Sunday, January 22, 2012

Nan Goldin, Scopophilia @ Mathew Marks Gallery

In Scopophilia, the pairing of Nan’s work with art from the Louvre is a little forced and a tad bombastic, but the show is a great mini-retrospective. I think Nan Goldin is completely underrated by an older generation of photo-nerds who tend to deride her work as sloppy and too reliant on overly dramatic subject matter.

Watching the 30-minute slide show in Scopophilia, it is hard not to be impressed by the quantity of good work Nan has turned out over the years, a body of pictures that for my money is the best use of the snapshot esthetic in the history of photography. You could argue for Lartigue, but I think his pictures are too formally rigorous to be considered in the snapshot esthetic and Larry Clark might be more exciting, but there is no way to argue that Nan doesn’t make a stronger formal image, and I always imagined Nan’s pictures were what it would be like to be a girlfriend of one of the people in Clark’s photographs. But I digress, and either way she has certainly given birth to a string of occasionally amusing photographers like Ryan McGinley, Dash Snow and even Wolfgang Tillman.

Beside her influence, what is fascinating about her work is that Nan Goldin just went ahead and made excellent pictures within the framework of the snapshot esthetic, while Stephen Shore and William Eggleston were interested in the line between snapshot and art or, as Shore put it, “could you make a very good bad picture?” Nan’s use of color and light are fantastic and very often produced by the intentional misuse of color film creating pictures that render Stephen Shore’s intellectual discussion of the good snapshots mute by making pictures that are undeniably attractive and compelling while being clearly snapshots.

As intimate as Nan’s picture are, they are often captured by her setting up a tripod with a cable release, thus allowing her to star in her own drama. The beauty of her artistic style is like Walker Evans’ use of journalistic esthetic to make his editorials of the South appear as unbiased fact. Goldin creates pictures that appear off handed, disguising the fact that she is staging and editing her life story.

Her reputation in some circles as a prolific yet inebriated ingĂ©nue is insulting and partakes of the same idiocy that greeted much of Diane Arbus’ output in her lifetime. And at the end of the day, criticizing Nan’s work for its reliance on naked and otherwise out-of-control young people is like knocking Winogrand for relying on strangers or Brassi on Paris or Muniz on scale.

Of course, some of Nan’s more recent series of pictures have suffered from the same thing Larry Clark has suffered from, which is that, to quote Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, their subject matter “keeps getting younger and I (they) stay the same age.” But to those who doubt, I point to some of the more age-appropriate pictures of Nan’s friends and family in Scopophilia, and you’ll find some excellent work. I just wish there was more of it. As JoAnne Verberg has shown us, there is no reason as you get older, that you can’t make wonderful pictures of your occasionally naked significant others.

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