Annie Leibovitz’s WOMEN: New Portraits, Art Practical

Misty Copeland, New York City, 2015 © Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz. Portrait of Misty Copeland, New York City, 2015; from WOMEN: New Portraits. Courtesy of UBS.

It’s hard to guess the reasoning behind the exhibition layout of WOMEN: New Portraits, photographer Annie Leibovitz’s continuation of her 1999–2000 collaboration with critic and partner Susan Sontag, which is currently on display at the Presidio’s Crissy Field before it resumes its world tour. Primacy is given to images from the original series, which are shown in slideshows across several large screens. Though disrupted by the grid pattern of the screens’ frames (presumably a technological necessity rather than aesthetic choice), the images are backlit and glorious, and large enough that one can sit in one of the crowd of chairs assembled and enjoy them comfortably. The “New Portraits,” on the other hand, are printed small and mounted unframed along a freestanding wall, and in such close proximity to each other that viewers (most of whom waited in long lines to get into the vast installation hall) are made to file past the small cluster of photographs, bending over or awkwardly standing on their toes to examine each one.

Though shown to greater aesthetic advantage, many of the older images in the current exhibition are nevertheless betrayed by time and evolving attitudes. I remember Leibovitz’s portrait of Heidi Fleiss, the notorious “Hollywood Madam” of the ’90s pre-Lewinsky sex scandals. Back then, her pose—sitting in her black convertible, bare legs splayed and drawing attention to the space between them—didn’t seem off. She was, after all, a sex worker. But now the portrait seems obnoxiously reductive and judgmental. Fleiss was the brains, not the body, of the operation. She was and is a businesswoman; to draw attention to her sexuality—not even her sexuality, but less, just her sex parts—is dismissive, as if any connection to sex work renders one’s own sexuality public game and the central feature of one’s character.1 Other shots invite similar critiques. A hotel maid poses with her hands clasped meekly in front of her, reinforcing the lazy presumption that domestic work is for the meek, or at least those willing to act meek while they’re on the clock.2 Also unfair is the portrait of the late movie star Elizabeth Taylor, whose wispy, white, fan-blown hair (in a shot clearly taken indoors) matches exactly the wispy, white, fan-blown hair of her dog. That wealthy older ladies come to resemble their canine companions is an unkind caricature created by a culture that despises age and resents the wealth of others, and to liken a woman of achievement, talent, and status to a dog is another reduction that is hard to imagine Leibovitz committing today.

To that end, the current photographs are careful, even timid. They don’t depict the outmoded prejudices of the earlier work, but neither do they indicate what those prejudices have been replaced with. All the women look dignified, even magisterial. They sit at their desks or at their pianos, or stand in their studios or ex situ, against a neutral background, elegantly gowned and coiffed and bearing expressions of quiet wisdom. Some are photographed in the physical contexts of their work, but those contexts don’t reveal anything beyond the basic information they convey, making the images less evocative than environmental portraiture. Gloria Steinem is a writer and so it makes sense that she is photographed at her cluttered desk. The singer Adele is pictured at her piano, unsurprisingly. Misty Copeland is en pointe, being a ballerina and all. (continue reading)

  1. Indeed, the portrait would seem nearly as simplistic and heavy-handed even if Fleiss had been a prostitute, as if the tool of her trade were required to be displayed at all times like an ID badge or an exit sign.
  2. Malala Yousafzai, the teenage education activist and assassination attempt survivor, poses in the current series with her hands in the same position. So there’s that.
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“The Hereditary Estate” by Daniel W. Coburn, for Art Practical


“Panoptic Stain” by Daniel W. Coburn, from The Hereditary Estate, Kehrer Verlag, 2014

Along the road as I walked, thinking about the mysteries of Easter, veils—seemed to drop off my eyes! Light, oh light! I have never seen such brilliance! It pricked my eyeballs like needles!…yes, yes, light. You know, you know we live in light and shadow, that’s, that’s what we live in, a world of—light and—shadow…

—Tennessee Williams, Orpheus Descending, Dramatists Play Service, 1957

Light plays a complex and outsized role in The Hereditary Estate (Kehrer Verlag, 2014), photographer Daniel Coburn’s “broken family album,” to borrow a phrase of the photographer.1 Light not only illuminates the vivid Southern gothic panache of Coburn’s subjects—his extended family in and around Topeka, Kansas—but also seemingly seizes and manipulates their actions, leaving them stunned and confounded. Take two contrasting photographs of Coburn’s mother, for example. In The Matriarch, a slab of harsh white light has fallen across her face as if with the force of a poleax. She lies on her side, arms stiff, mascaraed eyes staring blankly, looking as if she was felled rather than simply resting. In Divine Light, she stands backlit like a movie star against a backdrop of trees and a picket fence as a benign sun hovers beyond the branches over her head and radiates light through the fence posts. That glowing orb and its slanting beams seem to nudge her forward toward the viewer, and she stands with one foot primed as if ready to walk out of the frame.

The image is just this side of sentimental; the flattering soft light, pyramidal composition, and quaint setting almost produce the effect of a sugary religious tableau. But there’s something hard, pragmatic, and fully terrestrial in her eyes. While in the previous image his mother appears as the passive object of a malevolent light’s violence, in Divine Light she and the light appear to work in conspiracy with one another. Fluorescent flames in the image of a brush fire on the adjacent page lick across the grass, as if summoned by her from across the gutter to the other side of the book.


“The Matriarch” by Daniel W. Coburn, from The Hereditary Estate, Kehrer Verlag, 2014

The Hereditary Estate is full of images like these, in which light’s presence goes beyond merely coloring or enhancing the drama depicted, and becomes as much a dramatic persona as any of the people featured within. In Suspension, a woman hurls an armful of snow toward the camera, each flake blindingly white against the black background, the constellation of them obscuring her own form but for her mischievous grin on their apparent trajectory straight into the camera. In Communion, a man sits staring as if enchanted within a frame of Christmas lights, each bulb blurred into a spindly cross formation (presumably by Coburn shaking the camera during exposure). Through Coburn’s lens, light plays, sometimes with his human personages and sometimes at their expense. He includes found photos that he has also manipulated, scratching out faces, cutting and pasting photos together to produce dissonant, eerie vignettes, like one that depicts a woman embraced by a man, who is himself embraced and kissed by a slightly larger version of himself.

“Small Ransom,” manipulated found photograph by Daniel W. Coburn, from The Hereditary Estate, Kehrer Verlag 2014

And in others Coburn uses props to devise odd, macabre, heathenishly mystical images. In Panoptic Stain, a man whose eyes are replaced with photos of eyes ripped from fashion magazines creates a portrait that is scary, repulsive, and momentarily believable. In Shelter, a child with muddy hands and an outgrown Mohawk peers through a broken turtle shell. The gesture is natural to the playfulness of childhood, but as with so many images in The Hereditary Estate, hints at something more. The impression the collection makes suggests the weird, ritualistic, DIY religiosity preoccupied with levitation and animism one sometimes hears or reads about coming out of the rural South, although there’s nothing in the book that indicates poverty, and Coburn himself is from San Bernardino. The objects in The Hereditary Estate seem like talismans, infused with metaphorical import by their handlers, who all seem versed in the language of some secretive local pagan/Christian patchwork spirituality to which we are not privy. In one image a pair of meaty hands wrap around the mother’s face like a Holy Roller pastor who clutches his congregant’s head, exhorting the spirit to drive out her demons or commanding her to speak in tongues. (continue reading)

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Sophie Calle at Fraenkel Gallery

04-30_Calle_Cash Machine_1991-2003

Cash Machine (04-30), 1991 – 2003

In my early days as a theater student, when my teacher was tired of our careful, over-polished, actorish acting, he’d exhort us to show our “bathroom selves.” Your bathroom self is who you are before you apply your mask for the day–or after you’ve sweat or cried or fucked it off. It’s the face you must reckon with in the mirror without the prettifying effects you’ve cultivated to best mimic the person you want to be when people are watching. It’s your butt-scratching, nose picking, pimple-prodding, resting bitchface self. It’s the one who winces with shame but doesn’t try to change the subject as you recount every petty, mean-spirited, vindictive, clumsy, desperate, venal, humiliating, self-destructive thing you’ve ever done or said, and acknowledges for a moment that that is an undeniable truth about you, underneath your vaingloriously devised veneer of makeup and manners. Only the bathroom witnesses it, your shitmost self.

Sophie Calle has spent nearly thirty years investigating another sort of “bathroom self,” a cousin to the one my acting teacher sought, one that emerges in the presence of, or absence of, money. For Fraenkel Gallery’s show featuring four bodies of Calle’s work, the press release states that the works explore the themes of “love, violence, secrets, and death,” but for me money was the silent partner even when it wasn’t the principle actor. The first gallery offered a grid of the most straightforward depictions of this self. “Cash Machine” comprises images lifted from ATM surveillance footage. What do you imagine you look like when you think no one can see you checking your bank balance? Judging by this sequence of candid images, you are a sad clown: worry, suspicion, bewilderment, guilt, disappointment, and gobsmacked shock manifest in the faces of the customers of various ATMs in the late ’80’s and early ’90’s. One can only guess, but it seems from their toilette and clothing, that these people are working class, and that one is having a chuckle at the expense of the poor reckoning with their poverty.


Cash Machine (02-13), 1991 – 2003

In the second room was a sandblasted glass triptych.

“They say the police can distinguish between people who drown themselves for love and those who drown themselves for money. Lovers change their minds, their fingers scraped from clinging to the piers. Debtors sink to the bottom like a slab of concrete.”


Suicide, 2014 three pigment prints, sandblasted glass with text from an edition of 3 + 2 APs 44-1/4 x 78-3/4 x 1-3/4 inches (overall installed)

These words float over images of dark, deep, agitated water, which is disconcertingly depicted sideways, its ripples and swells aligning vertically. Notable is that Calle fixated upon this counterintuitive factoid: money so enslaves us that the despair from our mishandling of it annihilates our hope more completely even than romantic heartbreak.

Directly across from the triptych was an odd, unassuming installation of two safes embedded in the wall. But there was a plaque between them with the text:

“Find a couple.

Have each of them tell me a secret.

Install two safes in their home.

Lock each of them up in its own safe.

Keep the codes to myself.

The lovers will have to live with the other’s secret

close at hand but out of reach.”

Realization of “Secrets”’s portent rises in the gut like nausea: Some presumably happy couple, one that shares interests and makes major financial decisions together (like investing in art), will not only tell an outsider to their marriage things they have kept from each other, but will then have, in their home, for as long as they live or can stand it, two heavy, gleaming symbols of their mutual alienation – however wide or narrow that alienation may be. Each could have suspected or even assumed the other kept something of themselves private for the sake of mystery, or just hadn’t disclosed everything because it’s impossible to fully “know” another human being – We are large, we contain multitudes, after all – But “Secrets” removes all doubt: each person does in fact deliberately keep a secret from the other, a secret neither intends ever to reveal, and they have even paid major art world prices to have these secrets conspicuously concealed in twin vaults that will remind them every day of the chosen truths they refuse to share with each other. And their guests can ask them all about it at every dinner party they throw for the rest of their lives. Vive l’amour!

0159_Calle_Collateral Damage. Targets_1990-2003

Collateral Damage. Targets (Dommages collatéraux, Coeur de Cible), 1990 – 2003 pigment print from an edition of 3 + 1 AP, 32 x 20 inches (framed)

The provocation of “Secrets” is explicit; the impulse to expose oneself and one’s closest relationship to that provocation, mystifying and ballsy. But juxtaposed as the “Secrets” installation was with “Collateral Damage, Targets” in the final gallery, a correlation emerged despite the seemingly disparate themes. “Collateral Damage” comprises 13 color images  of petty offenders whose mugshots police enlarged and used in target practice. The pigment prints are splattered with bullet holes and the subjects’ eyes are obscured with bars of frosted glass (Calle’s, not the police’s, alteration).The punctured images are sad and shaming. Little would be less encouraging, less life-affirming, to someone in what one can assume are circumstances of disadvantage and dim hope than to know that his banal, desperate acts earned him the rank of something law enforcement uses to practice more efficient killing. Judging from the mustaches and hairstyles, the actual mugshots seem to be from the late seventies through the eighties, the timeframe of the project was between 1990 and 2003, and all the subjects are white. Nevertheless it was hard not to regard the prints, neatly aligned on the wall (like a lineup, in fact) without their bringing to mind the recent surge in coverage of police brutality, Black Lives Matter, and the revelations of the the casual disregard for human life seemingly endemic to our law enforcement.

While the affluent can toy with notions of privacy, tinkering with their boundaries, revealing and concealing their secrets on their own terms (or that of an artist they paid), the privacy of the poor is cheap and violable with impunity. Poverty and the bad decisions one makes at its behest are sometimes treated as a renunciation of one’s agency: try to sell an ounce of weed to a UC and you no longer “own” your own face. Calle’s exploration of themes surrounding money over the past three decades did not yield anything she considers conclusive. She professes her failure in both a written chronology and a charming short film played in the last gallery. Regardless of the artist’s dissatisfaction, the film offers extempore insights that informed this exhibit’s assembled branches of her work. In it, Calle sidles up to strangers at ATMs – parlez-moi dargent. The poorer-looking ones seem surprised and perplexed, like they’d been cornered – their faces reveal so much – but they engage in some café philosophizing.The richer-looking ones decline to speak, and walk away.

0146c_Calle_Secrets_2014_two safes

Secrets, 2014 silver plate, legal contract, two safes from an edition of 7 + 2 APs 8 x 10 x 8 inches (each safe) 2-3/4 x 4 inches (silver plate)

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A Seashell Temple, A Glowflower Tree, and More Art Adventures at Burning Man, for Hyperallergic


“Temple of Promise,” by Jazz Tigan and the Dreamers Guild

The playa is never silent; you adapt quickly to the spectrum of ceaseless noise, ranging from a low, distant hum with a faint pulse to a din with a beat that shakes the ground under you. The sounds of EDM, diesel fire, megaphoned hollering, laughter, live music, and sex are constant in the camps. At Burning Man, even dubstep makes sense: Its broken syncopations and surprise mechanized screeches are a perfect soundtrack to the halting journey of a bus shaped like a stegosaurus, a mammoth fossil, a casbah, or a Chuck Taylor sneaker as it inches past, resembling less a tricked-out vehicle than a giant mechanized toy simultaneously breaking down and lurching to life. Emerging from the camp radius and into the inner playa, it’s the music from the cruising art cars and the roar of their diesel flame-shooters that follow you, their various rhythms merging and clashing as you navigate the vehicles’ aural territories.


Mayan Warrior, art car by John Chandler

Something close to silence approaches when you enter the deep playa, beyond the larger art installations, beyond the Temple, close to the poignantly named Trash Fence that separates the parameters of the festival from the miles of flat desert beyond it. Maybe you start to hear the sex noises again — heavy breathing and the occasional moan drifting out from… it’s not clear where; it could be from miles away, carried on some wisp of wind through a gap in the pastiche of EDM, or you could have stumbled on some burners enjoying themselves away from their beds and campmates. Occasionally a goat bleats.

Wait, what?

And something else is off: the moans aren’t coming from one place, but several different directions and distances. It’s surround-sound moaning and…surely that wasn’t actually a farm animal, was it? Neither of the men who squired you that night noticed or remembered it, and you worry what it might say about you that this is what your brain devises to entertain taunt you when left to its own vices. Later you find out you weren’t hallucinating, and you weren’t accidentally eavesdropping on all the fun apparently everyone but you was having (the recollection of the goat’s bleats hovering darkly in your memory): It was all a sound installation, witty but easily missed or ignored at a festival known for volume and spectacle. (Burning Man representatives had no knowledge of this installation.)


“Serpent Mother” by the Flaming Lotus Girls

But the deep playa is, for the most part, a quiet place, with artworks placed far enough from each other that they disappear from view when the dust picks up. The installations built out there are smaller, less ostentatious; rather than dazzle, they invite contemplation. “Stargazers Anonymous” was one such piece, a circle of skeletal cubes and pyramids strung with dangling wind chimes and clusters of soft lights where one could sit quietly and enjoy the silence and the night without fear of being run over in the darkness by a bike or an art car (a very real danger on the playa). The night I visited, “Stargazers Anonymous” was being tended by a man I was pretty sure was himself made of stained glass. His head was a starburst and he spoke in poetics, calling himself Jingles.

Let’s say you’ve put yourself in the care of your two squires, depending upon them to reassure you that you’re not actually cold, you just think you’re cold — because that’s somehow better. You begin to hear the faint rhythmic thumping of some distant art car’s bass, and when you look to the far-off city, you see its colored lights break loose from their hubs and start bouncing up and up and over the arc of the sky, away from the city and toward the diamantine moon, which in the early night shimmers over the empty blackness of the outer playa beyond the Trash Fence. She looks best out there, pristine and proud and privately winking at you, just you. Later in the night she’ll float west and suspend herself above the city proper, competing with the thousands of lesser lights contrived from batteries and diesel and LEDs. You feel sorry for the moon, forced to share space with these pretenders, and ask her why she doesn’t float back to her dark silent kingdom over the Astral Plane, but she just shrugs. You can tell by the stoicism of her reaction that she regularly submits to this banal cityfolk schedule, and that makes you sad.

But your squires — you need them to concur that Jingles doesn’t really exist as we do, but maybe jumped out of one of those paintings in the Black Rock City Museum, the ones that were clearly painted under the influence of some amazing drug you’ve definitely never heard of, but you see that one squire cannot engage in this important conversation because he is sitting on the ground, cross-legged like a dusty Buddha, while Jingles paints starbursts and solar crescents on his face. Now his eyes are closed and his cheeks are sparkling and hatching smaller lights that rise like glowing steam and fly away, fizzing and popping and gliding along the Gallé sky. The other squire is shindig-shittingly sober; he informs you that Jingles the Starburst Man is not in fact made of stained glass but is merely wearing a white suit with LEDs sewn into the lining, and that he doesn’t speak in poetics, just with an Australian accent.


Not a champagne temple, no moat. “Reflect” by Awesome Co-op.

This squire won’t let you step over the Trash Fence and walk toward the moonbeam you can just make out about a mile or maybe five in the distance; he won’t even let you pee next to this nice police car parked conveniently in the darkness just beyond the halo of pink light cast by the bubbling champagne temple with the sapphire moat (which he claims is not a moat). In fact, he won’t let you pee next to any of the hundreds of police cars parked, sometimes three or four abreast, anywhere on the playa where people have congregated to dance or listen to music or watch a sculpture burn to the ground. What the hell is his goddamn problem, you discuss for the next four hours, and why is he letting those bureaucrats tell us where we can and can’t walk and pee, and why is he letting the moon languish in the firmament above the normal world with all the normies and their battery-powered banalities? He is cold, too, so you lend him the warlock cloak you keep in your tricycle basket, and it flows magnificently behind him as he rides toward the city — until it gets tangled in his bike chain and you both have to stop and park under the pulsing glowflower tree, with its blossoms blooming and unblooming and rainbow lightsap trickling down to its roots. You want to return to the Astral Plane beyond the Trash Fence and persuade the moon to light your path to those moonbeams she sprinkled at the foot of the Callico Hills so you can gather a few to put in your hair when you dance for the Shadow People. You don’t want to be stuck on the bourgeois Middle Playa searching for a bike wrench while your squire complains about his blister.


Not a glowflower tree. This is actually a bike rack. “TrEeD” by Tyler FuQua

Wherever you find yourself as the sky begins to blanch, you make your way to the Temple, which this year was designed by Jazz Tigan. Part seashell, part cornucopia, its walls feature horizontal wooden slits that allow the sky to paint patterns of constantly changing lights and colors on the interior, and from the outside, to show those colors and lights through the openwork façade. The Temple is a nondenominational sacred space where Burners leave remembrances of the dead and talismans imbued with their hopes for the living. Among the personal photographs and mementos are acknowledgments of recent publicly observed tragedies. This year there were altars to Black Lives Matter bearing vases of plastic flowers and framed images of victims of police brutality; in 2013 there was a memorial to the children of Sandy Hook. Next year may see shrines to the victims of attacks in Paris, Beirut, Mali … What hasn’t changed in the few years I have attended is the presence of so many photographs of young men: doe-eyed, pink cheeked youths who look as if they’d fit right in on the playa if they were wearing furry boots and facepaint instead of fatigues, young men who have been killed in some other desert in one of our interminable wars. (Continue Reading)


“Totem of Confessions” by Michael Garlington

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Sexxxitecture at CULT, for Frieze Magazine


Interior Storybook (Queen bed), 2014, Acrylic on bed sheet, 80×60 inches


When you attend a show titled ‘Sexxxitecture’, you know both what to look for and the danger of projecting too much onto what you see. Purporting to ‘explore the complex relationship between architecture and people’, this group exhibition featuring seven artists focused on how sexuality fits into and is affected by man-made structures.

While exploring how ‘the built environment informs human sexual dynamics,’ the exhibition had the effect of highlighting the often comically antagonistic relationship between buildings and human sexuality. What can be the most sublime physical and spiritual experience available to human beings is, in fact, subject to sabotage by the discomfort and loin-frosting ugliness of the structures we have designed, built and furnished, presumably to soothe our souls and enhance our comfort. Daniel Gerwin’s sculptures – for instance, Leaving Home (2012) and Dress Up(2014), jagged-edged and forbidding to the touch, suggests violently broken bedframes and spiked peepholes. Two paintings by Roman Liska resemble magnified carpet burns, mounted like trophies on the wall (‘Dazzle Paintings’, 2015). The press release for ‘Sexxxitecture’ rightly pointed out the aphrodisiac effect that balance, sleekness, harmony and luxury have on many. Alejandro Almanza Pereda trolled such sensitivities with his witty installation of chintzy shelves, barely supported by nonsensical totems of upside-down statuettes, assorted books, even thin glass bowls. In a smart use of CULT’s dim and low-ceilinged middle room, gallery director Aimee Friberg placed a small, bare, antique single bed, with small roses painted on the headboard and a Jacquard pattern on the mattress. Peering in from behind the frayed black curtain felt more invasive than voyeuristic, like one was about to uncover a tragic secret. The tableau was a grim mix of the sinister and the innocent: its dimensions claustrophobic rather than cosy, the bed, which it’s hard to imagine accommodating one adult body, let alone two of them, could nevertheless be construed as the scene of some dark sex act. (continue reading)

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“Anonymization”: How Urban Sprawl Created a Homogenous and Hostile World, for Hyperallergic.

Dubai, UAE, 2009. Robert Harding Pittman

Dubai, UAE, 2009. Robert Harding Pittman

LOS ANGELES — The list of ways the US has negatively influenced the rest of the world is long and shameful: unnecessary, interminable wars, nutritionally inane fast-food chains, a habit of wasteful consumption based on instant obsolescence. The list goes on, and one can see why at least some of our exports caught on. The notion of urban sprawl is not one of them. Surely, you’d think, a glance through snapshots of any one of our thousands of forbiddingly bland suburban communities would make a country accustomed to walkable cities, villages, and farms, architectural diversity, and efficient public transportation, politely decline. But the US has successfully exported not only the idea of sprawl, but the look of it as well, and there are communities (for a more appropriate word does not exist to describe something so decidedly anti-community) in South Korea, Greece, Spain, the UAE, France, and Germany, that no longer resemble their native cultures and could easily be mistaken for Walnut Creek.

When photographer Robert Harding Pittman was studying at the California Institute of the Arts, these developments were metastasizing all over Los Angeles; when he moved on to study in Spain, identical developments were creeping into view there. After years of photographing the preparation of the land, the erection of prefab boxes, the laying down of miles of asphalt, and the half-formed structures and detritus left when building was halted in the wake of the economic collapse, Pittman published Anonymization (Kehrer Verlag 2012). A showing of the series is up at Spot Photo Works in Los Angeles through June 16.

Pittman wisely chose to group the photographs by stages of development rather than by location, preventing the reader from picking up on the distinctive features of each place and instead paying attention to the processes that render those locations indistinguishable from each other: Sacred Ground (first stages of ground preparation), Conversion, Prefabricated, and Aftermath. Fouled soil and gravel piles look the same in Dubai and Seoul; this or that tract housing complex could be in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or Murcia, Spain. Abandoned structures look sad and effete in the Peloponnese Peninsula or in Alamogordo. In deliberately confusing the locales and effacing their individual characteristics, the work communicates the ruthless ideology behind developmental sprawl. The peculiarities of place — the natural environment and topography, the architectural styles, anthropological elements such as how the people of a given place have historically lived and socialized, even the local availability and sustainability of necessary resources — none of that matters. If developers seek to make their constructions attractive to an affluent clientele, one that might require access to clichéd Western one percenter hobbies like golf, they’ll make that golf course, dammit, and pump in the water for the buzz cut grass lawn whether it’s in Benidorm, Spain, or the middle of the Arabian Desert. When the money dries up or the global economy implodes, developers all abandon the projects at whatever stages they have reached with equal disregard for the desecrated landscapes. These ruins do not turn into Ostia Antica. Spilled nails stain Spanish pavements with rust, skeletons of single-family homes perch atop Grecian hillsides, palm trees planted ready-grown into Emirati yards dry out and die in the absence of the high-maintenance irrigation systems necessary to sustain them where nothing was ever meant to live.

Mall of the Emirates, Dubai, UAE. Robert Harding Pittman.

Mall of the Emirates, Dubai, UAE. Robert Harding Pittman.

Yet what no doubt appears as a shameful blight on the natural world makes for elegant, even beautiful photographs, and probably more so for those whose tastes lean towards the stark and geometric. Minimalists who want to prove they have a sense of humor should buy these prints. It’s hard to believe that anything aesthetically pleasing could be found in the parking lot of Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates. But Pittman found a pristine patch in the lot where the lilac pavement is still unmarred by tread marks, where the angles of the painted white stripes and the concrete stoppers create an immaculate, yet dynamic composition — the stoppers somehow conveying speed despite their stillness, like lined-up torpedoes. A line of spookily identical houses looks like one house, seeing its own reflection in a pair of infinity mirrors. A lone, intrepid weed has sprouted against all odds in the front, or back, “lawn” or driveway (it is unclear which, as it is just sand) of one of the houses. In a vista of beiges that even bleed into the blue of the sky, this spot of green is like a rebellion; the starburst pattern of its stems and leaves look as if the plant burst out of the ground in glee, unaware of the crushing, unnatural hostility of its new surroundings. (continue reading)

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I Modeled for Todd Hido

#10967-2498 © Todd Hido 2012

#10967-2498 © Todd Hido 2012

A woman clasps her hand to her mouth. Visible in her eyes could be fear, horror, grief, or even just acute worry.

The image described is not the one above, but one similar sent to me by a friend, who in the Spring of 2012 was assistant to photographer Todd Hido. Hido was working on a shot for which he felt he needed an actress and my friend knew I had theatre training. I stared at the example image, intrigued, flattered, and not a little curious.

Hido is one of the biggest names in photography today. There are two best-known branches of his oeuvre, one involving suburban houses and landscapes, and the other, women.

There is a strange opposition in Hido’s vision. His unpeopled scenes are gravid with unarticulated emotion and withheld answers to unformed questions — houses with their interior lights shining almost too-brightly in the night, grimly beautiful barren landscapes shot through sun-spotted windshields, fog hanging heavy like a psychic pestilence. Suburbia was never as innocent as we told ourselves. He imbues these familiar subjects with a low-flame drama that makes you suspect you’ve never noticed their quiet, sad, and sometimes threatening beauty or perceived their fugitive secrets.

#10845-7 © Todd Hido 2012

#10845-7 © Todd Hido 2012

Hido’s photographs of women — well, I had been more ambivalent about them. Where he finds an unexpected richness in the familiar when photographing inanimate objects, he rehashes regrettable and outmoded cultural cliches when he trains his lens on human beings.

Women slouch on seedy bedspreads or lie slumped in the backseat of a car, sucking a liquor bottle. They’re most often represented in their underwear or fully nude, although occasional nods to other eras appear in vintage costuming and coiffure. They stare through glazed eyes over cheeks stained with mascara tears, or cower in ripped stockings as some unseen menace approaches. Some of the characters appear drugged. These women seem like passive bit players in other people’s dramas, their main function is sexual, they’re victims of their own, if not someone else’s, bad decisions.

The drama in Hido’s photos of women is still there, but its nature is not quite so unusual or revelatory as that in his images of houses or trees. We are all unfortunately habituated to seeing women portrayed in this way. Hido tends to sequence his photographs as part of larger projects like exhibits and books. What gets a reluctant pass upon assessing the images individually, is more troubling when examining them as a group. It’s hard not to wonder why women occupy such limited roles in his imagined dramas. The repetitive tokenism of Casting Call Woe comes to mind.

Untitled #10474-a © Todd Hido, 2011.

Untitled #10474-a © Todd Hido, 2011.


For my modeling session, I would not be asked to take my clothes off. I was invited to invest a character with more, or at least a different kind of, humanity usually conveyed by “Hido girls.” My sexuality would be left ambiguous and there would be nothing suggesting I was or wasn’t a victim. The drama would be in my face and whatever I was able to project through my eyes, not the situation my body was shown in, what carpet shag I was sprawled out on or what kind of underwear or runny tights I was wearing. As far as I could tell, this image could represent an intriguing departure for Hido, and I was curious to see what he would do. For sure, art history (and literary history, and music history, and history) is full of men comprehending and depicting women within similarly narrow parameters to Hido’s. But an artist with talent can evolve.

My portrait was to be a part of a project called Silver Meadows. Hido exhibited “Excerpts from Silver Meadows,” an early incarnation of the series, at Wirtz Gallery in 2012. I had actually reviewed the show (by the way, I am an art critic), extrapolating on my unease with his portrayals of women. In a magnificently awkward coincidence, the article went live the day I was scheduled to model. If he was irked by the review when it appeared that morning, by evening, when we were to meet, he seemed to have forgiven me, and was receptive to the notion that my criticism was valid.

For convenience, Hido, his assistant and I met at a gallery opening. We grabbed takeout from Tu Lan, and on the drive to his Oakland home and studio chatted about TV shows and Obama’s rendition of “Let’s Stay Together.” Over spring rolls and beef salad we talked about whether it was possible to portray a woman in the sort of fraught situations he imagined, but in a way that still afforded her some power, and some agency. I knew it was possible; I had spent too much time studying IbsenWilliams, even Sarah Kane, for it to be a question. But it seemed like a new concept to Hido — or the notion that his photographs did not suggest that a woman could be seen this way seemed like a new concept to him. Could a frightened woman still be powerful? Could she be sexual without being a sex object in a scenario rendered by a male artist?

Hido suggested that in this and future shoots we could experiment with this different kind of portrayal of women, one in which she existed in his famously sinister, lurid, carnal world but with an inner will pushing back against passivity, complicating her character into something more than victim or vamp. While I was excited to witness and possibly participate in what might be an expansion of his work, I wondered why the idea was new to him, why no one in his network of friends and supporters had broached the topic to him before. It was not a new or obscure idea, and I knew from many conversations I had had with others that my reaction to his work was not unique, though as far as I knew, I was the only one who had said anything publicly. He was thoughtful, even humble, and it seemed my review had troubled his mind but hadn’t offended his ego. He spoke with both me and his assistant as equals, and by the time we were finished with our meal I was relaxed and excited to work.


I’ve been a performer of one kind or another most of my life, and know well that the scrutiny of an audience, that army of eyes in the dark, can draw strange new inner personae to life and move you to give over more than you knew you had. But the weight of an artist’s stare is something different, freighted with bigger, heavier, more unknowable expectations than those of a passive audience. He means to create something out of the material that is you, your physical appearance as well as the visible manifestations of your thoughts and the feelings that emerge, sometimes unbidden, under his direction. It’s hard not to suspect that the artist is searching your visage for something you will surely fail to give him, and that he is nevertheless finding more than you ever meant to disclose. It’s rather like the gaze of someone who thinks they are in love with you but who in fact doesn’t know you very well at all: for them you are an amalgam of projections and desires, and the intensity of their stare will yield something false and foreign — but weirdly intimate all the same, and possibly a beautiful creation in its own right, however forced, and however much unlike you it is in the end. Modeling feels like not so much a performance as a sort of painless vivisection.

He told me where to look, where to place my hand, and switched cameras, many of which looked to me like toys, numerous times. His assistant rapidly changed lenses and film and manipulated the hot white light. It was an impeccably choreographed display of efficiency between the two of them, so practiced and finessed that they could frequently make hilarious jokes at each other without missing a beat. I appreciated their levity and humor, as the whir of activity, the attention, the streamlined unrelenting professionalism of their process was bearing down on me in a way I found difficult to justify. I hadn’t even taken off my coat, and my hand was covering half my face, but I felt exposed to a degree I hadn’t anticipated, like a small naked child waking up in a room full of adults speaking a foreign language. Hido’s directions were banal and unobtrusive: “Look up.” “Think of something terrible.”

Nothing inappropriate was done or said throughout the sitting. That I felt like Hido was plumbing my inner life was due entirely to, as Alexander Nemerov puts it, the photographers’ fanatical quality of attention, and I emerged from the shoot with a new respect for anyone who doesn’t wilt under it.

The resulting portrait seemed to satisfy Hido’s hopes for what it would be, and I was up for continuing our exploration of the more complex and counterintuitive ways he might portray the women populating his artistic imagination. But we never did schedule another sitting.

#10967-2498 © Todd Hido 2012

#10967-2498 © Todd Hido 2012

The photograph of me was used as the penultimate image in the book Silver Meadows (Nazraeli Press, 2013) in which, with the exception of this one portrait, everything I had originally objected to in his portrayals of women was repeated and even exaggerated. I reviewed the book in a manner that probably shut the door on any future collaborations.


I recently went to Paris Photo LA and saw the exhibit Selections from a Survey, a series by Hido, combining new and old work, focusing on his primary model, a blonde chameleon named Khrystyna. I don’t know if the concept for the show was Hido’s or that of his new Bay Area gallerists Casemore/Kirkeby. Whoever is owed credit, the show is an example of the power of curation.

Hido’s preoccupations have not changed. Khrystyna appeared in various wigs and states of dress and undress, sensuously inviting, sexually prone, crying, pouting, cowering, apparently frightened of or tearfully recovering from some violence wrought by an unseen antagonist. Adding to the menacing atmosphere in which she lived were malevolently glowing interiors, Poltergeist televisions, landscapes of glowering skies and roads perilously slickened with rain, as well as additional found photographs of hulking footballers and wrecked cars. But it’s the fact that one followed just one woman through these scenes and incarnations that made a big difference. In other series of Hido’s, many women appear in these contexts, their number and similar roles implying interchangeability and reducing them to anonymity — footnotes and pattern-fillers in a man’s drama.

Cached in a tiny fake storefront occupied by the gallery on the fair’s Paramount Studios backlot, Selections was more like a character study of Hido’s subject: an impetuous, bewildered, and reactive tragic heroine, magnetic but doomed, blessed and abandoned by Luck. Though the series was conceived by Hido, the drama belonged to Khrystyna and hers was the world into which gallery-goers were immersed. It doesn’t matter that Selections’ scenes were “drawn from Hido’s own biography” and “imperfect memory” as the press release states; it was, in fact, curiosity toward Khrystyna’s psyche and experience that came to dominate. In a break from his usual practice of using women as one-dimensional extras and walk-ons, Hido made this one the “star” and managed to preserve her humanity.

I wouldn’t presume to have had any influence on Hido’s work, but it seems it is changing, slowly. I’m glad I had the experience of existing in front of his lens, and I’m happy to cede the modeling field to those who, like the “shape-shifter” Khrystyna, aren’t catapulted into psychic apoplexy by it. I remain curious to observe where Hido’s art goes, what the next focus will be, whether he will discover any new and unorthodox women populating his imperfect memory.

This article originally appeared in Vantage.

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J.M.W. Turner, the Sublime, and Me. For Hyperallergic

Joseph Mallord William Turner, “Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth” (exhibited 1842), oil on canvas, (Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856) (all images courtesy Getty Museum)

“You don’t experience the sublime looking through double glazing, or at a distant electric storm, or watching a sea rage on TV,” wrote AA Gill in The Golden Door: Letters to America.

… and yet you can, when viewing a painting. How is that? Something strange came over me while wandering the exhibition halls of the Getty Museum’s show J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free. I found myself dangerously close to experiencing an embarrassing eruption of feelings, and not just one or two feelings, but all of them, All of The Feelings, all at once and at full volume. Without knowing why, without even being able to identify any single work that could have this effect, I willed back tears and held my hand to my breast, surprised and abashed at the cliched dramatics of my gesture, the histrionics roiling within me, my very own internal “Snow Storm” tossing up my waters.
What was going on? Turner’s prolific, no-fucks-given output in the last 16 years of his life, the focus of this exhibition, garnered mockery and accusations of blindness and mental illness from collectors and critics, even formerly devoted ones like John Ruskin. Both the oil paintings and the watercolors on view flaunt those freedoms he took that triggered the outrage of his detractors and presaged later movements that in their own time were considered revolutionary. His canvases are a rough topography of thick impasto, sometimes smeared on with a palette knife. His watercolors, conversely, seem barely touched, as faint as afterimages and as immaterial as memories. Turner’s highly personal use of color extends across media: hues can denote either time of day and weather or emotional timbre or both. His penchant for yellow appears as shimmering sunshine reflecting off golden-hued scenes out of classical mythology, the sun itself boring a hot, dry hole through a damp, limpid dawn, and hellish flames consuming the Houses of Lords and Commons. Blue ranges from the cool placidity of a Swiss lake and the fog floating above it to laden storm clouds hanging heavy over an obscure landscape, to the storm itself, obliterating the moonlight over a sea in tumult, and darkening to suggest the depths below. Red is used as punctuation, clarifying a burning tower here, a lone cow there, or a blood-soaked imaginary ground at has-been Napoleon’s feet, which he stares at, newly contemplative in exile. (Continue reading)

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Strange Developments: Alternative Process Photography in the Bay Area, a panel discussion

If you can stand the sound of my speaking voice, which I cannot, here is a panel discussion I recently did with the amazing photographers Chris McCaw, John Chiara, and Niniane Kelley at SF Camerawork. This was the first (wildly successful, sold-out) event in a series I have started with Alexis Gordan of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, of discussions, studio visits, and salons focusing on the arts in the Bay Area.

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The Sibling Rivalry that Shaped Arbus’s Vision: Alexander Nemerov’s Silent Dialogues, in Hyperallergic.

Diane Arbus, “Untitled (7) 1970–71″ (1970–71) © The Estate of Diane Arbus LLC

Diane Arbus, “Untitled (7) 1970–71″ (1970–71) © The Estate of Diane Arbus LLC

The camera … may want to know, to develop, to expose, but what it can also do, if pressed, is reveal the flowered vacancy of the invisibilities, the mixed-up motivations, that only a wise author could portray.” — Alexander Nemerov, Silent Dialogues

In Silent Dialogues, art historian Alexander Nemerov, son of former US Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov and nephew of Diane Arbus, traces his father’s evolving attitudes toward photography and his sister’s work in particular. Identifying parallels between the two, Nemerov concludes that Arbus’s art ultimately surpassed that of her poet brother, and justifies the comparison by pointing out that each sought a kind of mystical revelation through their practice. Both, he writes, wanted to discover and reveal the people who “know the utmost we can know,” something beyond the explicitly documentable, close to a spiritual revelation. While this might be the natural pursuit of a certain kind of poet, it was an unprecedented quest for a photographer, for at the time, most of the art world embraced Nemerov’s limited view of the medium.

Prejudiced against photography as “part of a journalistic disenchantment with the world,” bearing “the creepiest relation to past-ness … the freezing of life,” Howard Nemerov found his sister’s images particularly ghastly, alienated as they were from his poetry of “flitting things, of dragonflies and cinnamon moths, of falling leaves and swimming koi.” Revealingly, when Nemerov was asked to show a visitor what became one of his sister’s most iconic works, “Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J. 1966,” he took the print from where it was kept loose in a drawer and held it by one corner “as if it were … a wet rag fished out of the trash.” Alexander Nemerov insinuates that it was ultimately professional rivalry that caused Howard to reevaluate his response to his sister’s work and field.

If H. Nemerov came around to Arbus’s work reluctantly, it was his initial dismissiveness that had informed her work, if only to show her the kind of photographs she did not want to take, and propelled her to “push down on this (medium’s) extraordinary literalness, until it yields something like …. ‘a hallucination that was really there.’” As Arbus sought out the mystics and prophets directly, those who “believe in the imminent end of the world” or can see when “the Messiah comes wandering out of the woods,” H. Nemerov was arriving at the realization that his own oeuvre was closer kin to that of nature poet William Wordsworththan that of the poet of mystics and prophets, William Blake — a disappointing realization, no doubt, for someone of his esoteric ambitions. He began to see that Arbus’s photographs were not “grotesque oddities but, rather … visions of the way we are,” and this revelation jettisoned his own practice into a two-year long writer’s block, while his sister’s reputation grew and photography itself enjoyed burgeoning respect as an art.

While the connections Alexander Nemerov draws between his father’s and sister’s canons are fascinating, it is his tour de force interpretation of Arbus’s School series, and his explication of its significance in demonstrating photography’s potential, that is Silent Dialogues’ revelation. It’s not necessarily an easy read, and his interpretations sometimes seem to stretch into Hineininterpretierung. For instance, in his discussion of “Untitled (62) 1970-71,” he describes the girl pictured, “Hand to head, absorbed in her own world, the girl seems to have forgotten something, or to be holding a thought inside her head before it should escape …” but then somehow lands on: “Hers is not a reverie but a dullness and a blankness. But in that vacancy the world discloses itself.” Ascribing dullness, blankness, and vacancy to the expression on the face of a mentally handicapped child reflects an attitude rather than an insight, and the same sort of attitude as those of previous eras that accepted the colloquial use of the word “retarded,” a word Arbus used in her own writings (see Chronologies, Aperture) and which he still uses in this book. But beyond that, how he finds that “the world discloses itself” in that vacancy is unclear, or at least not a persuasively objective, and therefore communicable, reading. Of “Masked woman in a wheelchair, Pa. 1970,” he says, “Although we know that the old woman is just pretending to be a witch, there is a strange sense that she is a witch.” Nemerov’s ensuing discussion of the image, incorporating Don Quixote as an example of one who (like a photographer) can “will” a fantasy (such as a witch) out of the banal, and likening the photographer’s practice to a kind of necromancy, is elegant, probing, formidably erudite. But his claim nevertheless hinges upon the conviction he starts the discussion with — that the image conveys the “sense” that the woman pictured is a witch. If one does not get that sense from the photograph, then the explication might leave one feeling cowed rather than guided, overpowered into a sort of mental submission to Nemerov’s reading not only of the photograph itself but of what it says about the photographer’s art.

More convincing, or at least more grounded in the images themselves and their elements (and therefore easier to trust) are Nemerov’s discussions of other photographs within the School series. Of the four women in masks holding fairy wands in “Untitled (49) 1970-71,” he says that they “raise those wands, like the witch does her mask, as if in sympathetic mimicry of the photographer’s stare into her camera …. Photography is a beguilement rather than a record, or only a record.” Without the photographer, they were four residents of a home for the mentally handicapped, wandering the grounds of their school in construction paper and glitter glue costumes. As the photographer raises her camera, they ready themselves to “become” what the release of the shutter will fix them as: fairies in a “weirdly light-struck world,” with fallen stars on their fairy slippers. The intimation that the act of photographing can make something come into being, rather than merely record what’s there (which was Howard Nemerov’s narrow view), points to Nemerov’s ultimate assessment of his aunt’s photography, that it was a kind of visual fiction-writing. (continue reading)

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