New York

Duane Michals

Sidney Janis Gallery

Duane Michals’ high-brow images and scribbly, semidiaristic texts have secured him a peculiar spot in the annals of American photography. With its blatant sentimentality, soft-focus homoeroticism, and tendency to inflate confessional material with metaphors lifted from Greek and American mythology, Michals’ work has never fit neatly into his medium’s general history. His reputation is highest among devotees and collectors of gay male photography, where his idiosyncracies are considered central to a sexually confident romanticism that extends back to early cult figures such as Willem von Gloeden and Herbert List. Michals is something of a crossover artist, but, unlike Robert Mapplethorpe and Jimmy de Sana, who built mainstream fine-art reputations, his nongay following tends to be among consumers of the coffee-table book.

This show of recent photographs, entitled “Upside Down, Inside Out, and Backwards: Fairy Tunes for Children,” is one of his ickiest. If Marc Chagall had been a photographer, he might have come up with these paeans to the fragility of the family unit.They employ a familiar Michals device—the heating up of an inherently chilly medium (black and white photography) with elements from a cozier one (the fairy tale). The artist’s realistic-seeming dramas are gently distorted by sweet, imaginative leaps: lonely children are visited by physical manifestations of their daydreams, a dying grandfather sprouts wings and flies out a living room window. The images are heavily paradoxical and possibly ironic in their messages of a quasi Christian salvation, which, as always in Michals’ world, takes the form of a partly clothed male angel who bewitches the young at heart while evading or befuddling the grown-ups. If there’s a moral to these “tunes,” and that appears to be the case, it seems to be an offbeat declaration of faith in standard Western notions of spiritual enlightenment. Unfortunately, whatever the photographer’s point, it’s all but lost by the heavy sugar content of the prevailing atmosphere.

Throughout his now multidecade career, Michals has admirably pursued his odd, benevolent vision. Still, even granting him his cuter stylistic quirks, it’s hard not to want to dismantle Michals’ world view, especially when it tackles the pertinent issues of loss and isolation with such received banality that my response is less wonder or amusement than mild contempt.

Dennis Cooper