PRINT November 1994


SHAUN HAS ARRIVED FOR HIS CHECKUP. Looking perhaps ten years old, he poses in front of a seamless monotone backdrop dressed only in his Jockey briefs. His creamy, seraphic body, blushing with the first signs of maturity, has been taken hostage by a monstrous infection: marble-sized blisters trail down from the right corner of his mouth, cluster above his left knee, and overwhelm the left side of his stomach.

But check this out—the peculiarly opulent backdrop is colored the same sea green as Shaun’s eyes. This amplifies the look of familiarity he trains on the viewer, but doesn’t grant us laymen much access to the human drama of his plight: those eyes record Shaun’s dissociation from his ailment—he knows that it’s being looked at, not him. Yet his image doesn’t conform to the dictates of clinical photography either. Shaun doesn’t seem sadly resigned to being viewed as a printout of medical data—where he imagines himself is on the near side of the lens, in cahoots with the apparatus of his own interrogation. His expression and posture betray fragile patience buckling under mounting curiosity, as if he were posing for a snapshot in his first Halloween costume, and couldn’t wait to see the shocking phantasm he’d been made up to look like.

Shaun, 1993, comprises five such photographs, showing this postapocalyptic Coppertone Boy strike different poses—kneeling, hand behind head, body turned to either side—all to show off the advancing stages of his horror-film corruption. The photos were actually taken on the set of a film, Sharon Lockhart’s 16-minute Khalil, Shaun, a Woman under the Influence, 1994. Shaun and another, similarly angelic man-child share the movie’s first two-thirds, as Lockhart’s examining camera tries to converse with its subject matter in a highly specialized language that turns out to be foreign to both. The result is again equal parts clinical investigation, monster movie, and skin flick, a study in visual stupefaction that effortlessly collapses intimacy and detachment (a confusion already suggested by the use of first names only; a fitting sequel might be Freud’s Dora Does Dallas).

The film opens with a series of 15-to-30-second shots featuring Khalil framed from the chest up by a static, deaf camera. The footage is blandly serviceable; the star seems by turns bored, shy, giggly—he keeps on glancing just beyond the camera, cranes his head in response to directions, and at one point bursts out laughing at what is obviously an offscreen joke. Meanwhile his chocolate flesh slowly decays. The following segment, with Shaun and his blisters, eggs suspicion that the two are involved in a make-up test—that’s why they don’t take their withering personally, and why, for us, their body language is so hard to interpret.

As in most of Lockhart’s work, the film folds all the consequences of its depicted event back onto the plane of appearances. Her sterile, documentary approach flattens her images down to mere surface information, and yet as information they couldn’t be more unreliable—they’re all artifice, unfounded, and open to endless mutation. With no authorial statement to blanket them, Lockhart’s scenes also lack any underlying support, any fixed laws or inherent nature to govern what they look like. There’s no judging from her appearances, no ground zero of meaning for our viewing to penetrate through to. Though yielding easily to vision, her images remain stubbornly irreducible, at once superficial and engrossing.

The last third of Lockhart’s film re-creates a scene toward the end of John Cassavetes’ A Woman under the Influence where Gena Rowlands’ character (here played by Jennifer Hill) tucks her son (here the decrepit Shaun) into bed—“I’m worried about you Mom; I love you,” the boy repeatedly sighs. In the Lockhart, the exchange is impossibly weird, yet it manages to radiate tenderness, as a sense of innocence replaces the heavy fate that in the original pressed down on the family’s self-estrangement. The net effect is to turn cinema verité into naïveté.

In her latest effort, Lockhart again turns to cinematic realism, this time François Truffaut’s. Enlisting nine young nonactors—four boys, the rest girls—she’s produced five photographs called “Auditions” that each duplicate the climactic kiss between Patrick and Martine in the school stairwell in Small Change. That one kid pops up twice in Lockhart’s photos—lucky Max—is a tip-off that these aren’t actual couples. Adopting the casting agent’s studious gaze rather than the doctor’s or the make-up artist’s, Lockhart’s camera widens its eye upon the encounters before it, detecting every surface accident and minor detail—tensed muscles, darting eyes, involuntary responses, all the overt manifestations of raging hormones and pounding hearts. Predictability falls apart—a kiss is just a kiss, these documents report, and that’s far more than either they or the kids can handle.

Lane Relyea is a frequent contributor to Artforum.