New York

Nick Waplington

Nick Waplington has gone out of his way, literally and figuratively, to show he’s no slave to any one style or subject. He followed up his highly successful book Living Room (1991), focusing his modified British snapshot aesthetic on his friends in two working-class families living in the Nottingham council flats, with a book of antiheroic self-portraits in panoramic landscapes, Other Edens (1994), and then added the Living Room sequel, The Wedding (1996). Now comes “Safety in Numbers,” a deluge of images from the First World underground urban youth culture produced in transit from London to New York, Tokyo, and Los Angeles. Even within this latest project, one can pick out seven or eight different styles, from pore-close portraits to typological grids, from dreamy atmospheric landscapes to scrawled-word and collage pieces. So that’s, what, about ten styles in six years?

The proliferation of styles made it difficult at first to see the substance. Three hundred photographs of various sizes and types were arranged all over the walls, along with journal-like texts scribbled in different colors. After you got through the initial rush, you noticed that there were some really good single images and a lot of others that didn't look like anything else you’d ever seen; and then that the arrangement was not as haphazard as it seemed. For all its globe-trotting, the photographs in “Safety in Numbers” are more about tracking states of mind than nation-states. The altered states on display included those induced by inhalers, antidepressants, booze, pot, psychedelics, music, dancing, skating, sleep deprivation, jet lag, and sex, but also those of friendship, public intimacy, being young, and not having a boss. The first image one saw in the gallery shows a guy in a cap sucking on an inhaler. His hat reads “Professionals demand Little Wonder ... shouldn’t you?” This exhibition was a manifesto for exceeding the recommended dose. And the most persistent pleasure of excess on display here was that of the images themselves. There were too many of them (just like in life), so it took a while for the mass to make sense.

A city in fog spreads out under a cerulean sky. There was a whole row of portraits of wax dummies hung above a grid of photos of Spanish-style tract houses that were obviously built from the same blueprint but pathetically assert their differences, next to which was a sign hand-written by Waplington reading “Pickled Suites in Cases.” There was someone on a roof with the IBM and Wells Fargo towers looming over them next to a view of an open medicine cabinet stocked with Prozac. There was a guy with dreads whose T-shirt bears a ’droid woman with a .45; he holds an aluminum food container at his waist so that the pan reflects light onto his face and makes it look like he’s praying. There was a whale of a fat-backed beach bather and lots of teenage girls sucking pacifiers next to crime scenes of a Brinks truck robbery with blood on the curb. And there were lots more pictures of signs, like “You Have a Choice: IRA or IRS,” and “Tarot Cancelled. Back Next Week After Competition,” and one (from Tokyo?) quoting Gerrard Winstanley, one of the proto-anarchist English Diggers of 1649: “For surely this particular property of mine and thine hath brought in all misery upon people.”

Can there be a new global counterculture that defines itself in both senses of the term—both “bargain-counter culture” and a culture of resistance that doesn’t buy into consumption as the only meaningful act? Waplington thinks so, and he’s amassed an exuberantly hopeful image horde to prove it.

David Levi Strauss