[↑] Adam MillerFallout from Compositions series (2012); [+] Akseli Gallen-KallelaBy the River of Tuonela (1903); [↓] All Fine Girls – Vika (201X)

I save things as drafts thinking to myself: self, this belongs here.

Unfortunately–often when it comes to composing some sort of accompanying text, my thoughts scatter like roaches when you flip the light switch.

Dredging through drafts, trying to figure out items to post–it occurred to me that it’s the expressions in these that appeal to me.

In the top image, the woman has an expression which–independent of the title–comes across as mismatched with her surroundings. She looks wild-eyed and terrified except at the same time she’s more engaged than those around her. When I discovered the painting is titled ‘Fallout,’ something finally clicked for me: she’s one of those people who only ever feels fully alive responding to and thrilling in abject chaos and catastrophic tumult.

The second painting is based on a the Kalevala–roughly like a cross between the Aeneid and the Icelandic sagas except being fundamentally Finnish (as best as I can tell). The subject of the painting consists of the hero being tasked with completing three difficult tasks, the third of which is slaying a swan on the river Tuonela.

In the painting, the hero (Lemminkäinen) departs in his canoe.

Additional context: this painting was a sketch for a fresco in a mausoleum dedicated to the memory of the daughter of a prominent businessman who died at age eleven. It’s presumably her with the braid trailing down her back and her budding breast exposed, invisible to the other gathered onlookers.

Everything about her suggests that although she does not know what she has lost, she understands what the loss has cost her in a way that no one else can or will.

I am unbelievably conflicted about posting this image. It’s porn and not even good porn. Further, I think it is unspeakably heinous when grown ass men refer to women they are attracted to or wish to pursue romantically as ‘girls’–it’s gross and a huge red flag. (And I absolutely judge men I hear do this as total creeps.)

In my experience, to achieve orgasm, you have to stop thinking, stop trying to get off, let go and surrender to an unmediated experience of physical sensation.

By letting go, you can just kind of float there and wait for it like a wave rolling in from the sea. But in letting go, you can also reach for something.

I won’t presume to know what this young woman is experiencing but she is reaching–and with this stunning, febrile desperation. It’s breath-taking to stare at, honestly.

When it comes down to it, these expressions are all unusual to witness in person–let alone in visual media. What impresses me and caused me to eventually put them all in the same place is that they are all expressions I’ve seen in the mirror, especially Vika’s desperate reaching. That’s so close to home, I have trouble fighting to urge to claim this as an ersatz self-portrait.

Sally MannGoosebumps (1990)

I’ve introduced roughly a half-dozen folks to Mann. And I’ve had the pleasure to sit with at least three of them while they perused Immediate Family for the first time.

This image almost always solicits some sort of visceral response. Whether it’s a gasp or an unsettled comment about how the photograph maybe takes things a little farther than they should have been taken.

I’ll defend Mann to the ends of the earth and back. Her work–all of it, no matter how sentimental, overwrought or printed inexplicably pitch dark–will always render me impossibly spellbound.

And I know she’d respond to the people I’ve watched shifted uncomfortably looking this image. She’d likely offer the following anecdote:

Once,
Jessie, who was 9 or 10 at the time, was trying on dresses to wear to a
gallery opening of the family pictures in New York. It was spring, and
one dress was sleeveless. When Jessie raised her arms, she realized that
her chest was visible through the oversize armholes. She tossed that
dress aside, and a friend remarked with some perplexity: “Jessie, I
don’t get it. Why on earth would you care if someone can see your chest
through the armholes when you are going to be in a room with a bunch of
pictures that show that same bare chest?”

Jessie was equally perplexed at the friend’s reaction: “Yes, but that is not my chest. Those are photographs.”

I don’t think she’s being disingenuous–I’d go so far as to say knowing what I do about her: she’s incapable of that.

But I do think part of what she’s skillfully avoided addressing in all the controversy surrounding her work is her own voyeurism. Her images–to a one–show us things that implicate the viewer by pulling aside the curtain to reveal things we would–if we were polite–avert our gaze. We don’t though.

And what I think is so vital about her work is what shines through in this work so clearly–everything about this image feels like a private moment (and if I recall correctly, it was until Mann caught a glimpse of it and asked I think it’s Jessie here to hold still while she got her camera).

I feel what upsets people is that we judge Mann as a woman and a mother on top of being a photographer. The photographers duty is to be unflinching–but many people suggest Mann was a bad mother.

But frankly, I don’t really understand the controversy surrounding her work. Although, looking at this photograph, I do find myself wondering how much richer her work would’ve been had she not had to navigate such a puritanical society which associates so automatically nudity as categorically interchangeable with sexuality.

w-y-s-f:

Hanna

Hanna GraceUntitled (2015)

Given several years, art historians are going to have to grapple with the fallout from this prevalent notion of the ‘selfie’.

For all intents and purposes, Wikipedia considers a selfie anything where the operator of a lens based imaging device produces an image of themselves. I think that’s more than a little problematic since it conflates self-portraiture with the selfie phenomenon.

What’s the difference? You might inquire. I’m not sure I have an answer and even if there were a way to flowchart things so that we can easily facilitate a distinction, I’m not sure that will ultimately be a good thing, though.

There is an art historical trend of associating women with mirrors. The most unequivocal of these instances is probably Charles Allan Gilbert’s All is Vanity–where a woman (who in an art historical perspective are always treated as if they have a corner on the vanity market) is staring at her own reflection in a mirror transforms via optical illusion into an enormous skull.

This knee jerk association of women with vanity is disingenuous considering many of the artists who ran with this motif also painted self-portraits which would have required them to stare at themselves in a mirror for countless hours. And the resulting work would be seen as meritorious and not at all vain.

More recently–the backlash over the sorority members more interested in taking selfies than paying attention to the baseball game they were attending. It’s all just an extension of the societal double standards with regard to performance of femininity: the fine line between prude and slut and regardless of how carefully you try to walk it, you’re still going to be cat-called on the streets and it’s going to be your fault for being a a woman.

But beyond that what does the term even mean? Ostensibly it means you hold the camera and take a picture of yourself. But with the advent of loathsome selfie sticks, where’s the line? Despite the visual limitations of the selfie, the results are frequently more appealing than the ubiquitous bathroom mirror reflection image.

I’m not one to poopoo any of it. If your preferred method of ontology involves self-portraiture, I am 120% an ally. (However, I do think like anything else there are pitfalls–I’m thinking of the young woman who recently acknowledged her Instagram wasn’t as candid as she presented it to the world and the toxic effect it had on her self-esteem.)

But most of all I don’t want work like the above images by Hanna Grace to be lumped in with the sort of casual, knee-jerk let’s take a picture because it’ll last longer motivation of selfies.

Maybe it’s snobbery but a part of me thinks if you take the time to set up a tripod and think about your framing, there’s more going on than something incidental. Not that making selfies is always easy–I saw two young woman on the Brooklyn Bridge several years back spend close to 15 minutes taking and retaking the same image to get it right. I won’t deny there’s an art to that but I think that the highest that a selfie can aspire to is probably a well-made document. There has to be more than just capturing the moment.

And that’s why I like these images so much. I’d hate to see them termed selfies. There’s thought behind them. A sense of the tone of the room, dynamic light. But also implicit interrogations over questions of the cultural sexualization of nudity–the way that the shining through the top of the window creates a frame within the frame that is aggressively controlled and shaped by the woman in the image. It conveys a totality of personhood.

I’m not sure these are effective as examples of fine art, necessarily. The pose grows increasingly confident/less awkward from top to bottom. The exposure is best in the middle image. Also, the middle image makes the best balance between the space occupied by Grace’s body in the frame contrasted with the room as negative space.

If you take the three together though and sort of take the mean average, I feel like they are sketches that could be used as fodder for a truly breath-taking image.

Gustav VigelandKneeling Man Embracing a Standing Woman (1908)

When it comes to sculpture, there’s a steep drop off in my familiarity compared with cinema, painting or photography. I can differentiate between Michelangelo, Bernini & Rodin but that’s about it.

As someone who reads oodles and oodles of Scandinavian crime fiction, I am familiar with the connection between Vigeland and Oslo’s Frogner Park. I’d never (embarrassingly) bothered to look into his work because I am (shamefully) lazy and laziness in combination with depression facilitates a both comfortable and cloyingly complacent apathy.

I’m not exactly enraptured by his work, but this is just fucking devastating.

With the female bodied figure standing over the supplicant male bodied figure, the discrepancy in respective elevation feels like a subversion of the Pietà motif.

Also, there’s an interesting ambiguity w/r/t whether or not the embrace includes a sexual component. Both figures are nude and the male-bodied figure seems to need out of some profound feeling of loss. Whereas, the female bodied figure might be attempting to push his head further from her genitals, closer to them or merely adopting a posture exactly halfway  between bodily acceptance and rejection.

It’s a completely atypical presentation of gender and I adore it for that and the craft is beyond on point–the detail in her braid, his face and texture.

Ryan McGinleySomewhere Place (2011)

This is easily my favorite McGinley creation–followed closely by Pickup Truck, 2013, Untitled (Bathtub), 2005,  Running Field, 2007, Dakota (Hair), 2004 + Ann (Windy Truck), 2007.

As for the rest of it? I’m conflicted.

What attracts me to the work–its restless + vital physicality as well as the way the images I like thrum with a dreamlike unbounded anarchic togetherness–stems directly from party line criticism: the fuel of charmed youth, the match of absented consequences.

Plus, the work is goddamn pretty as you please; and when you tall that with it’s unmediated immediacy–so rarely seen in galleries–and it’s cleary how + why McGinley became the youngest artist to have a solo show at the Whitney.

What, to me, is off putting is the artist’s reliance on goosing the viewer’s reptile brain. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that McGinley is conceptually vacuous–but his work lacks anything even remotely resembling the conceptual sophistication of his predecessors (i.e. Nan Goldin + Larry Clark).

In the same breath, though, I can’t think of another imagemaker who so fairly divides his focus between male bodied and female bodied subjects. And that’s not nothing. Especially, given his impressive ability to unify contrived naturalism with an ultimately hollow aesthetics that still has the capacity to resonate deeply with the viewer.

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Great googly moogly aren’t freckles goddamned sexy as fuck?

And their effusion on this young woman’s shoulders and face is truly resplendent.

Now I could follow my usual knee-jerk rabbit trail with regard to composition—a horizontal frame would have almost certainly improved this photograph—but the freckles seem more the point.

Photography and digital imaging distill the space and time of a select visible area down to a two-dimensional representation. In the process, a great deal is changed and/or lost completely.

To a degree, image makers exercise control over what remains in the picture. For that reason, I am constantly unnerved that given a field of so many options the results of what stays and what goes tend to be so starkly homogenous.

Most images provide a record of an objects position in a particular spatial field at a given moment in time. How often though is the object treated as more than an insinuation representation of itself? Or, to say it in a less abstract way: when was the last time you say an image wherein skin was presented as more than the container for representation identity or a symbolic placeholder?

It’s not just pictures of people, it’s fabric, wood, everything. Photography fails more often than it succeeds to give solidity to its representations. A means of accomplishing that is beginning to think less strictly visually. There is this amazing sensory overlap between sight and sound—a sort of synesthesia that everyone shares: the sight of different textures affects our eyes differently, in a way that is—in fact—somewhere between seeing and feeling.

For example, consider this image of coffee beans ground to varying coarseness. By looking at them you see the different visual texture but that impression is processed in some fashion as an awareness that each feels different.

That’s ultimately what I adore about this image: her freckles add texture to her skin and thus weight and solidity to her body. She is not a representation; she’s a living, breathing, dreaming being with fears, hopes and ideas who also happens to be breathtakingly beautiful.