MATTHEW MARKS GALLERY | OCTOBER 29 – DECEMBER 23, 2011
One of the first impressions on viewing Nan Goldin’s Scopophilia at the Matthew Marks Gallery is the recollection of a new poem by Wisława Szymborska, “Thoughts that visit me on busy streets,” in Here, in which she speculates:
Those passersby might be Archimedes in jeans
Catherine the Great draped in resale
Some pharaoh with briefcase and glasses.
Scopophilia, a sumptuous, three-course banquet, is Goldin’s first foray into empathic socialization and positive humanity. The show’s signature video, Scopophilia, was created at the invitation of Patrice Chéreau, the 2010 Grand invite of the Louvre, where it was shown as part of his “Faces and Bodies” program. According to the Louvre’s website, “Chéreau invited Nan Goldin to join his exploration of the ‘faces and bodies’ of the Louvre and present her version in a new opus.” Unfortunately, scant mention of Chéreau, whose grande idée Goldin executes, is made in the show’s press or on the gallery’s website. Fortunately, the execution sings.
The show’s title, which smirks suggestive paraphilia, attempts to maintain transgressive cred. Luckily, it fades to instant insignificance when the first work hypnotizes the viewer, who then proceeds, enchanted, through an erotic exploration of the human form. By this I mean erotic in the sense of quick—alive, as poet Audre Lorde defined the word, and just as vivid.
Scopophilia is, I suppose, literally erotic, containing as it does juxtapositions of luminous examples of peinture à l’huile with Goldin-composed, supersaturated chromogenic, separated-at-birth photographs. In “Odalisque” (2011), Ingres’s eponymous concubine and others meet women photographed recumbent, all having in common feminine curvilinearity; “Hair” (2011), “Water” (2011), and “The Back” (2011) are motivically self-explanatory. Although the show is heavily gynocentric, the marmoreal member of an hermaphrodite is slyly perpendicular, and transgendered persons are incorporated in the show’s namesake video.
Although nude faces and bodies are Scopophilia’s primary subjects, the show’s triumph is its connective humanity. It’s here that Goldin’s catalytic magic occurs: We see that—whether in royal portraits or mythic entities—we resemble and therefore are each other, whatever the era. Even if this is obvious upon a nanosecond’s reflection, it’s something we all too easily forget—even as we fail to grasp the importance of civilizational community and cultural continuity. Suddenly, Goldin’s druggies, lowlifes, fellow runaways, and cigarette-dandling, tattooed subjects become dukes and goddesses—and common people. Their flaws, which Goldin has long and pathologically exploited, are transformed into uniquely human features, ennobling their bearers—and us—in mirrored surrogate. That Goldin has utterly abnegated her earlier work may be accidental; still, these images convey, at last, the decent respect her subjects have all too long deserved.
Goldin’s second achievement is the beauty of the compositions themselves. The first work, “The horse races, Egypt” (2010), is a brilliant motion blur that perfectly imitates the atmospheric brushstrokes of the unnamed, Turneresque original (identification throughout should’ve been a curatorial layup). To have been there would’ve been enough; that Goldin is traveling, observing, and living is exhilarating to know.
The show has several weaknesses, however. First: it should be two shows, not one. The sets rooms, which contain the theme-defining composites, already have too many works; the pairs room, a series in the round of portrait photos surmounted by smaller details of tenuously similar painted faces, continues the theme in variation, but unaesthetically gilds the lily; the theater room—the video is a slide show of photos that include many of Goldin’s earlier works. The images and music are as beautiful as the screen framing and production are amateurish. Second: Although the black interstices work perfectly, the framing of almost everything seems unconsidered. Why not equal-sized, side-by-side images in the pairs room? Would the message be more moving without the sex-obsessed nudity (in which older women need not apply)? A possible answer was provided by the audience’s coos when mothers, babies, and children appeared onscreen.
Oddly, the show’s weakest item is a four-frame set of details of Courbet’s 1866 “L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World)”, whose subject matter is straight-on female genitalia. Here, because there is no comparative photo, Goldin adds nothing to the work, and does nothing compositionally creative, unlike David Hockney in his Polaroid mosaics.
The critique that Scopophilia is merely appropriation and contrived association misses its origin as a commission, and that its execution has produced transcendental results. As a photographic Pygmalion, Goldin has delivered on her stated objective—to bring the Louvre’s Galateas to life (and the pair of monochrome, abutted photos splitting this sculpture is intentionally symbolic). Whatever her originality, Goldin has demonstrated her ability to discover, appreciate, learn, and profoundly connect, and—most important to her—to realize her own tender humanity.