New York

Larry Clark

The more mainstream culture tries to eliminate the heart of darkness—the particular brand of bleakness, emptiness, and senseless violence—at the core of the American experience, the more tenaciously it takes hold of us. Larry Clark has frequently lived on the edge, and his entire body of work bears powerful testimony to the fact that the path of rigor and passion often takes the artist through violence and addiction so that he or she may reach a kind of lucidity and a state of compassion.

This show provides a welcome overview of Clark’s work, but the presentation of the pieces was confusing and disjointed. Works from the Tulsa series, some of the earliest of which are dated 1962, were interspersed with the “Teenage Lust” series from the ’70s and early ’80s, and scattered among these earlier photographs were the recent photocollages. Obviously there have been big blanks in this artist’s career and to try to reconstitute a coherent narrative would be at best to force the issue. There is, however, an evolutionary thread that might have been indicated. The new photocollages are much more about the constitution of Clark’s interiority; his characteristic obsessions with teen idols, teen desire, and teen violence are more complexly available, and his explorations of his past are revealingly juxtaposed with found images and texts. The body of the teenage male serves as an intensely ambivalent totemic object in our culture: it is both the accursed and the sublime. Here Clark’s fascination with the virility of teenage boys leads him to an understanding of the painful and impossible constitution of his own masculinity under the aegis of a father who was completely alienated and emotionally shut down.

More than anything, Clark’s work is a firsthand account of the slow-burn disintegration of the American dream. Perhaps that is why his earliest photographs possess an almost mythical quality. Clark has illustrated the fact that addiction in this culture is a rite of passage, a senseless and violent renunciation of an equally senseless and violent culture. The famous photograph of the pregnant girl shooting up is illuminated by a supernatural light; her entire body seems to glow. In another photograph from this series, an arc of liquid sprays out of a full syringe. These kids need to feel good fast—the faster they feel, the better. The culture has produced us all as commodity junkies; these addicts are merely acting out instant gratification at a higher velocity with controlled substances rather than store-bought objects.

The squalor in which Clark’s subjects live is a kind of nihilistic renunciation of the suburban fantasy of order and cleanliness. Accidental Gunshot Wound, 1971, taken right after a girl has shot her boyfriend in the leg, is a representation of raw pain. The look on the boyfriend’s face and his posture is Christ-like in its suffering.

The eroticism of Clark’s photographs lies in their almost incidental quality, the radical lack of artifice and mise-en-scène exposes his subjects as they expose themselves. When their gaze meets that of the camera, they are completely open, cocks and all. The intimacy of Clark’s photographs is overwhelming. These are not your average porno shots of big dicks; these teenagers almost look like they can’t live up to their hard-ons. They are terrifyingly exposed and indifferent at the same time. The sexual dynamics between boys and girls can possess an innocent sensuality, or at other times, as in the gang-bang photo, They Met A Girl on Acid in Bryant Park at 6 AM and Took Her Home, 1980, it is pure brutality.

The photocollage in which Clark includes a letter addressed to his father about his childhood also incorporates pictures of the now reformed teenage celebrity addict Corey Haim. The collages are restlessly obsessive, and the celebrity photos of teenage stars are really disturbing. These kids—the young Matt Dillon and Haim—all look so empty, so free of all worry, interiority, consciousness, and self-doubt. They possess the cruelty of young gods. The newspaper clippings of teen crime and teen addictions, which are also included in these collages, illustrate the maddening, disjointed, and schizophrenic side of adolescent experience in this culture. Barraged by these images and these words, Clark is trying to fashion a story out of all of this, of growing up in America; and if the story does not end happily, at least it has not yet ended.

Catherine Liu