Luhring Augustine | June 7 – August 1, 2014
Two trains of thought about Larry Clark’s artistic output consistently pervade consideration of his work, which for the past 40 years has almost exclusively examined the debauched underbelly of adolescent life in America. One is the shock of Clark’s subject matter, with occasional outraged forays into accusations of pedophilia. The other is a cool detachment that regards Clark as an old man reworking material that no longer titillates the way it did when his photographs first entered the public arena, upon the publication of his monograph Tulsa in 1971. The insistence on fitting Clark’s photographs and films into one of the two categories derives from the cultural prudishness we collectively exhibit when it comes to sex. But the current exhibition may possibly alter the trajectory of the debate. While there is no shortage of shocking material, there are also works revealing finer shades of introspection, not to mention the opportunity to gain perspective on the arc of Clark’s career.
Clark has long focused on capturing teenagers engaged in behavior that is by turns illegal, dangerous, or sexually explicit. With the exception of a small selection of early images reprinted for this show—including “Johnny Bridges” (1961), Clark’s first photograph—most of the work here is of recent vintage, and continues in this vein. In a trio of color prints, all titled “Adam, Marfa, TX” (2011) Clark has captured in portrait a young, pimple-faced teenager, with tousled curls and soulful eyes posing shirtless for the camera. Photographs such as these have earned Clark his reputation for exploitation. But at this point, the criticism seems hypocritical, given the extent to which Clark’s pioneering style has been so widely imitated by mainstream advertising. Companies from Calvin Klein to American Apparel plaster scantily clad young people on billboards and bus stops without repercussion, and their images are far more ubiquitous.
Of course there is much more salacious work on view, including quite a few large-scale collages made up of hard-core snapshots and other items from Clark’s personal collection. “I want a baby before u die” (2010) intersperses photos of teenagers having intercourse, posing nude, or smeared in shit with magazine cutouts of Marilyn Monroe and Lindsay Lohan, Andy Warhol and Barack Obama, and drug paraphernalia in Ziploc baggies. The collage is unsparing, and hard to look at, but is also deserving of mindful attention. A close reading reveals the subtle shift that seems to be taking place in Clark’s recent output toward a more reflective approach. It’s the work of an artist who is looking back on a long career and trying to discern its impact, both on the artist, his subjects, and the wider world.
This is nowhere more evident than in the two collages dedicated to the actor Brad Renfro, who starred in Clark’s 2001 feature film Bully, and who died of a heroin overdose in 2008 at age 25. In “Knoxville (homage to Brad Renfro)” (2011) Clark has plastered a large poster board with snapshots of the bare-chested, adolescent Renfro. In many, the actor is shown shooting up heroin or brandishing the track marks in his arms. At the center of the collage are two images of Renfro as a preteen, younger by a couple of years than in the rest of the shots. In one of them, he poses affectionately with his grandmother. In “Knoxville II (homage to Brad Renfro)” (2011), a collage diptych, which hangs separately in the gallery’s back room, we see many of the same snapshots repeated, though their placement is both sparer and more intentional. The images, and also the board upon which they are affixed, are splashed with blood, and though it isn’t made clear, one presumes the blood is Clark’s own. The work is surprisingly powerful—a lament for an impoverished little boy plucked from obscurity and thrust into fame, who was chewed up and spat out by the Hollywood celebrity machine, and who died a drug addict’s death, alone in his tiny bedroom. His death preceded that of Heath Ledger’s by four days, and barely made headlines. Renfro is now all but forgotten, his name no longer much more than an answer to a trivia question. In “Knoxville II” Clark both commemorates the actor and also explores his own perceived culpability in Renfro’s death—the dried blood that can never be wiped away.
As a coda to Clark’s primary work, Luhring Augustine also presents four oil paintings, the first time the artist’s work in this medium has publicly been shown. Three unremarkable, large paintings, all titled “Jonathan” (2014), portray the eponymous subject posing nude. The paintings’ mediocre brushwork and conventional formal composition do not match the electric and emotionally raw photographs and collages. However, the exhibition ends with a small self-portrait (2014). Its color scheme is fecal brown, the face twisted, haunted, and muddy—a definitively repugnant painting. Clark’s interrogation is no less merciless when his subject is himself, and the ugliness seems deliberate.
JESSICA HOLMES is a New York-based writer and critic who is the ArTonic Section Editor, and contributes regularly to the Brooklyn Rail, Artcritical, Hyperallergic, and other publications.