Seeing Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1979-1986, as a freshman in college made my eyes flex muscles they never knew they had. These photographs were Punk. They are utterly cool and messed up yet obviously the real deal; Nan Goldin is a damn good photographer. Her current show at Matthew Marks Gallery is entitled Scopophilia, which in Greek means “the love of looking” and deriving pleasure from this act. This new show may not posses all the punk of the past but there are traces. Overall this is a complicated show that I’m not sure I have decided on yet but one that should certainly be seen by those who love or hate Goldin’s work.
This is her first solo exhibition in New York since 2007 but this wait feels okay because the show has an in the desert biblical cleansing vibe. Goldin has been living in Paris since 2000 as a result of what she considers Bush’s stolen election that year. Being a nuevo expatriate in Paris, Goldin has become a Parisian darling and has been given the ultimate embrace of approval by being allowed and commissioned to photograph works at the Louvre alone and after hours. Now THAT is a golden ticket. She took photographs of paintings and sculptures that ooze fleshy bygone tales, myths and gospels. Most are close-ups of an arm, breast, back, and other body parts and seeing these cropped snippets is fascinating. The focus and the ability to see such a zoomed in morsel is a treat, especially with works so entombed. Goldin then takes photos from her extensive archive of over 400 images and she pairs these with those she took at the Louvre. Sometimes this is a direct one to one but there are others that are scattered amongst a grid.
For the gridded and side-by-side images there is an odd matchy-match game that starts to happen. The eye keeps popping from one image to the next in comparison and contrast; this is a bit unnerving and ungenerous to the eye. Seeing a statue of a Greek goddess in certain repose and then seeing a young girl on a bed in a similar repose does give certain gratifications but the way this is forced is a strain. Also, there are a few technical annoyances about the presentation; one is that the gallery lighting is awful. There is a lot of ambient light from outside, which may be on purpose in some way, but the glare is unsightly. Second point of contention is the glass or plexi in front of the images is not non-reflective so this glare is made even more punishing. Most times I would have given a pass to this sort of thing but Goldin’s photographs from the Louvre already have their own funky angles, glares and focus so adding more optical hurdles is not a good idea. A room that did work was a semicircular yellow room with portraits of Goldin’s friends and lovers and these had a mated painted portrait from the Louvre’s collection above them. The focus on all the faces is the eyes. It is the eyes that are the key, the match; they are the points that posses a certain quality that resonates in both portraits and seems to fit like two pieces of a strange Nan Goldin puzzle.
In a separate room there is a slide show that is 25 minutes long and is a more extensive presentation of images from the Louvre and her archives. Goldin speaks at points, about how she came upon doing this project, about the show’s title, and about the things she discovered in her looking. She describes the act of looking for her as being a point of transcendence, a thing that brings you to a point beyond contemplation and also brings you to pleasure. This excitement of seeing and of looking is the most important thing one can hope of art. This presentation also has opera playing at times, dramatic yes but also quite beautiful. There are some absolute stunners from Goldin’s catalog, portraits of young, barely budded lovers, and images of friends making love, during, before and after. These people are all intimates of Goldin and she and they let you be intimate as well. This is the defining difference between Goldin’s work and others that photograph in what could be called a diaristic style, and why ideas about voyeurism do not stick to her. Her photographs are not about secrets being scene, or any form of violation in the act of looking. They are intimate and intimacy is private and shared. Goldin’s masterful use of light and color in her compositions also lend to the warmth of her images, something that more recent crops of young photographers, you know who they are, seem to have sucked dry from their works. There is utter sincerity in Goldin’s photographs this is most effectively seen in the slideshow format. There is a rhythm that serves these images well and also the idea of light penetrating onto a wall gives the images an almost sculptural presence.
Now, the inclusion of the Louvre images of the breasts, buttocks, backs, hair, faces, fingers and embraces shuffled into Goldin’s archives in this format is less cumbersome then in the photograph installations, but it still is an odd idea in the first place. In an unsettling way, it seems as if Goldin is self-positioning herself in comparison to these works of art in order to catapult her own into the same sphere. This, if Goldin really believes it, is just too arrogant to bear. But, I am giving the benefit of the doubt that this is not what she is implying. She is doing this for, hopefully, a bigger idea one that shows how people, the body, desire, and flesh, are all exquisite and are eternal. There is a power in Goldin’s sensuality. There is a timeless presence of the flesh, of the person, a persistence of being that artists try to capture through representational art. This is another quick point to make; representational art in the classic formalist way has been so revolted upon in painting that it is suicide to even challenge it in today's contemporary art world. But Goldin, who is a photographer, can still refer to the body with legitimacy. In addition to elegizing the body, Goldin transfixes on the narratives of the works at the Louvre. All the works there are a stand in for the history of a person, a myth or a story, there is a density and a purpose to their physical form. Goldin’s photographs posses this in some ways but they, to me, are more about the evidence of things immortal. They peak into the idea that the now and the recent pasts are not as removed from a few hundred years ago or even a few thousand, which in the big scheme of things is just a blip of our humanity.
The slide show is really lovely, yes it is over the top and romantic and dramatic but so what, the art world could use a little bit of that to temper its too cool for school vibe. What is most touching is that in the end, the piece is dedicated to Peter Hujar and David Wojnarowicz. To know those artists works and to know even a little about the triangle of friendship and love these three artist shared makes everything more touching.