By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Another contact sheet points up the deliberateness of her editorial agenda. Child with toy hand grenade in Central Park NYC 1962 is another of her most famous images. While most of the other frames on the sheet show a typically jaunty 7-year-old voguing for the camera lady, the familiar corner shot, appearing to seethe with all the repressed anxiety of the Cuban Missile Crisis era and beyond, underscores Arbus’ instinct to excavate theatrical and mythic significance out of seemingly arbitrary encounters. The subjects Arbus chose to photograph, and the photographs she chose to print, are in some sense fragments of a prescribed story, illustrations of a dark but essentially utopian narrative, testified to by the voluminous rationalizations the artist left behind in her letters, diaries, notebooks and essays. It’s as if Arbus’ imagination and intellect were so busy and anxious to contain everything that she was never able to transcend them in order to experience the photography of engagement she seemed to yearn for so desperately. It’s an underlying note of frustration that permeates her photographs and writing, lending coherence to her oeuvre but stopping short of fixing the world.Arbus, Fire Eater at a Carnival, Palisades Park, N.J. 1956 (LACMA)
Fans of Arbus’ work will have their conception of her range expanded and fleshed out, and I can only imagine the impact on a first-time viewer. “Revelatory” wouldn’t be inappropriate. The photos alone are enough to knock socks off, and the ephemera — installed in dim, museological splendor — is nearly overwhelming.
Revelations” is an exhibition of great historical import, and everybody knows it. Every art venue in Los Angeles seems to be jostling to associate itself with the big show. No less than 40 exhibitions of photography are set to compete with or expand upon the Arbus “Revelations,” including shows by Henry Horenstein at Paul Kopeikin, Annie Leibovitz at the Pacific Design Center, Robert Mapplethorpe curated by Catherine Opie at Marc Selwyn, Helmut Newton at Gagosian Gallery, Peter Beard at Fahey/Klein, Patrick McMullan at Earl McGrath Gallery, Paul Graham at Karyn Lovegrove, Keith Boadwee at Peres Projects, Hirsch Perlman at Blum & Poe, Jack Butler, Eileen Cowin and Grant Mudford at USC Fisher Gallery, Beat Streuli at LACE, Glen E. Friedman at Sixspace, and so on. And that’s just the galleries! Santa Monica Auctions has scheduled a special photo-themed sale this Saturday, Feb. 28, at 6 p.m. The Getty already has a show up of recent acquisitions by Eugène Atget, Brett Weston, William Garnett and Milton Rogovin, and on March 16 will open “Photographers of Genius at the Getty,” culling 38 photographers from its voluminous archives (including Arbus, August Sander and Weegee) in celebration of the photo collection’s 20th anniversary. The Long Beach Museum of Art is hosting a traveling Smithsonian exhibit entitled Women of Our Time featuring photographic portraits of notable women from the 20th century, ranging from Helen Keller to Janis Joplin and including such renowned photographers as Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.Arbus, Two Girls in Matching Bathing Suits, Coney Island, N.Y. 1967 (MOCA)
But the two most intriguing Arbus spinoff shows are the most directly related and the most antithetical, respectively. “Street Credibility” at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary is a complex thematic extrapolation of Arbus, her influences and her contemporaries guest-curated by Mike Kelley, while the Hammer’s “The Last Picture Show: Artists Using Photography, 1960–1982” covers a divergent stream of photographic practice, one largely concerned with photography as a tool to document ephemeral actions or conceptual gestures. As its rather imperious subtitle suggests, many of the artists included disdained the preoccupations of Arbus and other photographers using photography — namely, formal concerns of composition and timing, and a theatrical and journalistic engagement with the world.
This practice of defining art by what it is not isn’t as dry as it might sound, although about a third of the artists in “The Last Picture Show” definitely should have laid off the always inauspicious coupling of the Phenomenology 101 reading list and the bong. The rest of the show breaks about evenly between the funny (Fischli & Weiss’ LOL 1979 “Sausage Series”) and the can’t-make-boring-ugly-art-even-by-trying (Bernd and Hilla Becher’s deadpan industrial architectural grids, or Sarah Charlesworth’s April 21, 1978 comparing allocation of newspaper space to the kidnapping of Italian politician Aldo Moro). There’s some great art here, too: an original copy of the fake newspaper published by Yves Klein which first disseminated his signature Leap Into the Void performance/photograph of 1960, Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on Sunset Stripand Various Small Fires books, and Giovanni Anselmo’s Entering the Work, which stood out in MOCA’s “Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962–1972” just 17 months ago. Nonetheless, the curatorial premise of “The Last Picture Show,” which originated at the Walker Center in Minneapolis, is vague and unconvincing. There’s plenty to look at and think about, but the suggestion that such work was part of a Zeitgeist that culminated in the ho-hum ’80s appropriations of Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine and Barbara Kruger is insulting to both artists and audience.Theo Ehret, Unknown Wresterrs, 1970 (MOCA)
Mike Kelley’s “Street Credibility” at MOCA is more precisely curated. The show arranges more than 200 photos by Arbus, Larry Clark, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and other like-minded “post-documentary” photographers (including “apartment” wrestling photographer Theo Ehret, subject of Kelley and Cameron Jamie’s ridiculously monumental Taschen book Exquisite Mayhem) into a series of overlapping thematic sequences. In falling short of transcending Otherness in the world, Arbus left behind a daunting catalog of sociopolitical observations dealing largely with power relationships between her subjects, and between her subjects and herself. This complex network of imbalances can be traced through the locked, shifting, veiled or averted gazes of the people in her pictures, and Kelley uses these visual signals to map out 17 distinct motifs in Arbus’ work and the work of her forebears, contemporaries and successors.
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