. Five children in a common room appears under “Interiors: the meanings of rooms.” Well, obviously, you could say; the common room is where the children converge and play and fight and make noise. But is there a greater significance to this particular room that could justify Fraenkel choosing this apparently redundant heading? Think of the childrens’ rooms you’ve seen and been in, whether they were in homes, classrooms, daycare or community centers. Now try to remember a single one that did not have some sort of decorations on the walls for the kids to look at, or age- and size-appropriate toys to play with. People who care for “normal” children make an effort to create a space for them that is both sensorially stimulating and joyful. For the children in Arbus’s “common room,” however, it was considered sufficient to herd them into a low-ceilinged cell with blank walls, dingy floor tiles, and a trike none of them can actually ride. The significance of this room is the revelation of our unconscionable negligence towards the people we’ve decided just aren’t worth the bother. The most brutal Arbussian truth in this image isn’t about the children; it’s about us.

And the Veteran — he appears under “People being somebody.” Well, yes, he is a veteran. But “He is somebody” is different from “He is being somebody.” “Being” somebody is assuming a role, like an actor; it connotes effort and deliberation, a distance between the private and presented selves. There is a chasm between the jaunty hat and flag and the thousand-yard stare, just as there is a chasm between wars and the parades that commemorate them. In his youth this man might have been sent to do the very worst things it is possible for one human being to do to another. The same country that asked, or ordered, him to do that, now gives this grown man some cheap felt and a toy flag to wave and expects him play this bloodless, PG version of the conquering hero, pretending that the one has anything to do with the other, even, astonishingly, that the latter is a sort of reward for the former. The image is especially damning now, considering that our present veterans are struggling to win the kinds of compensation previous generations were guaranteed, like healthcare and education. The veteran isn’t unusual for trying to be the man his country expects of him. But what sort of country expects him to be this man?

DIANE ARBUS Kid in black-face with friend, N.Y.C. 1957 © The Estate of Diane Arbus

DIANE ARBUS
Kid in black-face with friend, N.Y.C. 1957
© The Estate of Diane Arbus

It is hard to view Arbus’s work uninfluenced by the pervasive mythology around it. Anyone who’s never seen an Arbus photograph in person may nevertheless be familiar with her as the photographer of “freaks” (a designation she bristled at). What Fraenkel’s thematic groupings have done is to shift the focus of each image to the unexpected, and so encourage the viewer to glean from it something different from what the mythology would indicate. Again and again, when traveling through the galleries and examining each photograph, the headings they are grouped under cause one to do a mental double-take. A dominatrix and her client are not just a sad, paunchy little man in socks and his hired fetish. They’re two people, like any other two, in a heartbreakingly tender embrace that transcends commerce and conceals the ‘mystery that brought them together.’ A girl and boy in Washington Square Park stare out through very stoned eyes. Fraenkel asks us to do more than gawk at the hippies as another of Arbus’s coldblooded anthropological studies, and invokes “Recognition.” This brings our focus out of the image and into the space between it and us. What is it the kids are recognizing? What might we recognize in them? The headings redirect our focus to something left out of the visual plane, that the imagination must conjure and have a good wrastle with, something unphotographable. Whether Arbus herself had any such ideas about her work is immaterial; the risk one takes in making art is that someone else will re-envision it in a way that is as provocative as it is irrelevant, as enriching as it is dubious. Jeffrey Fraenkel’s exercise is an example of how good curation can clear away the fumes of legend and present work we think we know, afresh.

Well-played, sir, well-played.

This article first appeared on the Huffington Post.

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“The Outside World,” Richard Learoyd at Fraenkel Gallery, Art Practical

OD10. Gordale Scar, black cloth, 7/29/13, 12:28 PM,  8C, 11988x15984 (0+0), 150%, Josh Lehrer cu,  1/25 s, R87.7, G62.2, B70.9

OD10. Gordale Scar, black cloth, 7/29/13, 12:28 PM, 8C, 11988×15984 (0+0), 150%, Josh Lehrer cu, 1/25 s, R87.7, G62.2, B70.9

“For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.”

―William Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey, 1798

For his new exhibition at Fraenkel Gallery, Richard Learoyd has ventured out of the studio for the first time in years, building a portable camera obscura for the endeavor. Known for his large-scale staged portraits, Learoyd has kept the scale (and sometimes even the staging) but focused on The Outside World, as the title of the exhibition states.1 The results, whether obviously or subtly manipulated, seem to reach for something more than literal or even merely beautiful. There is a drama to each of the landscapes and nature scenes that recalls the nineteenth-century Romantics’ sublime—something less prim than beauty, more chaotic than religion. This perspective offers an honest reckoning with the natural world, acknowledging that nature is magnified, not diminished, by its integral parts of death and danger.

Gorsdale Scar‘s (2013) blurry tufts of windswept grass at the foot of a ravine craggier than Auden’s face, the obscure depths connoted by the vanishing lily pad stems in The River Stour from Deadman’s Bridge near Flatford (summer) (2013), the multitudes of distinct blossoms in Hawthorne that both invite and mock an attempt to examine each one, even the gnarled bodies of dead birds bound and stapled together in the unsentimental A Murder of Magpies (2013)―all hint at that thing that can “chasten and subdue.” These are not photographic Constables but dramatic portraits of nature as a profound, forbidding personage. (continue reading)

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In Case You’re Wondering What I’ve been Up To….

Yes, this post is all youtube videos of me dancing at Burning Man. Deal.

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“Silver Meadows” Revisited, Huffington Post

#1843 © Todd Hido 1996

#1843 © Todd Hido 1996

First off, I should say that I appear in this book as a model.

Todd Hido‘s Excerpts from Silver Meadows (Nazraeli Press 2013) describes what might be a recognizable place, geographically speaking, to anyone familiar with midwestern suburbia. Hido has taken as inspiration his old neighborhood in Kent, Ohio. Far from being a paean to place, however, the Silver Meadows of the book is more an amalgam of memories retouched and distorted by time, and luridly-painted settings for imagined narratives. Houses and untended yards appear as they would in memory, through fogged or rain-streaked windshields dappled with sun spots. Lonely, bald trees stand silhouetted against goth-grim empty flatlands, as darkness creeps into the frame from the edges. Women appear and reappear in altered dress and coiffure connoting different eras. Hido himself is present, in a blurred-over yearbook photograph from early adolescence.

Hido has said that the images are not, individually or as a series, autobiographical, and that even the scattered objects from his own life, including family photos and a newspaper clipping of his varsity footballer father, are only there to “contaminate the artifice” of the staged scenes of his own creation. But this denial of Silver Meadows as some sort of personal history seems disingenuous. The inclusion of personal objects in the series invites us to infer that the collection as a whole is at least impressionistically autobiographical, and certain characters, some real and some fictitious or possibly composite, take on a real vitality. His father emerges as a fearsome figure, appearing in his football uniform in one image and in another, holding Hido’s brother in one arm and a keg in the other, in a spread that also includes an image of a wall with three holes punched through it. Of course, it doesn’t matter — who cares if it is or isn’t “about” Hido? — except that it means one might scratch one’s head when one comes to the women — and there are pages and pages of them, and many different ones, but who all seem to be employed and portrayed for the same purpose. Hardly any of them are dressed, many of them are on a bed or in the back seat of a car, or slouching against the wood-look paneling. They all seem sexually available, whether from desperation or apathy. Some are optimistically made-up and lingeried, but all are photographed without glamour, gamely attempting their best Hustler poses on dowdy woven cushions or in cheap hotel rooms with dirty carpets and merciless cheap hotel room lighting. Set as they are, many in fold-out spreads, amongst the pages that can resemble a Hido family scrapbook, these different but thematically interchangeable women might cause one to wonder at the implication that his straw-haired and bespectacled youth in the Ohio suburbs was populated by this improbable parade of nubile women spreading their cheeks for his benefit.

#1047-b © Todd Hido 2011

#1047-b © Todd Hido 2011

But ok, take it for granted that the superfluity of females and their shabby surroundings don’t represent actual experiences from Hido’s life, and that he never intended to imply that they did, despite having juxtaposed them with pictures of himself and his family in a project named after the street he grew up on. The scenarios are drippingly suggestive, not just of sex but of every regrettable, even disastrous, situation you can imagine involving sex and its pursuit (every situation except love, that is) — one cannot accuse Hido of not knowing how to stage a compelling scene. It’s clear why his work is so often described as “cinematic.” One spread features photographs of two characters (“played” by the same model). One recalls the wild girl from high school, who climbs into a car and lies in the backseat, drinking out of a paper bag-covered bottle. The other, a smartly-dressed and undressed adult, peeks out from a dainty headscarf in one photograph, and bends in sheer panties over a naked mattress in another. There is also in this spread a found vintage photograph of a totaled car. Silver Meadows is full of image pairings like this, that hint at disaster but never admit to a plot. This is the great seductive power of the book; it creates an atmosphere of a great crime or horror story — the clenched sphincter of suspense and the keening aftermath — without any of the satiating details. Contributing to this atmosphere is Hido’s use of color (beautiful beyond the dreams of Winsor & Newton), Hitchcock lighting and economy of detail. There is often a single object or prop that focuses the attention like a clue: a string of pearls, a receiver off its hook, a child’s tricycle lying on its side against a bare wall, a gnomic-looking fluffy cat.

But as in so many horror films, the women of Silver Meadows seem to be little else than agents and victims of disaster, and their salient characteristic is their sexuality.

If the women in these images are fictions, or liberal extrapolations from real women he knew, that is actually more troubling than interpreting the collection as a not-quite credible version of Hido’s life. It means that while the modern progressive axiom is that women can be anything, Hido chooses for his women to be just one thing. Hido was born and raised to adulthood in an era with women’s lib well underway, when women were noisily proclaiming the multifariousness of their abilities and rejecting the narrow scope their society had traditionally allowed them. He works in a field in which he no doubt interacts with talented, formidable, surprising, even oddball women on a daily basis. Yet with what one can presume is a vast and nuanced imagination to play with, he chooses to envision and portray women as these clichés, and ones from a particularly bleak vista in our cultural landscape, at that. The “woman as sex object” trope is a trope because it’s been done and done and done, and we call it a trope instead of something loftier like “motif” or “archetype” or even “tradition,” because sophisticated people of both genders recognize its paltriness and are rightly tired of it. It doesn’t take a prude to find something spiritually debilitating about the glut of sameness in Hido’s women, their sameness to these tropes that are relentlessly flogged in our culture despite cries against women’s objectification, their sameness to each other, as if a change of wig and panty color will distinguish the humanity in one woman from that of the next. One can’t but note the sameness even to women in Hido’s other projects: the female inhabitants of Silver Meadows also share that sameness with the ones in his Between the Two (Nazraeli 2006) series, and even with the model (also cast in Silver Meadows) in One Day (Kehrer Verlag, 2011). In the former, the coloring and lighting are mellower, the setting seems more modern, and there isn’t the shadow of violence that colors Silver Meadows and infuses the book with its considerable drama, but these could be the same women — naked or almost naked, mostly looking vulnerable or bored or ready for or resigned to whatever sex act one might propose, however grisly. Even Hido’s Instagram feed (possibly the platform’s most depressing), repeats it. And one has to remind oneself that it’s not that the women these characters are based on (however loosely), or the models themselves, are the same or even similar; it’s that Hido for some reason wants to see them that way. And not just in Silver Meadows, but, apparently, everywhere.

It turns the book into a grandiose memento masturbatori, a chronicle of a still-adolescent fixation shaped by the hand-me-down prurience of B-film kitsch, locker-room anecdotal one-upsmanship and the magazines one hides under the mattress until finally moving out of the basement.

And yet one can’t really fault Hido for his obsessions. After all, whose business is it to tell an artist what or how to think — if this troubling spectacle is what’s in his soul crying to be let out, well, then, so be it. But one might wonder why this work is as applauded as it is within the art world. It’s been decades since Hollywood has been able to portray women in such a simplistically obscenified way, even in corny genre films, without significant blowback. Neither could a “serious” contemporary writer get away with peopling his fiction with such one-dimensional characters without garnering verbose accusations of sexism from within his field. Fashion is in a continual battle between its own racking compulsion to exploit female insecurities and opposing forces intending to protect both the women working in the industry and the legions of women susceptible to their sometimes malign influence. In other industries, an artist dealing in the reduction and objectification of women stokes controversy (even while making plenty of money at it), and risks a diminution of his reputation as, well, a serious artist. But in the world of fine art, you can do the same and your work will sell for thousands of dollars and you will be regarded as one of the great practitioners in the artform and the top brass at the country’s most prestigious photography galleries will promote your work in magazines and elsewhere.

#10845-7 © Todd Hido 2012

#10845-7 © Todd Hido 2012

This has all been a bit harsh. But consider Silver Meadows‘s women as juxtaposed with its houses and landscapes. You’ll never look out a rain-spattered car window again without wishing you could see what Hido sees through it. He’s a poet of muddy driveways and peeling clapboard. Silver Meadows’s naked trees, snowswept hills and lonely decrepit tract housing, all supernaturally dark, vivid and familiar, elicit a deeper ache than mere nostalgia. He’s taken a setting that we think we know, the cliché of the tattered suburban Midwest, and shown a hidden world that the clichés haven’t begun to approach. Every tiretrack in the snow, abandoned chair in the weeds, the fierce light shining out of an unassuming home in the foggy night, seems to have not only a story to tell, but an epic of lost joys and tragedies.

But Hido infuses these inanimate objects with more humanity than he finds and reveals in the living women he photographs. What if he as diligently avoided cliché in his depictions of women as he does in his depictions of houses, cars, trees, street signs, the ground, the sky, etc.? What if he looked at a woman and considered that she might be nearly as interesting and complex as a broken chair?

I’ve generalized here — there’s one photograph of a woman, other than the occasional “found” one, that doesn’t fit with my assessment of the rest. It’s the one Hido made of me. This isn’t due to anything special I did, except possibly that he knew I wanted to be depicted differently from what he may or may not know are informally referred to in the local photo community as “Hido Girls.” Probably not even that, as he directed the shoot down to every detail, from where I looked, to the expression on my face, to where I placed my hand (and, I should point out, conducted a sitting that was spotlessly professional, friendly and fun). It’s a close-up, one of the very few portraits in the book in which the model is not looking into the camera. I’m staring “offscreen” with what could be fear at what might happen or horror at something that has happened already. What’s interesting about the photograph isn’t that I’m not half-naked or splayed out on a bed or some awful couch, although that does set it apart from the majority of Silver Meadows‘s portraits. It’s that while the other women seem to exist as supporting props (“character” implies more dimension than he gives them) in someone else’s experience, the effect of my portrait is to draw the reader into my own experience. Whatever is to be found out about me must be sought in my eyes; my body and its possible uses are simply not available for consideration. I’ll never tell what I was thinking at the moment Hido released the shutter, but the image offers the reader nothing else but to imagine what that was.

What other portrait of a woman in Hido’s repertoire would one look at and wonder what she was thinking? There might be a few, but it doesn’t seem like that is ever the point with “Hido Girls.” This would be fair enough if the vision of the feminine that Hido offered departed from stereotype, but it doesn’t. Why is it left to an obscure art reviewer to point this out when it should be clear, when it should be ballsmackingly obvious to anyone with any regard for the way women are portrayed in this or any field? For a photographer of Hido’s obvious talent and stature, one who, no doubt, has friends and colleagues with both discernment and influence (on him and in the industry), one hopes that somebody will steer him to rethink his artistic relationship with the female, even if market forces never do.

#10967-2498 © Todd Hido 2012

#10967-2498 © Todd Hido 2012

Many of the images discussed in the above article were not available for reproduction in the press. This article first appeared in the Huffington Post, July 31, 2013.

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George Bellows at the Royal Academy of Art, Art Practical

Image

George Bellows. Stag at Sharkey’s, 1909; oil on canvas; 36.2 x 44.3 in. Courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art, Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection, Cleveland. © The Cleveland Museum of Art.

The American painter George Bellows is widely remembered for his early masterpiece, Stag at Sharkey’s (1909), a painting that represents a particularly American moment in art (one cannot imagine a French movement calling itself the “Ashcan School” ). Its depiction of a casual, democratic amalgam of high and low classes, unchecked criminality, bald financial opportunism, and exalted violence rendered with bravura and rough strokes make it exemplary of America’s penchant to elevate self-definition to the status of mythmaking. The work’s likely kindred is Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), or the later films noir, or even the Group Theater’s populist agitprop of the 1930s. It’s the sort of painting, and Bellows is the sort of painter, that people describe as masculine. Even the artist’s name sounds like a Bronx cheer shattering the polite silence of a museum.

The Royal Academy of Arts’s Bellows retrospective of seventy-one works displays a wider range of the artist’s talents while simultaneously zeroing in on why Stag at Sharkey’s has become his chef-d’oeuvre. In his Excavation series (1907–08), which depicts the section of Midtown New York razed to prepare for the future Penn Station, Bellows paints the vast construction site like a wound, with minute, bug-like workers against the muddy snow. He evokes a sense of destruction later associated with the station, which, less than sixty years later, was itself razed, one of the country’s most infamous desecrations of a historical and architectural treasure. Bellows avoids sentimentality, however, leaving no references to the less grand victims of this project: the demolished apartment blocks that once stood on this spot or their displaced inhabitants.

He abandons such restraint in his World War I pieces, the subjects of which he often got from news stories and photography in publications such as Collier’s and the Bryce reports in the New York Times.  These paintings lack the punch of other great war-themed artworks, like Picasso’s Guernica or Goya’s The Third of May, in which the antagonists are absent or faceless and war itself is the enemy. In The Germans Arrive (1918), on the other hand, Bellows depicts German soldiers as caricatured brutes with high cheekbones and Hun-style helmets, reducing the work to mere propaganda.1

Bellows also painted more genteel subjects, periodically returning to portraiture, but he seemed always compelled to expose some ugliness, inherent or perceived, in his sitters. His early portraits of children, such as Frankie, The Organ Boy(1907) or Little Girl in White (Queenie Burnett) (1907), could be by John Singer Sargent if not for the subjects’ wonky eyes—the overly black pupils of both children—and the clumsy construction of Frankie’s face. When Bellows resists this penchant for the grotesque, he seems to lose interest. His depiction of the relaxed park visitors in A Day in June (1913) is lovely, but it’s also static; nothing seems to be going on, inwardly or outwardly, in these people’s lives. This artist, who could render flesh so ripe that one can practically smell the sweat off it, doesn’t do much more here than sketch the characters. (continue reading)

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First Thursday Art Walk Tonight

Perpetual Motion, by Jamie Baldridge. Courtesy of Modernbook Gallery

Perpetual Motion, by Jamie Baldridge. Courtesy of Modernbook Gallery

Do you go to the First Thursday Art Walks downtown? The First Thursday of every month (barring when holidays kick it to the following week, as the 4th of July did in this instance) sees many of the downtown galleries open an extra hour or two, and hosting the opening of whatever new show is up that period. The epicenter of it all is 49 Geary, home to some of the most respected art galleries in the city (and country). Tonight, Modernbook Gallery presents photographer Jamie Baldridge’s new series Almost Fiction, featuring his digitally-manipulated, surreal narrative photographs. Baldridge will also be at the gallery signing copies of the series’s book, published by Modernbook Editions. Robert Koch has the opening reception for photographer Joshua Lutz’s non-linear narrative of his own mother’s battle with mental illness, Hesitating Beauty. At Haines Gallery, there is the opening reception for Congolese artist Aimé Mpane’s portraits made with plywood, glue, and finishing tools that date to the Stone Ages, and which explore the lingering effects of the Belgian Congo’s colonial history in A Dual Perspective. Today is also the last day one can see Tahiti Pehrson’s circadian rhythm-inspired cut-paper sculptures at K. Imperial Fine Art. A circadian rhythm is any biological process produced or synthesized within the organism or system where the internal physiological or behavioral events match the oscillation of 24 hours. You don’t want to miss that!

In addition to the openings and the ongoing shows that can make the First Thursday Art Walk a bit overwhelming, gallerists, curators, and even interns are often introducing the work and are available to answer questions. These are the people who know the work and its context better than anyone, and discussions with them are often as educative as they are enjoyable. Miniscule plastic cups of wine are also on offer, in case you need (very little) liquid courage to approach them.

Where? 49 Geary at Market

When? 5:30-7:30

Admission: free

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