Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Pretend You're Actually Alive

If the subject of the English novel had been society, that of the French narrative tradition the mind, that of the German school the metaphysical sensibility, that of Russian literature the soul, the central preoccupation of classic American literature lay in the mood and the psyche where it originates: the abrupt fluctuations and disturbances of people's perceptions of life and themselves, as vague as a malaise and as sharp as a gambler's hunch, the troubling traces of something that leaves many footprints but no trail, that is all clues and no substance, something people know as well and as little as they know themselves. Classic American literature springs from the illegitimate emotions possessed of a powerful dynamic but no stable content, the vulgate of the psyche where consciousness and unconsciousness find their life in symbiosis, a vulgate whose authentic self-expression must be, not in the constructs of a story or character, but in that most fluid and intractable of the narrativist's resources, language itself, a language pushed to deliver all its resources . . .
- Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
- Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (Penguin Classics)

Family as subject, "family drama," informs a diverse array of photographic books. I would also qualify the term "family" loosely to include those not necessarily blood relations, but also communities which structure both the intimate and the social. With such an expansion of definition, I would proffer 2 of the great post Vietnam photo books, Larry Clark's Tulsa, and Nan Goldin's Ballad of Sexual Dependency as examples of familial forms: structured by needs, drives, compulsions, articulated by narcotics, sexuality, & restless movement, movement which also seems a return. The family as conscious & unconscious community, the organization by which we understand ourselves and others.

Work such as Clark's & Goldin's, with its specificities & privacy, bears some relationship to the vernacular family album, as opposed to high art practices, in its inscribing of the noteworthy, the important, but it breaks with the dominant aesthetics of the album in its self-consciousness, its anti-aestheticism. The album is meant to reaffirm and reproduce the family, not to question it. The work of Clark, Goldin, & other remarkable books, such as Chauncey Hare's Interior America, Danny Seymour's A Loud Song, and Larry Sultan's Pictures from Home (& one could pursue this with a much more extensive list of work) interrogate their subjects as much as act as an immersive experience in it.

Leigh Ledare exhibit & book, Pretend You're Actually Alive is primarily about his mother Tina, identified in a magazine page from her youth as a dedicated, beautiful ballerina. Like a memento mori, the specter of the past with promises of talent, ambition, loveliness, is contrasted with a disappointed, chaotic present. It is almost a cliche: Beauty fades. In the more horrible & all too real present the mother is now an exotic dancer, a sexual provocateur, & it's a hardscrabble existence.

What distinguishes the Ledare work from a journalistic "expose" such as Susan Meiselas' Carnival Strippers, or the camp burlesque of films such as Mommie Dearest (Special Collector's Edition), is a complicity between Ledare and the mother in the images: She is an active, performative model, remarkably open with her physicality - her body, her sexuality, her ability to transform herself (for whom? the camera? her son? a john? herself?). A one-note reading of the work, which could be misconstrued as a scenario from "dreams" to "failure", is baffled by the complexities of the work as a whole, its ambiguities.

In our age of (hypocritical) propriety, the mother disturbs us as a sexualized image, in the frank use of her body as work & destiny. The bond becomes palpable if not downright emblematic of the son's sense of his own sexuality - as images of himself & girlfriends are edited into the narrative flow of the pages. I can't think of any work which addresses the claustrophobia of familial relations so directly in terms of the body & sexuality.

There are others present in the book, either in image or word (not necessarily both some we never see) - the mother's parents, the mother's boyfriends or dates, another son unseen but mentioned, Ledare's girlfriends (also a young wife?). Much of this is vague, which balances explicitness with some discretion. Family dysfunction is demonstrated in fragments of writing by both Ledare & the mother. Multiple narratives emerge. I was fascinated by what seems to be evidence that the mother is a serious hoarder: of clothes, jewelry, things. & there are various schemes to earn money, which inevitably fail or at least are never mentioned again. The mother emerges as a chaotic figure, yet compelling in what seem to be endlessly shifting energies. In the course of the book the grandmother dies, there are allusions to bankruptcy proceedings, there is a disabling car crash. These are all pieces of a puzzle which is never quite complete - again this may be a relief. The lack of definition has some redemptive aspects as much as the chaos invokes an endless labyrinth.

What is also remarkable about the book is its tenderness, a near laconic drama of what in description reads as perpetual trauma. There is a great deal of drama per se in the book but it emerges in fragments - notes, allusions, unseen presences. The photographs exist outside the narrative at times, even as they illustrate it, ostensibly. There is a sense of play-acting in some of the photos, which indicates another perspective of "the story."

The theater of the mother's performances, the costume changes, her multiple roles fills houses, literally it seems (more of that stuff that seems to be everywhere): the family is transformed to backstage wings, it is tucked into various closets & trunks, or left on the floor somewhere. I know of nothing quite like the images of the mother naked, displaying her sex, also tarted up in high heels, lingerie, makeup. Or some images which are obliquely somber. Perhaps the inventory of images of the Comtesse de Castiglione (whore, queen, nun, lacemaker, etc.)(La Divine Comtesse: Photographs of the Countess de Castiglione (Metropolitan Museum of Art Series)) may be the closest. In one image in particular the mother is wearing a rhinestone tiara, touching herself with a rhinestone wand - a fairy tale princess run amok. We also see the mother still in her tiara, performing oral sex on a boyfriend. The mother presents herself in multiple roles, but primarily a romantic figure, a professional beauty, a wronged figure, an improper rebellious character, someone consistently inconsistent.

The family, in the books of Seymour & Sultan, for example, exists as a more-or-less solid corporate structure to which the parents conform. Both Seymour & Sultan examine their immediate relations as well as larger social relations. There is a sense of distancing, of critical evaluations in this. Ledare's book, with its multiple stores of maddening dysfunction is lacking in direct sociology even as it includes a very detailed array of economic hardships & necessities. There is as much economic as psychological instability in this book. It is precisely in these fragments, in the incomplete cataloguing of obliquities, in its emotional vacillations, that I find the strength of the work.

Monday, April 21, 2008


Detroit, 1958, is a series of color photographs by David McDermott & Peter McGough currently on view at the Nicholas Robinson Gallery on W. 20th St.

The name Detroit is an allusion to the location of where the photographs were made, at the Henry Ford Museum in suburban Dearborn. The date, like the mysterious dating of much of McDermott & McGough's work, like the "location" is a poetic principle, setting a tone for the style of the images, a post-nuclear consumerist car culture. The Henry Ford, in addition to its industrial collections, also possesses a cut-away of a room of one of the first Holiday Inns, soda fountains, gas stations, signage, & the only existing prototype of Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House.

The carbro process used by McDermott & McGough is most commonly associated with the work, both commercial & artistic, by Paul Outerbridge - lush, unnatural, bright. Like Outerbridge's work, it is difficult to distinguish what is meant to be advertising or what is meant to be artistic. Such ambiguity is destabilizing in the images of McDermott & McGough in that initially one can look at them in an all too facile manner, as one would turn a page of advertising in Life Magazine. A pastiche of advertising photos such as those by Ralph Bartholomew Jr., the images seem quaintly retro, nostalgic, almost cute. What is curious about the work of M&M is that with such old-fashioned, generic visual strategies a queer narrative emerges - looks of longing pass between sweetly wholesome teenage boys, intimations of longing, desire, jealousy, possession, loss - imminent melodrama (this is a middle-American version of what becomes the teenage drama of Rebel Without a Cause). Sites such a malt shop or a service station become sites of illicit desire. The car itself becomes a mode of transcendance - distance, speed, movement, romance. The static nirvana of the post war teenage never-never land, all of it in gorgeously modulated plastic colors, becomes heated with all sorts of unstated desires. To find longing in the commercial & generic, in the pure product, has been a method to reclaim desire from what is otherwise a void, whether the desire be fragmentary or unfulfilled.

The images are immaculately rendered - the attention to detail, the absolute lack of chance which is a hallmark of advertising is also symptomatic of a general uncanniness. Like still-lifes under a glass bell, in perfect stasis, a sense of unruly yearnings & passions emerge as barely controlled. There is a great deal of wit in the images, which could very well "pass" among those ignorant of said desires, who could follow instead the semiotic narratives of the art direction, or the formal or stylistic aspects of picture-making. There is a facility to the over-familiarity of the images which do not necessarily give one reason to pause, however if one does, the readings become a bit more complicated. My one disappointment is not crucial to the work at all, which is the use of some truly particular items in the museum in a generic, iconic matter. The Dymaxion House, for example, is used for a living room scenario, with a young couple in the background, foregrounded by a stern female figure with cards & cigarettes. The Dymaxion House is hardly an example of middle-class domesticity. Or the back of the bus from Montgomery, where Rosa Parks refused to move, becomes a much more innocent farewell between a boy & a girl. Again, neither of these items in their specificity has any import to the work at hand; why am I disappointed?

The strategy of appropriating a period "look" to create a narrative is not new. Offhand I can think of the early work of Laurie Simmons, or Nic Nicosia, or the more contemporary work of Gregory Crewdson - itself a pastiche of David Lynch's films, which are a pastiche as well of Hollywood domesticity (gone awry)from the 1950s & 1960s - films directed by Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk, Vicente Minnelli, for example. Still, I would locate M&M's work more along the lines of the extraordinary book by David Deitcher, Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840-1918 or in the longing in vintage songs heard on the car radio - floating ether like in the blankness of our streets.

We'll sip a little glass of wine
Honey, I'll gaze, I'll gaze right down
Into your eyes divine
I'm gonna feel the touch of your lips
Pressing on mine

Then I'll hear you whisper low
Just when it's time to go
Cherie, honey, I love you, so
That's my desire

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


As much as I love film (in general), filmmaking itself has never appealed to me in its intricacies, its fragmentary difficulties, & the necessity of collaborations. The relative independence of a darkroom has always appealed to my more solitary needs.

Nevertheless, over the past few years I have had opportunities to work with my friend Marie Losier making stills on some of her projects, "Eat My Makeup!" & "Flying Saucey!" in particular, & just the other day I worked with her on a film portrait of the musician Genesis P'Orridge, who was filmed at the Coney Island Museum, with the artist Orlan.

The crew was small: Sebastien Sanz de Santa Maria, Ben Kasulke, Suzanne Goldenberg, and Peter Hristoff. Even with the absolute cheapest of budgets, I realize that Marie is involved in months of planning (the date for introducing 2 strong personalities, Genesis & Orlan, was weeks in the making). To Marie's credit, there is still an anarchic sense of play to her shoots. Marie sets up situations which become the perimeters of various actions. For "Eat My Makeup!" it was a pie fight (with among others George Kuchar). For "Flying Saucey!" it was a spaghetti fight (200 pounds of pasta, 5 gallons of tomato sauce, 15 or so people). Of her film portraits I have seen only the one of Richard Foreman, which was made during the run of "King Cowboy Rufus Rules the World" at St. Marks Church, & which showed in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, & the portraits of George & Mike Kuchar. The portraits are made over a longer period of time & involve a lot more editing & post-production.

For me, working on Marie's films is downright party-like. Part of this is Marie herself & her most pleasant friends & colleagues, but also, I feel liberated from my own work - this is about Marie's project(s) & vision(s), her efforts. The shoot with Genesis & Orlan was fairly difficult, yet I cannot describe it as drudgery by any means.

Initially I met Sebastien & Ben outside of Genesis' apt., which is further out on the L train, near the intersection of Myrtle & Wyckoff. A transitional area - where Bushwick & Ridgewood blur into one another. trees. sturdy squat apt bldgs (looking a bit more Queens than Brooklyn). small businesses (bodegas, 99-cent stores). all in spitting distance of the elevated J/M trains. When Genesis came down, we took a car service out to Coney Island, out a street I did not know - Pennsylvania Ave. - & the Belt Parkway, going through a Brooklyn I did not recognize: from older streets to more suburban apartment blocks, McMansions in Mill Basin shining over water, until the more recognizable streets of Brighton Beach appeared.

The museum relocated recently, due to the imminent demise of Astroland, directly on Surf Ave. It's on the 2nd floor, & is basically 2 rooms, one large, with a small stage & player piano, dusty dodge-em cars, distortion mirrors, signs from the World in Wax Musee, & other ephemera. I spent much more time in Coney Island in the 1980s & early 1990s - it's been several years since I've been there. Like most of NYC, the topography is not static: there is near constant destruction & rebuilding. A new subway stop, for instance, which buried the vendors of yellow food & the long-gone Hollywood Bar & Grill which once were there. Formerly one of the hordes photographing the place, now I realize that my photos, regardless of their qualities (or lack thereof) constitute a document, independent of my skills, a little time tunnel to a shifting world.

Both Sebastien & Ben are extremely gentle & sweet - Genesis came down in white go-go boots, psychedelic tights, a ripped up up denim mini-skirt, a very graphic top with eyes looking out on his upper chest, lots of jewelry, a leopard print coat, & a white-blond china-girl wig. With his cheek, lip & breast implants & bright make-up he reminded me a bit of Melanie Griffin. As I understand it, Genesis' trans-gendering is not really about changing his sex, but making a new one, a kind of twinning with his late wife Lady Jaye Breyer. Genesis refers to himself with the royal "we", but my guess is that we includes Lady Jaye as well, now in the spirit world. What an intense tribute to what seems a great love. What I know of his music is very bold, but in person he seems much more sensitive, even nervous. Both Seb & Ben were delicate with him: Genesis himself has a presence which elicits succor. (To observe kindnesses in the everyday, in ordinary ways, can be moving somehow, even when ineffable to downright imperceptible.)(also: what good looking guys). Lights were set up, props were pulled out. Genesis had a top hat, emblazoned with a red sequin g-string, & topped by a toy chicken which would crow when its sound/motion sensor was activated (sometimes incessantly). Genesis would bend towards the chicken & scream "SHUT UP!" to set off the crowing, but sometimes it would go off without such a strong provocation. Marie had a tentative trajectory set up - of Genesis & Orlan greeting one another, then walking through the museum, sitting down to talk & then going out for a walk. This was all contingent on the movements of our stars, whose actions were not necessarily so proscribed.

Marie came with Orlan a bit later. A genuine meeting at the door of the museum was pre-empted by Genesis staying in the bathroom to freshen his makeup. Orlan came with her husband Raphael (sp?), who had high hair like Orlan, but it was brown in color with reddish tips. After introductions, they played with the mirrors a bit, & then sat down, in front of the player piano (with a dusty stuffed crocodile on top)& spoke for about 2 hours, about their work & about media - both have very distinguishing physical presences, which are often given undue attention over their actual work (at least for Genesis - my guess is that for Orlan her presence is her work). It went on. I do not think Marie anticipated such a "talking heads" meeting, but again - this is a fragment for her film.