a review of Nan Goldin's "Nine Self-Portraits"

By Molly Atkinson

A typical Goldin
Nan Goldin has been shooting photographs for forty years. Starting with "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency," Goldin has dedicated her life to documenting her “tribe”. Her pictures, most often portraits, are intimate depictions of her life and friends. She started taking pictures while attending Setya, a private, experimental high school in Boston. While in Boston she began going to drag shows, hanging out with the queens and documenting the scene. Goldin found the drag queens to be glamorous and dreamed of shooting them for French and Italian Vogue, In much the same way that Andy Warhol was redefining stardom, Goldin was redefining the notion of the feminine beauty. Although she wanted to be a fashion photographer she lacked the basic technical knowledge and skill to pursue such a career and began taking classes, rather luckily, with Henry Hornstien who introduced her to the work of Larry Clark, Diane Arbus, Weegee and August Sander: photographers who were known for their gritty portrayals of humanity and who’s visions meshed with Goldin’s.

After attending Image Works and the school of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the early seventies, Goldin started shooting color images. In 1979 she showed some of her work in a slide show at a New York Nightclub. The work changed and evolved with every presentation but was always billed as "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency," which eventually became a 45-minute presentation with 900 images and an ever-changing soundtrack. The slides portrayed the young and disaffected bohemians of New York’s lower east side. Goldin’s use of unnatural light sources, nighttime shooting and slide, rather than negative color, film developed into a style. She cannily utilized technical mishaps and color blocking to achieve a sense of life caught in the moment. This ability to turn technical mishaps into a visual language for conveying youthful indiscretions became a stylistic trademark among her legions of art school followers. "Ballad" was published in 1986 and is still her best known work. Goldin has continued in the same hyper-personal style, publishing two more monographs, "I’ll Be Your Mirror" and "The Devil’s Playground," as well as showing all over the world.
As cool as a jazz album cover
Goldin’s current exhibition, "Nine Self-Portraits," is at Fraenkel Gallery and continues in her intimate style. The show consists of nine self-portraits in non-chronological order, ranging from the 1990’s to the present. All of the photographs are quite large, around forty inches wide or larger, and are a mix of Cibachrome and chromogenic prints. The analogue and digital printing onto chromogenic papers gives the images a slightly metallic sheen that is accentuated by the use of “glass front black frames” and thick black borders surrounding every image.

Well, here we are
The show lacks the exquisite presentation that we have come to expect from a show at Fraenkel Gallery. The spotlights bouncing off of the shiny glass fronts make it almost impossible to view the images without some degree of glare. I often saw my reflection, not to mention that of the exit sign. The inconsistency of print quality was also distracting, as if Goldin had never heard of digital noise reduction. Her shadows suffered most of all; instead of the rich dark tones that are naturally present in the Cibachrome images, her chromogenic prints were distractingly speckled in RGB and their size only made it worse.

There she is
Aside from these unfortunate technical flaws, Goldin delivers some notable images in her trademark style. In my hall, Berlin is a striking instance of how Goldin has always disrupted the distance between the viewer and the photograph. We enter the gallery and she’s staring right at us. Dressed in a sheer navy and black bra, dark teal underwear clinging to her middle aged hips and unzipped black pants, she looks like she’s finally comfortable in her body, with herself and the art world. Her past work has always been an inside look at the spectacle of her life. She’s presumably calmed down, with both age and sobriety. The volatility and excitement of the hazardous lifestyle of her youth is missing, but I would argue that this is the strongest image in the show precisely for that reason. The mild nudity could have been heavy handed, but Goldin counters it with her confident expression and relaxed body language.

And again, but different

Vulnerability has always been the most relatable aspect of Goldin’s work. In the elevator at the Bauer, Venice, Italy, October 2013 highlights just how vulnerable Goldin can seem, or, better put, how vulnerable Goldin can make herself seem. Falling back on the color blocking found in her past work, the image is slightly hazy with deep shadows that emphasize both the low depth of field and the fluorescent light source. These qualities conjure a link to her old work; it looks as though a younger Goldin were taking a picture of a mature elevator companion. But the link is awkward in its nostalgia and Goldin’s morose, perhaps pained, expression only amplifies this feeling. The photograph does not hold my attention like the more confrontational one at the door. Instead, it feels like a link between the more current images and those culled from the archive. It does its intended job and effectively bridges the past and the present, but in such a small edit of similar images the bridge feels unnecessary.

Self-portrait in bed with Siobhan, 1990, is the only photograph in the show that also includes another figure; and stands out not only for this, but also it’s theatrical use of warm light. Goldin is lying underneath the second figure, whose gender is rather ambiguous. The image is the most tender moment in the show and feels out of place surrounded by her current, more haughty, self portraits. The image was produced right after Goldin left rehab in the ninety’s and began to re-adjust to the outside world, when included in previous bodies of work it is a nice rest from the flood of debauchery and youth that could become redundant. But in its current setting Self-portrait in bed with Siobhan becomes a moment of action in an otherwise static set of images. And this is precisely what’s stopping me from loving this show: the images don’t support each other.

Another Person

In past work Goldin balanced the chaos and depravity of youth and her lower east side life with moments of true emotional attachment. "Nine Self-Portraits" lacks the 691 other images that it apparently takes to make Goldin’s work viewable. Although she insists "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency" was not made to look at marginalized people or to stare at outcasts; it’s difficult not to look at the work for the same reasons people stare at a car crash, for the spectacle of the drug addict or the drag queen and the anonymity of staring at a safe distance. Her self-portraits are no longer about the other; instead they are about the artist. And that’s the problem, without her supporting cast the spectacle, the interest, why I’m here standing in front of these images, is her name. The work is a peak in her career and I would imagine her personal life, yet it doesn’t deliver.

©Molly Atkinson and the CCA Arts Review

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