New York

Larry Clark

International Center of Photography Museum (ICP)

Certain plaintiffs in the Michael Jackson trial look like kids in Larry Clark pictures, particularly his 1996 set of photos Sketches for Tulsa Movie Coming Soon—like the Jordie Chandler twin that curator Brian Wallis eyes as one of Clark’s “most compelling”: “a shirtless young man pulling back his long hair in a feminized pose for the camera.” Wallis fails to account for why the pose is “feminized” or for how some Tulsa kid might have learned to do it. Is any display of any body necessarily feminized? What makes a boy posed like that so compelling? Is it just youth’s juice, or is it a peek at something, objet petit adolescence, bared in him and yet more than him, making as many want to fuck him as fuck him up?

What’s billed as a Clark retrospective at the ICP stumbles around a programmatic, chronological curation of what were (at least until his landmark show at Luhring Augustine in 1992) not printed but rather published projects, spotlighting a more tractable and less radical artist than Clark’s ever really been. He ain’t Robert Capa, much less Robert Mapplethorpe, yet he’s presented as if he should be. Framed, his portraits of nonbeing are made to fit a narrative of the “perfect moment” they rarely perpetrated when originally produced. Pinning tearsheets to the wall might have made for a more challenging, not to mention authentic, presentation, but Wallis instead quarantines six of Clark’s books—covers shut tight; not even a glimpse of what constitutes Untitled (1994), known as “the River Phoenix book,” for example—inside a single dinky case, which certainly is one way to italicize their “unreadability” and pictoral anacoluthon.

Clark’s never been a “pure” photographer: He’s more a writer, though less Dennis Cooper and more Hunter S. Thompson with a Nikon. In Cooper, when a dwarf fists some has-been kiddie-porn star he finds hidden treasure; that shit’s been transfigured. But in Clark? Nothing’s transfigured, but neither is it raw documentary, fear and loathing. Drugs, mirrors, and the space of the page mediate and fracture everything, leaving behind a confounding, self-reflexive eroticism. Textuality—call it “bookness”—complicates Clark’s work, preventing its being taken for fetishy indices of fact, Dorian Gray–like self-portraits in reverse, or jack-off material, since it most bares all when throttling meaning repeatedly.

What operates as the centerfold of the writer’s revolutionary first book, Tulsa (1971), pits, verso, a text—“death is more perfect than life”—against, recto, Clark’s first “star,” Billy Mann, shirtless on tousled sheets, gun raised and wristwatch ticking, captioned “dead 1970”—“dead” as in deceased and absolutely. Taking and giving shots, the camera appears in Tulsa as both gun and hypodermic needle (by extension, pen and penis)—and thus the book becomes as much a portrait manqué of Clark as an autoerotically asphyxiated implication of its own production. Tulsa’s tale of photography climaxes in the image of a hip, questioning hustler being helped by someone out of frame to hold open a double-page photo spread displaying not a mob orgy at Altamont but a concentration-camp body dump, overflowing the printed matter’s gutter, everyone holding responsibility for what is seen.

Some break or breakdown occurs between Teenage Lust (1983) and 1992 (1992), and the difference is like down-and-out romance versus Cialis with Tina. Clark’s work is the closest thing to a psychic map of not just “normal Oklahoma shit” but the history of thinking with your dick. Displaying most of the images from Teenage Lust but none from 1992, Wallis lassoes Clark into a pedigreed, Winogrand-esque corral rather than allowing his sexy, self-archiving tendencies free reign. 1992, like the engrossing trajectory of Clark’s career as a whole, isn’t about editing things down to the singular image (although he has produced many); it’s about every fuckin’ thing on the roll obsessively repeating.

Filmstrips already punctuate the pages of Tulsa, which makes even more bizarre Wallis’s decision to screen only three of Clark’s films. However remarkably filmic, the artist’s collages and videos were never meant to fill this gap. Perhaps more than anything else, the collages sodomize any easy moralizing about Clark by insisting how the libidinal barebacks any supposedly neutral readymade. Superstar teen Jay Ferguson had been already sexualized through popular media before Clark stuck a poster of him near newspaper shots of Pamela Smart and her student-lover William Flynn—which isn’t to say Clark’s use of such material doesn’t burn with the gasoline of his own complex erotics, but he is everywhere acknowledging that sexualization’s inherence is what he’s grappling with rather than denying or repressing it. (Complicated sexual transference is denied in the media coverage of Jackson, without even getting into the nonreading of Neverland and what boys lose or lost there and the man in the mirror shuffling late to court in hospital-blue pajama bottoms. How many ways does somebody need to sign he needs help?)

Clark shoots the limits of life’s darker drives, inexplicable but hypnotic. He observes the basic immorality of human relations, while seeking something else. Take the video featuring Snappy, pooch of Clark’s former girlfriend (and star of his films) Tiffany Limos. Waiting for Limos to return from a trip, Clark goads the dog into a yapping frenzy—but he’s just as excited, anticipating. Limos returns and once back in Clark’s loft holds an eager Snappy up to the camera while in the background Tom Brokaw intones: “NBC News Tonight. ‘When does aggressive questioning become torture?’” I think you’d call this ars poetica: It’s heartbreaking, funny, and doggedly Sadean—leaving the self alone, questioning.

Screening Teenage Caveman (2001) might have thrown a little night-light on the solitude and torture: Among the “important relics of the past that we’ve rescued,” a cute teenage mutant tells even cuter mutant-to-be Andrew Keegan as he ogles something Koons-y, is “art from an especially fertile period in human creativity known as the ’80s.” Of that period, the artist Clark most resembles is Cindy Sherman, using masculinities (mostly boy flesh) instead of makeup and costumes, cruising culture’s rough trade for identificatory material to figure out the self and its mutations. By the end of the flick, art’s trashed.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.