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PRINT Summer 2004

slant

David Rimanelli on giving his class homework

FOR THE PAST TWO YEARS I have given “Make Your Own Nan Goldin” as an assignment to the undergrads in my “Contemporary Art” survey course at New York University’s Steinhardt School. At the beginning of the semester I juxtaposed two contemporaneous and archetypal photographic series of the late ’70s and early ’80s, Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency and Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills.” The emphasis on Goldin and Sherman derived in part from my impression that these artists were familiar to even the greenest (or most blinkered) BFA candidates, whereas Jeff Wall or Richard Prince weren’t necessarily. With a certain tendentiousness I often returned to these artists during the course’s unraveling; having initially emphasized their obvious differences, gradually I began to refer to the artists by a single sobriquet, “Cindy Goldin.” I guess I was suggesting—rather humorously, I thought—that on repeated viewing these series began to bleed together, in my mind at least, and that the much-discussed “construction” of Sherman’s mise-en-scènes and Goldin’s famous snapshot aesthetic are more similar than they first seem. The point was to question the ostensible gap between critical and expressive photography, between set-up pictures and those that laid claim to the ambivalent territory of the documentary. And besides, “Make Your Own Nan Goldin” would yield inescapably amusing results, in a way that thirty essays on the Gerhard Richter retrospective at MoMA, or even on Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster Cycle,” would not.

“This is not a studio class and as such this is not a studio project,” I wrote in the instructions. “It concerns the reception and interpretation of images, in this case images about bohemia, the artist’s life, alternative lifestyles, etc. Photo technique, however, is not at issue. If you like, you can simply buy a disposable camera to take the pictures.” The conscientious schoolmarm in me urged the class to use confectionary sugar as a stand-in for illicit substances, while the cheerfully irresponsible voyeur hoped for a few images of “NYU after dark.” In addition to the photos, I required the students to pen brief essays “giving some orientation or perspective on your approach.” Some of the kids’ statements were plainly skeptical or explicitly derogatory: “Why should I care about the drugged-out, dirty, self-indulgent Family of Nan?” one student asked, while another remarked, without irony, “I don’t think I like this Cindy Sherman. She is so self-involved. She’s in all her pictures.” Others gave more academic accounts, often with footnotes, demonstrating that the forced diet of early-’80s October art criticism to which I had subjected the class up to midterm had borne fruit (or something): Citations of Douglas Crimp, Craig Owens, Rosalind Krauss, and Benjamin H.D. Buchloh peppered numerous essays. The “I Heart Being Smart” and alter ego “Screw This” commentaries were revealing by turns. The assignment had been handed out during the class session covering “Spectacle and Simulation”; it was due on the day devoted to “Abjection.”

The photographic projects usually fell into two camps, either setups, often explicitly parodic, of drug use, abusive relationships, and domestic and clubby disorder, or attempts at the snapshot aesthetic with regard to the students’ own lives and those of their friends and families. More than a few reflected and commented on the students’ own relationship to the East Village environs, where many live and where our classroom is located. The wan specters of “New York/New Wave” (the title of our session devoted to 1980’s “Times Square Show” and the East Village art scene) dimly inhabit St. Mark’s Place, and the neighborhood retains still a vague aura of alternativeness—outlandish rents, cute shops, and trendy cafés notwithstanding.

One student, Chason Matthams, naughtily opted to assume the unsympathetic role of Brian, Goldin’s abusive boyfriend and amour fou, “the man in the photograph drinking and watching Fred Flintstone on the television,” the author of Goldin’s signature shiner. “He fixates on the fact that she has achieved fame from the black eye he gave her,” Matthams continues. “In order to get back at her he has set out to take his own photographs in her style. To make her jealous he has taken photographs of various women in suggestive situations. They are all skinny and prettier than Nan. Maybe art students lending themselves to Brian in order to be part of the trickle-down effect of his minor fame, maybe young girls he has ‘hired,’ or maybe he’s just fulfilling the dirty brute fantasy for the girls.” For the most part the girls just loll around in bed, bored, contemptuous, horny: “A sense of you just fucked me and I hate you, but I loved it, can be detected.” Chason’s irreverence regarding Goldin’s trials—scenes of intimate personal extremity that are nonetheless available to a wide, eager audience—is balanced by the accomplished technique he brings to the images, attempting not unsuccessfully to approximate rather than merely parody the Goldin look.

Arielle Angel’s series, chronicling a day in her life as a privileged girl in Miami, makes no grand claims to beauty but instead achieves an ambivalent tone. “I subscribed more to your merger, the Cindy Goldin/Nan Sherman kind of thing,” she remarks. “The pictures are somewhere between real life and a persona. In a sense, they’re staged. I don’t really wear all leopard lingerie to match the interior design of my room . . . and I don’t spend inordinate amounts of time at the mall or cruising in my Jaguar. But my mother does, and all of these things were easily accessible. The truth: When I was ‘staging’ the dressing-room fashion show at Bloomingdale’s I fell so in love with one of those overpriced dresses that ‘I just had to buy it.’” Another sequence of photos shows Arielle at her salon for a waxing—a “special European technique,” she adds. The pictures reminded me again of Goldin’s images of women under duress; the greenish black splotches of wax reminded me of her battered face. Of course, this is a beauty treatment. Angel dilates on the whole identity business: “This persona of the Jewish American Princess with nothing more to do in her life than ‘groom and consume’ is a persona that hits home for me. I want to laugh at it, but what I’m not aiming to do is apologize for it.” Recall Goldin’s own comment, “I want to know exactly what my world looks like, without glamorization, without glorification.”

Many students returned home for the settings of their pictures, but Alexandra Howie’s casting of herself as a prostitute at leisure in her Chinese- born grandparents’ Oyster Bay residence takes the Goldin/Sherman conflation to a dazzling extreme. “Nan Goldin’s work with drag queens and prostitutes presents a way to reinvent oneself,” Howie says. “I attempted to reinforce this form of invention while documenting my grandparents’ Asian-influenced home. As in Sherman’s work, the surroundings imply an unformulated story in which the viewer can create his or her own associations.” The coup de grâce: Howie had her mother take the pictures.

Ben Guttin, James Huntley, and Charles Harlan all exploit the snapshot aesthetic to various ends. “I made rules for the project,” Guttin states, elaborating that “it shouldn’t look like a Goldin . . . and it had to be about my own ballad of sexual dependency.” The latter rule is the clincher, the blazon of authenticity: pictures downloaded from the Internet of various men in states of dishabille (one skinny, shirtless boy sports a sizable erection poking out of his camouflage pants). “I’ve attached to this group of pictures one of myself holding my crotch, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. This picture is me getting off on me thinking about other people thinking about me.” And people have accused Nan Goldin of narcissism.

Huntley photographs himself and friends in New York and Connecticut in a condition that can only be characterized as polluted. Pictures bear captions like “Self-portrait with box of wine, NY,” “Self-portrait and sick, CT,” and “Craig vomiting, CT.” Is that real vomit? I asked. Uh-huh. And while the pictures bear no trace of aestheticization, Huntley’s account of them is quite romantic; he doesn’t subscribe to the Cindy Goldin heuristic. “I attempted to follow [Goldin’s] attempt to peer inside the soul of her subjects but also give my own personal connection to the observer by allowing my photographic diary to be open for all to see. I have had my own struggles with alcohol abuse and I am not proud of where I have ended up in the past. Some of Nan’s photographs appeared staged and posed but there was a reality to them that lingered throughout.”

Charles Harlan’s “Battle of Historical Inaccuracy,” his record of a Civil War–battle reenactment near his hometown in Georgia, appears at a glance almost risibly clueless regarding Goldin’s images but proves to be a quite trenchant analysis of subculture: “Goldin’s friends and these Civil War reenactors, though separated by the Mason-Dixon line, and a liberal education, have more in common than either group would be willing to admit,” Harlan relates. “Both are dissatisfied with the American cultural system, and long for a freedom; in one case a freedom of sexual and narcotic expression, in the other case, a freedom of states’ rights. Each is a rebellious, subversive group, hoping to topple the institution in order to reach a desired (utopian?) state of existence more relevant to their own specific ways of life than the system that is currently in place.” Choosing to document a “scene” far removed from Goldin’s own, Harlan reflects with real acuity on documentary, self- representation, and the position of the photographer: “Just as Goldin’s friends are assimilating avant-garde movements of the past, these reenactors are assimilating the rebellious movements of their ancestors. In both cases the line between reality and simulation is blurred. The question between authentic documentation and staging also comes into play here, as with Goldin—one young boy warning his friend before a photo, ‘They didn’t smile in the Civil War!’”

If I’ve quoted from my students’ essays at length, it’s because I believe that, together with their photographs, they speak more convincingly and eloquently about what Nan Goldin means today than any forced froth of lucubration on the topic I could muster myself. I mean, I know what I think of Goldin’s work; what interests me are my students’ divagations. Only one question still bothers me: Why didn’t I ask them to make their own Cindy Shermans?

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.