Rivington Arms, September 11 – October 19, 2008
Not to mix mythic metaphors, but Oedipus was also a narcissist. In the prologue of Sophocles’ play, he blows off the chorus of Theban elders imploring him to save the city from a devastating plague: “Poor children! … I know that you are deathly sick; and yet, / Sick as you are, no one is as sick as I … my spirit / Groans for this city, for myself, for you” (a sentiment that eerily prefigures Laura Bush’s comment that “no one suffers more than their president and I do” when asked in a televised interview about “the damage the war in Iraq was doing to the American people”).
Oedipus’ blindness to his destiny as preordained by the Fates, it would seem, is more a consequence of eyes turned inward than the existential aimlessness we all share. In Leigh Ledare’s current show of photographs, videos and assemblages at Rivington Arms, You Are Nothing To Me. You Are Like Air, this inward focus—which creates a comfort zone for the artist to explore his complicated, to say the least, emotional relationship with his mother—feels tighter than ever, blotting out anything that might interfere from the outside world.
In his debut exhibition, Pretend You’re Actually Alive, Ledare trampled over millennia-old taboos with a curious detachment. The sexually explicit images he made of his mother, Tina Peterson, a former ballerina turned middle-aged stripper, were shocking more for the ugly truths they revealed about her psychological squalor than for their soft-core sensationalism. Ledare carries this theme, with some variations, into You Are Nothing To Me, yet the inherent claustrophobia of his project, which felt paradoxically liberating in his previous work, has become all but suffocating.
The premise of the show is collaboration—a conceit that acknowledges Peterson and other participants as full creative partners. This is most evident in a series called Personal Commissions, for which Ledare contacted women— “surrogates for his mother,” according to notes issued by the gallery—who had placed classified personal ads for male companionship. He then posed as the protagonist of their sexual fantasies. These works are not hung on the wall but stacked on a shelf; the viewer must flip through the white-framed pictures like books in a bargain bin in order to see them all.
In these works, Ledare replaces his mother as the center of his universe, but as a role-player in a stranger’s emotional life. These photos carry much less of a charge than the portraits of Peterson, partially because the eye behind the camera (the woman who placed the personal ad) is recording an imaginary setup rather than hard reality. But there is something else at play, as evidenced in Ledare’s assemblages, which include dutifully positioned artifacts like a copy of Melanie Klein’s Love, Guilt and Reparation and an unspooled videotape of an amateur fetish film starring the artist’s mother. These works, which can only be described as arty, stray even further from the moth-and-flame dance between mother and son, yet Ledare seems incapable of leaving that emotional arena; his eyes are still turned inward, but the alternate realities he’s constructing around her void neither make up for her loss nor invite the viewer inside.
Ledare’s art is one of unsparing directness, and the artificiality of these works militates against the allure and revulsion of his earlier photos. The only piece that comes close is “Shoulder” (2007), a video in which Peterson, after some initial small talk, cradles her head on Ledare’s shoulder and quietly breaks into tears. After she composes herself, she sits back and casts a furtive glance directly into the camera lens. Staring back, it’s hard to resist a tincture of smugness. We feel a delicious contempt for Ledare and Peterson’s narcissism as they act out their primal impulses, while feeding our own self-regard with assurances that we would never do the same, at least not in public.
But with that brief glance, Peterson seems to give the game away. It leaves us in a Brechtian bind over whether the crying jag was real or scripted, which in turn leads us to wonder about the authenticity of all the other images her son has made of her. In their cloistered world, it doesn’t seem to matter whether they are artist and model, hunter and quarry, or conspirators mutually exploring white-hot psychosexual terrain—what matters, in the end, is that we are still looking at them.