Thursday, November 17, 2011

Nan Goldin: Scopophilia @Marks

JTF (just the facts): A total of 47 photographs, framed in black without mats, and hung against white, grey and yellow walls in four interconnected gallery spaces, with 1 video projection, shown in a darkened viewing room. All of the works are chromogenic prints, made between 1993 and 2011, displayed as single images, diptychs, or grids of up to 16 component images. Physical dimensions range from 20x15 to 45x67; the grids and diptychs are available in editions of 3, while the single images are available in editions of 15. The 25-minute video projection, which mimics the behavior of a slide show, is available in an edition of 5, and contains images from 1977-2010. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: It takes a certain amount of confidence to pair a life's worth of intimate photographs with the treasures of one of the world's great art museums; if the work can't hold its own, the entire enterprise has the potential to look like a shockingly self-centered and arrogant stunt. Nan Goldin's mixing of art history, life and "the love of looking" (using examples from the Louvre) walks this dangerous, thin line, but actually finds a way to tell us something unexpectedly new, not about the paintings and sculptures found in the Paris museum, but about the timeless gestures captured via Goldin's snapshot aesthetic; she uses the images from the museum to successfully reinterpret her own personal and artistic history.

The video installation is the real centerpiece of this show, with the still photographs on display in the rest of the gallery acting like a supporting apparatus, repeating themes that run through the video in a more rigid and fixed medium. The slide show format (one image projected after another in serial fashion), complete with sparse commentary by Goldin and soaring choral voices, lends itself to rhythmic timing, leading the viewer back and forth between Goldin's photographs and fragments of the museum's collection with a natural pace that allows for stylistic comparison and thoughtful echoes. While I have long admired the rough, vulnerable realism and lush color in her photographs, the video forced me to get beyond those more obvious merits and see the underlying structure of Goldin's compositions more clearly, something I had heretofore completely overlooked. Pairings of like poses wash away the blunt harshness of Goldin's life stories, leaving behind the tenderness and grace of her portraits and human forms. Translucent skin is followed by luscious white marble, kisses rebound between iconic paintings and stolen moments, long hair cascades over and over, and nudes (both female and male) jump from casual to formal and back again. Her choices from the Louvre are steeped in the "mythology of romance", making her own photographs of private desire and elemental longing seem more universal and timeless, even though they clearly come from a very specific time and place. The gritty destructiveness that lays within many of Goldin's photographs is trumped here by the honest truth of sensual bodies and eternal relationships.

After watching the video, the still photographs seem a little less engaging, although the simpler diptychs of paired naps and embraces are more successful than the larger grids of odalisques, backs, and water drenched bodies; I think when the gestures get multiplied out into typologies, the "see they match" message gets more heavy handed, almost too obvious. The rounded room in the back pairs frontal portraits, capturing commonalities of expression across the ages; penetrating stares and authentic looks haven't changed much over the centuries, even if roles and classes certainly have.

The reason this show merits my highest rating is that it forced me to reappraise Goldin's photography, to see beyond the edgy bedroom scenes and the candidly intense situations and to discover the classic lines of her work. It was a way of approaching her pictures that I had never tried (it had never even occurred to me), and I was astounded by the controlled power and refinement in her compositions once I went looking for it. After seeing these juxtapositions, my impression of her many talents has been permanently altered. One might argue this is an "old wine in a new bottle" show, but there are moments of sublime finesse and subtle poetry to be found here (particularly in the video) and the chance to fundamentally transform your opinion of one of the masters of the medium doesn't come along very often.

Collector's POV: The prices for the works in this show are as follows: the grids and diptychs are priced between $20000 and $60000, while the single images range between $6000 and $15000; I did not get a price for the video installation. Goldin's work is routinely available in the secondary markets, with dozens of images available at auction every year; recent prices have generally ranged between $2000 and $34000.

Rating: *** (three stars) EXCELLENT (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • Features/Reviews: Hyperallergic (here), Huffington Post (here),  NY Times Lens (here)
Nan Goldin: Scopophilia
Through December 23rd

Matthew Marks Gallery
522 West 22nd Street
New York, NY 10011

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