New York

Nan Goldin, Sisters, 2010, diptych, color photograph, overall 24 x 59".

Nan Goldin, Sisters, 2010, diptych, color photograph, overall 24 x 59".

Nan Goldin

Matthew Marks Gallery | 502 W. 22nd Street

Nan Goldin, Sisters, 2010, diptych, color photograph, overall 24 x 59".

Scopophilia, according to the press release for Nan Goldin’s recent show at Matthew Marks Gallery (her eighth there since 1992), means “the love of looking.” While such a benign definition is more or less etymologically correct, we know—via legacies of psychoanalytic theory and feminist critique—that it hardly does the word justice. Indeed, as Goldin herself narrates during her twenty-five-minute video projection of that title (dated 2010), scopophilia simultaneously stirs and satisfies desire in the looker, a quite remarkable feat. Yet for its pleasures there is a price: As Laura Mulvey so famously argued in 1975, the consuming (usually male) gaze renders its (usually female) subjects as so many objects.

For a time, then, feminist theorists, artists, and pleasure-seekers were left to speculate about different modes of pleasure, ways in which desire might operate that would turn the male/female, subject/object, active/passive binaries on their heads or, better, produce alternatives to them (a task I would argue is no less urgent today). One might, for instance, withdraw the body from view altogether, as Jenny Holzer does, or, like Cindy Sherman, cast a redacted shadow of it. Or one might challenge the very notion of the gaze as a one-way street and produce images that complicate given dynamics of desire. Enter Nan Goldin.

Of course, Goldin wasn’t the first artist to offer a glimpse of the relationship between sitter and seer; the list is long and diverse, ranging from Arbus to Mapplethorpe. But she did so in a way that was uniquely anthropological, though not in any distanced or analytical sense. Her epic work The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, begun in 1979, offered a microcosmic social history in which she herself was—arguably—implicated. If the work is feminist (I think it is), it is not because her images practice restraint but because they hyperbolically address its author’s appetites and register the reciprocal nature of such a hunger, to say nothing of hunger’s various payoffs and perils. It’s not too much to say that most of Goldin’s extended family of friends was addicted to love, and that the teetering community the artist pictured was so poignant because such full-frontal commitment to experience could clearly persist in such a manner only so long.

We now think of Ballad as a kind of icon of its era, registering the gorgeous, scary sadness of a time when a certain strand of bohemian polymorphous pleasure was confronted by the AIDS crisis; it’s impossible, in this sense, not to see it as a period piece (for fans, picturing a lost utopia; for detractors, the furthest frontiers of hedonistic narcissism). In Scopophilia—a projection of successive stills accompanied by a presentation of wall-hung photos—Goldin’s images span the past three and a half decades: We see some pictures that take us back to the Ballad but then we are rushed forward to much more recent tableaux. Thus, with its accretion of images over time, Scopophilia delivers something of the earlier work’s unwieldy spirit, though inflected through and through with the kind of entropic winding down that inevitably follows the deeply frenetic. There is something of the logic of the photo album, in which certain familiar figures reappear, having aged; others simply disappear; and new ones come onto the scene. Interspersed with pictures of artworks snapped in the Louvre (the video was commissioned as part of a curatorial project by Patrice Chéreau), the piece suggests that the “everyday scenes” for which she is known might carry the blush and the brunt of masterpieces in the history of art. At first, I found the gesture odd, out of keeping with what I had seen as Goldin’s commitment to casting her practice outside codified high culture, and even potentially hubristic. Yet, after a bit, I realized that she wasn’t asking that we see her circle of drag queens and dykes, babies and bombshells as on par with the lords, saints, and cherubs they appeared next to, but rather the other way round.

Johanna Burton