Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Alice O'Malley, Community of Elsewheres

Alice O'Malley lectured at ICP last week, showing work she has done since around 1990, which seems not so long ago, albeit it's almost 20 years. Alice's early work is from the Clit Club & other nightclub venues downtown, but her main body of work is a series of black-&-white portraits, a tiny portion of which have been published in the book Community of Elsewheres.

The portraits are done simply - frontal, centered, collaborative with the subjects. Many of the subjects are performers and artists & as such have some public existence, such as Antony of Antony & the Johnsons, or Kembra Pfaler. However what I find of interest is the great attention & regard O'Malley brings to her subjects. I am not convinced one has to know anything about the sitters to find them thoroughly alluring. The photos are dandyish & witty. The photos are an excellent guide to the low-rent talents of downtown NYC & all that has been great about living in NY, even as it seems a kind of diminishing world, at the mercy of landlords & mortality. O'Malley uses the camera as a kind of memory guide, citing, among others, the photographs of Peter Hujar & the paintings of Romaine Brooks.

Some artists need never cite any other artists in their presentations; I am struck by O'Malley's citations (also she mentions Cecil Beaton & the salons of Natalie Barney) as indicative of her seriousness, as well as her consciousness in making a kind of history, which would potentially be ignored otherwise, which is queer & lush & fabulous.

O'Malley cites Peter Hujar as an influence. I would also include another photographic portraitist, David Armstrong, who likewise makes seductive, compelling images. The portrait, as a form, flirts with utility & function: it has a job to do. It needs to be recognizable as a portrait to be understood. & it revels in its illusionism: we have to believe it for it to exist. I think of Hujar, Armstrong, & O'Malley as being almost like Victorians, in their dedication to portraiture. While each has been depicting their immediate social orbit, a bigger picture emerges in this endeavor & how fortunate we are to get a glimpse of it.

Another aspect which comes to mind is that in these portfolios there is also a sense of loss - from AIDS, drugs, the vagaries of time. We can see how much preciousness has slipped through our fingers, as it were, leaving us with these shadows of what had once been.

No comments: