It’s been over 10 years since Larry Clark’s last photography book, 1992, the fallow period obviously owing to his controversial movie making. Still, after I purchased his new Punk Picasso from the Stephen Cohen Gallery (you won’t find it anywhere else in L.A.), it sat around my house, unopened, for at least a week. Not out of disinterest but, primarily, because it cost 500 bucks from a limited-edition printing of 1,000. Do you put it in the bookshelf or on a pedestal? After several washings of my hands and a scrub-down of the kitchen table, I carefully slipped the massive volume out of its pressed-cardboard case. The book is not hardbound, which seemed a bit of a ripoff. However, a bonus poster fell out with three color snapshots of Clark’s current bikini-clad girlfriend at the beach. The small type at the bottom reads: “My girlfriend is 19 years old 1999.” (Clark is pushing 60, so this is somewhat embarrassing bravado.)
Punk Picasso is, essentially, a scrapbook — and an outright crowded one at that: early family photos and letters, torn scraps of paper with written quotes by Bruce Lee and William Blake, a highly personal love letter by his father to his mother when they were dating. There are additional family snapshots of dinners and celebrations from years past, a yellowed newspaper clipping of a homicidal teenager, a Johnny Ace record cover, Yankees baseball cards from the ’50s. And the 30 pages of publicity photos and teen-mag articles about River Phoenix that appear later in the book don’t hold much interest. The ’50s memorabilia becomes tiresome and just too darned wholesome. It’s as if Clark’s trying to convince us — or more likely himself — that he really is just as normal as the next person. Clearly, his insistence on telling the whole story is undoubtedly a fault. And at $500 for 500 pages, it makes one wonder — is this all there is?
But then there are Clark’s definitive black-and-white photos, instantly recognizable, presumably outtakes of Tulsa, his breakthrough 1971 book. Together, they read like a sequel with the full intensity of the original. These are not new photographs, however; they are prints from old negatives. And Clark’s brand-new photos are, simply, a disappointment — images documenting the filmmaking world he is now immersed in. Hollywood, not Oklahoma, got into these prints. Most of them are of actors, not speed freaks. His pictures feel like compositions from the eye of a movie director, not the guy with the camera passing the needle around. Clark’s obsession with teen life, sex, drugs and crime still exists, and you’ll still find that raw power in his screen work but not, unfortunately, in the pages of his book. His strongest images remain the outtakes from earlier works, when he was a photographer, not a filmmaker.
The book’s weakness, though, is also a strength. Combining new photographs with a personal scrapbook is in keeping with Clark’s genius — nothing is left out, not even bad reviews and negative publicity gossip. He wears his infamy like a badge, and Punk Picasso is Clark’s big self-portrait.
Art — A Sex Book: Malcolm X (version
3) #1 (2000), by Glenn Ligon; Grace
(date unknown), by Gary
Lee Boas; Beuys La Rivoluzione
Siamo Noi (1988), by Sturtevant
John Waters and Bruce Hainley’s tongue-in-chic collaboration, Art — A Sex Book, is aptly titled. Both authors have some definite concerns about sex-crazed artists, and they address those concerns in an appropriate fashion: as tastelessly as possible. With filmmaker Waters’ keen sensibility on popular culture and Hainley’s art-critic background, the book manages to combine hilarity and absurd profundities with the savvy of lecturing professors.
The layout is treated like an art exhibit in a very big gallery. Instead of chapters, the book is divided into “rooms” showcasing 175 works by artists ranging from heavyweights such as Lichtenstein, Warhol and Weegee to contemporary artists like Mike Kelley, Christopher Wool and Richard Prince. The choices are diverse and relevant in that forced way your art-history teacher would juxtapose two of the most dissimilar images as you frantically took notes. Some selections seem obvious, like Larry Clark’s work and Beth B’s graphic pencil drawing of the vagina. Others are not so literal, such as Maureen Callace’s paintings of houses or Christopher Johnson’s bleak, desolate photographs of Middle America. But most are discussed in Waters’ and Hainley’s amusing back-and-forth dialogue, with Waters being the more daring and absurd. “I think Satanists are cute,” he writes. Or “I’m sure Grace Jones scares Black Muslims as much as Malcolm X scared white people.” His queeny retorts are often predictable but effective nonetheless. Hainley holds his own, and together they are sometimes so in sync the reader loses track of who’s saying what.
Following the “exhibition” and text is a list of questions that were posed to selected artists. A few examples: “Can good art be a sexual turn-on? How should museums and public institutions deal with explicit sex in contemporary art? Have you ever used art as pornography?” The format is a bit tedious, since every question is answered by each artist, but it’s about sex, so you keep reading.
The big question is, of course, “Is sex a legitimate concern for art?” Simply by publishing a book like this, Waters and Hainley give the obvious answer: yes! In fact, Art — A Sex Book is presented in such an academic manner, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if it did become required reading for art students. What a coup that would be for Waters, Mr. Shock Value himself, to be taken seriously in the art world he loves so much . . . to make fun of.
John Waters and Bruce Hainley will appear at Book Soup on Sunday, November 23, at 2 p.m. 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 659-3110.
PUNK PICASSO | By LARRY CLARK | AKA Editions | 500 pages, softcover | $500
ART — A SEX BOOK | By JOHN WATERS and BRUCE HAINLEY Thames & Hudson | 208 pages, paperback | $30