Sunday, April 12, 2009

Beyond the “Snapshot Aesthetic”

[“What I Got for a Buck” (Chromogenic print) 2003, John Arsenault. “Two X-Rays of Mark Morrisroe with Embedded Bullet” (two gelatin silver prints) 1989, Mark Morrisroe (1959-1989). “Nan at Her Bottom …” (Cibachrome) 1988, Nan Goldin. “Untitled (Frat Boys #7)” 2005, Brian Finke.]

Panning across the spectrum of impetuosity to poignancy are the bold, chaotic, and compelling images in “Kids Behaving Badly” at ClampArt. In capturing the inimitable and powerful energy of youth, these rich works by Larry Clark, Karlheinz Weinberger, Nan Goldin, David Armstrong, Jack Pierson, Mark Morrisroe, Ryan McGinley, Jill Greenberg, Brian Finke, John Arsenault, Marc Yankus, Michael Meads, Janine Gordon, and Collin Lafleche focus upon the pleasures and terrors of pushing societal boundaries during one’s formative years.

To say, as has the New York Times, that Nan Goldin “forged a genre” is understatement! Unfalteringly honest, Nan Goldin has carved out a place all her own. Represented in Kids Behaving Badly by several pieces, she never fails to create images that take the viewer on a rollercoaster ride. Her narrative sense is impeccable. While the works by Goldin in this show, such as “Nan at Her Bottom …” are from her earlier works in which primal themes of love, gender, and sexuality come to the fore in their most virulent forms, her work retains its immediacy and passion across subjects. Whether capturing drag queens, Bowery scenes, raw sexuality, obsession, dependency, and violence—or landscapes and family life—Goldin is part of their flow. Every shadow includes her for good or bad. Viewing her work is a transcendent experience.

Elements of drawing, painting, collage, sculpture, and assemblage find themselves in the eye and camera of Jack Pierson. His layered photographs defy description and incorporate various artistic disciplines. While the charming and beautiful photograph “Eric in Miami, ‘89” (1997) is, perhaps, not the best example of this, his larger body of work–when seen in their various “segments”—cannot be viewed solely as photographic. They are indeed sketches, paintings, sculptures, and collages. This is clearly seen in Pierson’s 1995 book “All of a Sudden,” in which every piece stands on its own in respective artistic canons.

Influences are richly layered in John Arsenault’s “What I Got for a Buck” (Chromogenic print, 2003). Attracted to the courageous openness of sexuality in the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and Duane Michaels, Arsenault’s work appropriates crisp personal examination, ritual, and routine in studies of sexuality and masculinity without fantasizing and fetishizing. When one form fails Arsenault, he moves on: Color film was the answer when black and white imagery no longer lent itself to the vibrancy, energy, and reality he tried to capture. Upon his move to New York and enrollment at the School of Visual Arts, Arsenault came under the spell of Nan Goldin, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Jack Pierson to whose work he is aesthetically related. Indeed, as with those three artists, John Arsenault’s work has been forged in personal travails big and small. The 2000 bias assault upon Arsenault and his boyfriend altered the animus of his work: After this experience he sought to absorb his role within family and community—yet always with affection or a sense of humor. Importantly, Arsenault’s work has absorbed Goldin’s honesty and translation of feelings. While not off the Richter scale—as is the case with Goldin—the movement, aggression, and feeling are palpable. Smartly, he crops the faces in that body of work—anonymity accelerating the movement and tension. Arsenault has said that he became a voyeur in capturing these images: The same cannot truly be said for Goldin in capturing hers.

Thankfully, a number of works by Mark Morrisroe are represented in “Kids Behaving Badly.” Beyond important was 2007’s “Mark Morrisroe (1959-1989)” at ClampArt—an exhibition of photographs, films, and ephemera by the late artist and the first solo show of his work since that at Pat Hearn Gallery in 1999. Notably, “Two X-Rays of Mark Morrisroe with Embedded Bullet” truly represents the frappé of life and work by artists in “the Boston School” of which he was the unofficial leader. Including Goldin, David Armstrong, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Tabboo!, Gail Thacker, and Jack Pierson, that group of artists attended either the School of the Museum of Fine Arts or Massachusetts College of Art between 1971 and 1984. In this work, one can view the poignant rhythm of Morrisroe’s life: The bullet lodged deep within his chest was inflicted by a disgruntled john when the artist was in high school. Morrisroe was as compelling in real life—in which he walked with a cane and a limp—as he and is work are in retrospect. Now understood as autobiographical photography, Morrisroe’s contribution to this canon is least known as compared to his circle of colleagues and friends due to his death in the AIDS epidemic at the age of 30, though he is revered by them personally and artistically. Having created some of the most important and influential photographic images from the late 1970s through the 1980s, one is tempted to ponder where Morrisroe’s work would have headed had he only had the time. Alas, that is not possible, and we can be grateful for this diaristic body of work that will speak across the decades. Those of us who experienced Morrisroe in life can smile ruefully at the very freshness of his work—the technical imperfections of his Polaroids and photographs highlighted with scrawled texts along the borders and other signature retouching.

Brian Finke’s work is awash with pheromones, stimuli, and uncertain boundaries. Aided by rich analog photography, Finke instinctually captures the intersection of primate instinct and sociological self-awareness without being pedantic and tedious. As is the case with 2005’s “Untitled (Frat Boys #7),” Finke’s vivid images betray ideologies of beauty while blurring lines between portraits and street photography. Complicated relationships between peer pressure and individuality are traversed in this body of work. As with Goldin’s use of available light, decisions on light use are paramount: In Finke’s case one finds interplay between artificial and natural light. Extant humor in Finke’s work heats up the ambivalence of these images, while acting as a Trojan horse to bring the viewer closer to issues of social behaviors and self-definition. One sees, in “Miro Smoking” (1999) by my ACT UP and Queer Nation comrade Marc Yankus, a moment in time in which mystic and romantic dimensions are tenuously brought together. Remaining consistent in his larger body of work, Yankus fuses tranquility and diffused light to elevate the mundane to the ethereal. Composition is central in the physically and emotionally charged work of Michael Meads. Like Yankus, Meads was trained as a painter and brings unspoken drama and intimacy to his photographs. “In Ryan With Clamps II” (Cibachrome) 2002 and “Ryan With Polaroids” (Cibachrome) 2003, we see raw and powerful portraits of Southern male culture—particularly bonding and antics on the primordial testing field. Originally created as studies for his drawing and painting, these private records of his world and those passing through it are electric.

“Kids Behaving Badly” taps into a photographic expression spanning nearly five decades and demonstrates the camera’s unique and impressive facility for documenting and interpreting life at its moments most messy and frenetic. The viewer is granted an entrée to varying levels of introspection that make this show a must see.

Kids Behaving Badly

through April 25, 2009


521-531 West 25th Street, NYC 10001

No comments: