In: American Photography
September 25, 2016
Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, arguably her magnum opus, is currently on view at The Museum of Modern Art. The slideshow of nearly 700 images is set to a wide-ranging soundtrack of pop, classical opera, and rock & roll music. The images are of the artist, her circle of friends, lovers, and acquaintances that Goldin affectionately refers to as her ‘tribe’ from the 1970s and 1980s.
Her images are so immediate that you feel as if you are there, in the dive bars and bedrooms of her gritty, real world. By creating The Ballad, Goldin documents the events of her own life and the lives of her friends through images that tell deeply personal stories. Her photographs capture unnerving episodes of addiction, drug abuse, domestic violence, and illness, while simultaneously embodying moments of joy, comedy, youth, ecstasy, and beauty. Goldin wrote that “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is the diary I let people read. The diary is my form of control over my life. It allows me to obsessively record every detail. It enables me to remember.”
There are three rooms dedicated to the display of her photographs. The first includes an installation of materials from Goldin’s archive, early promotional objects for the first iterations of the work, and a mock-up of the book The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. The slideshow has been shown on many occasions since Goldin first created it in 1980. Originally, she changed the slides by hand for an audience comprised of mainly her subjects.
In the second room there is a selection of prints from the MoMA’s collection that constitute some of Goldin’s most evocative images from the film. They show the artist and her subjects grappling with the realities of physical and emotional abuse, while simultaneously indulging in moments of lust and tenderness. Some standouts include “David and Butch Crying at Tin Pan Alley, New York City,” “Rise and Monty Kissing, New York City,” and “Nan and Bryan in Bed, New York City.” Each of these images feels fiercely candid and intimate, as if the viewer was intruding on an intensely personal moment.
The third room is the slideshow itself, which runs for about 45 minutes with a short intermission. The images are grouped loosely around visual themes, like people in front of a mirror getting ready to go out, uninhibited sex, New York bar culture, drag queens and performers, the weddings of young friends, parenthood and young children, drug addiction and, ultimately, death. The film is scored to an array of musical genres including an aria performed by Maria Callas, the Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You,” Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” and James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s World.”
In the age of social media and advertising, where you can be bombarded by images that are photoshopped, filtered, and staged, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency presents the raw, unedited truth of what Nan Goldin and her subjects experienced in the New York of the 1980s.
The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is on view at the Museum of Modern Art on the 2nd floor Contemporary Art Galleries through February 12th, 2017.
April 10, 2016
During my last year of university, my Contemporary Art professor completely changed my views on art history. On the first day of class, she asked us to think about the artists we had studied in depth during the previous three years. How many women could we remember? The answer was simple: not a single one. A few had been mentioned briefly, often as this or that artist’s wife. The next question seemed to follow naturally: Why have there been no great women artists? This was precisely the title of a 1971 ground-breaking essay by Linda Nochlin, then a Professor at Vassar College, where she questioned the whole intellectual structure upon which this inquiry is based.
Yoko Ono’s 1965 performance Cut Piece examined in a very simple way the role that the female body has played in art throughout the ages: that of a passive object. In art history, women appear mainly as models or muses. For centuries, the work of those few women that had access to artistic training has been considered to be inferior and secondary compared to that of their masters, fathers, brothers, husbands or lovers. Misleading categories such as “Genius” and “Great Artist”, reserved only for men, have been intrinsic to the discipline of art history for a long time and were not really challenged until the 1960s and 1970s by scholars like Nochlin, who stated that doing so “would reveal the entire romantic, elitist, individual-glorifying, and monograph-producing substructure upon which the profession of art history is based”.
The immediate effect of Nochlin’s essay was to increase the interest of scholars in recovering the work of those women that had been forgotten by history. This idea crystallised in the exhibition Women Artists: 1550-1950 organised by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976, which included works by more than thirty artists from different periods, such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Rosa Bonheur, Gwen John and Lee Krasner.
The flourishing of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s prompted not only art theorists but also artists to re-discover lost role models for women and attack the male-centred version of history that had always passed as legitimate. Perhaps the most important work in this sense was Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979), an installation where the names of thirty-nine notable women from history (most of which still do not appear in any history textbook) were represented by embroidered textiles and porcelain plates, artistic expressions that have traditionally been considered “women’s work” and have therefore been excluded from the category of “high art”.
It is important to remember, however, that not all art produced by women is necessarily feminist or aimed against patriarchy. In opposition to the initiatives that simply sook to lessen the effects of discrimination, such as women-only exhibitions, important voices like that of feminist scholar Griselda Pollock urged for a more political model of feminist interventions. Rescuing the work of women who have been excluded from art history is not enough; in order to undermine patriarchal society, it is necessary to explore and deeply question the social structures that have led to this process of exclusion.
Many female artists have brought awareness to the oppression, marginalization and violence that women have suffered for centuries through their art, particularly after the 1960s. One of the most iconic pieces in this regard is Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), a video performance in which the artist not only criticised women’s roles within the home, but also the culture of frenetic consumption fostered by capitalism.
The female body, very often the artist’s own body, became a key tool for visually expressing a multiplicity of issues that directly affect the lives of women, such as menstruation, maternity, sexual violence, gender roles, and body image. For me, one of the most interesting examples of this is Frida Kahlo, who in the 1930s depicted her own birth in a way that finds no parallel in the history of art. This unusual image is still shocking today, as is any that deals frankly with female genitalia, often erased by male painters in their idealised depictions of the female body. In the 1970s, artists like Chicago, who insisted on the existence of a distinct “female sensibility”, scandalised audiences and generated controversy in feminist circles with their use of vaginal imagery.
Sexual violence against women was (and still is) a very prominent subject in feminist art. One of the projects that first prompted a social dialogue around this important issue was Suzanne Lacy’s Three Weeks in May (1977), a three-week performance that took place in a shopping centre and exposed the amount of rapes reported in Los Angeles during that period of time.
A few years before, Ana Mendieta had addressed sexual violence in a very powerful manner, presenting her own body as that of a rape victim in a performance that took place in the artist’s apartment.
Finally, I want to mention the work of Cindy Sherman. From the beginning of her career she has photographed herself in many different roles and scenarios, reminding the viewer about the important role of stereotypes in modern society. I find her striking images fascinating because they seem to highlight what Judith Butler has called the “performative” character of gender and the instability of identities.
Just as there is not just one way of being a woman, there is not only one feminist approach to art. The introduction of feminist perspectives in art history is important because it puts into question the discourse centred on the white, Western, heterosexual male gaze, opening up the discipline to criticism and new points of view.
The development of what has been termed the Feminist Art Movement is greatly indebted to the work of the aforementioned artists. Although most of my examples come from the United States, similar expressions simultaneously appeared in the rest of the world. Still, the question that the feminist collective Guerrilla Girls posed in the 1980s, Do Women Have to be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum?, is, as their ongoing project shows, still relevant today.
I highly recommend reading Pollock’s recent article “The National Gallery is Erasing Women from the History of Art”. Sadly, in 2016 many museums and cultural institutions are still way behind art theory and practice when it comes to ending discrimination and promoting inclusiveness and diversity.
February 16, 2016
On a recent marvelously sunny and warm “winter’s” day in Los Angeles, I faired the ferocious freeways, intent upon seeing the Hammer Museum’s latest exhibition—“Catherine Opie: Portraits” featuring twelve works by the acclaimed American photographer.
Within the few first seconds of stepping into the gallery that is temporarily housing Opie’s portraits, the chaos of speeding cars and the rapidity of everyday life almost paused completely. Entering the gallery, I was struck by the phenomenon that occurs when your eyes attempt to adjust to a bright light: all you really see is blackness and white dots, pulsating. The room was stark white and Opies’ nearly life sized portraits lined the room, each with a black background. As I focused on the first photograph, time slowed.
John was the simple title to a profound portrait. The subject appears to be a floating head in a sea of blackness, as Opie’s lighting caresses his head and subtlety moves down his neckline and right shoulder. His gaze emits that time-ceasing effect. The world pauses. His eyes are not fixed on anything, but they emanate the expression of a trance-like contemplation. John’s seemingly moonstruck hair softly breaks the barrier of contrast as its feathery white fibers float over the stark black background like satellites in space. The portrait seems to exist in the moment right before someone yells “John” to snap him out of his trance.
I continued around the room, each photograph exuding as much of a time-encapsulating effect and intrigue as the next. There was one portrait in particular to which I was drawn back. That image was the portrait entitled Jonathan. In this portrait, a man sits with his back turned to the viewer, cross-legged, with the novel “War and Peace” on his lap. This portrait stood out because, unlike the others, the focus and the brilliance of Opie’s light hit on an inanimate object: the book.
Although my eyes were initially drawn to the novel, I found myself intrigued by the slightly illuminated profile of the sitter’s expression. The light hitting the pages of “War and Peace” reflects off the paper and onto his face. He is similar to a character in a movie opening up a chest full of treasures, but he does not seem triumphant or amazed. He appears to be uncritically satisfied.
The premise of this series of photographs erases preconceived notions of what portraiture should be. Unlike portraits of the past where lineage, wealth, and importance were depicted alongside the subject in order to illustrate their story, Catherine Opie depicts her subjects in a way that forces the viewer to look at the individual in a certain moment in time, free from any artificial and external distraction.
“Catherine Opie: Portraits” will be on display at the Hammer Museum from January 30th until May 22nd.