Los Angeles

Nan Goldin

Gagosian Gallery

Nothing redeems like beauty. It redeems even Nan Goldin’s subject matter. The experience of confronting her recent show in Los Angeles, which gathered older photos together with some newer ones, was like being trapped in the combustion chamber of an engine: instead of air and fuel igniting under pressure,. the volatile mixture was the repulsion of intimate lives on quasi-voyeuristic display and the attraction of the awesome beauty with which Goldin captured them.

The most powerful of the artist’s diaristic pictures—of guys and girls drinking beer at an impromptu party, zoned out in the Bowery Bar, sleeping off hangovers, crying uncontrollably, or displaying their scars and bruises, set in seedy motel rooms, dirty apartments, or trendy clubs—are familiar by now. The indelibly poignant stamp of this exhibition is in the way, a decade and a half after they appeared and without the romanticizing hype that accompanied their sweep of the art world, Goldin’s pictures have become a powerful testament to fucked-up youth and wasting adulthood. While death has lurked at the edges of her photographs for many years, it becomes a potent presence here; the pictures give a strong sense of their subjects, victims of circumstance or fast living, watching us watching them. Piotr and Jorg on their hotel bed, Wolfsburg, 1997, captures the pair lying together, one cradling the close-shaved head of his lover, who holds an empty wine glass. Piotr’s eyes run a gamut of emotion: sadness, fear, love, empathy, weariness, resignation. One wants to turn away from the nakedness of the humanity portrayed here.

A photograph from 1996, Pavel laughing on the beach, Positano, reflects the formal transformations in the artist’s work. Where the human subject has always been Goldin’s focus, with the settings representing a fairly interchangeable demimonde environ, the background in Pavel laughing takes on a greater relevance. The block of old Positano houses rising up the hillside looks majestic, comfortable, an organic part of the scene. Pavel, on the other hand, standing with his arms crossed laughing up at the sky, appears to be faking his joy, his half-clothed figure out of place, almost pitiful. Two other photos, New York skyline from the bridge, 1994, and Underwater creche, Amalfi, 1996, remove the figure altogether. The locations display a quiet yet dramatic beauty, infused with memory. Seen against the rest of Goldin’s work, they seem to commemorate home and homelessness, loss and hope, absence and presence.

Yet of all the figures haunting the show, Goldin herself stands foremost. One wall of the gallery is covered with an installation of self-portraits taken from 1980 to 1997: her face, bruised and battered in one picture, immaculate in another; having sex; standing with an arm around a girlfriend; staring into a mirror. She is riveting, scary, unforgettable. What we arc witness to here is the point at which reality clashes with the romantic notion of the self as a lost soul, a courageous victim,a strong person looking for love in all the wrong places (and with all the wrong substances). Ultimately, in Goldin’s work, reality gains the upper hand. Her photographic skills, always exceptional, have become profound, not just exposing her subjects but enlightening the viewer about the power of the human spirit—in life as in death.

Rosetta Brooks