featured gallery for May 2013

American Noir: Into a Dark Past

American Noir: Into a Dark Past

Until it went online, the Visual AIDS artist registry was a mystery to me. I never consulted it before moving from New York to California in 2002. But since then I have followed with great interest the monthly web shows culled from it. And since the registry recently went online I’ve poked around in it, invariably drawn to the work of friends, most of them deceased, and usually with pleasure.

The registry accords the curator of these monthly web shows enormous freedom. When I organized (with Thomas Sokolowski) what may have been the first international traveling museum show devoted to AIDS art in 1990 (From Media to Metaphor: Art About AIDS) we were challenged to confront many (unspoken) criteria involving the diversity of both the artists and art exhibited. Only a few major exhibitions devoted to AIDS-art have been mounted since, so the challenges (and unspoken criteria) remain pretty much the same, although the social and cultural contexts have dramatically changed.

Visual AIDS’s virtual exhibitions are less complicated. The ease and frequency with which they are mounted makes them casual and personal, idiosyncratic and amenable to experimentation. In literary terms, curators have selected approaches that range from the philosophical essay or the political tract, to the character sketch or tone poem. I began by simply browsing artists and artworks represented in the registry, again returning mostly to works by friends. I make no claims to have looked at images by each of the represented artists, nor do I make apologies for not doing so. In fact, I find it difficult to look at images of works without at least having experienced—in the “flesh”, as it were—other works by the same artist. Art, after all, is a complex form of knowledge that is highly dependent on our embodied, right and left brain, experiences of it. (But, contradictorily, this didn’t stop me from choosing for the final image in my web show, a work whose maker I was not only unfamiliar with, but the dimensions of which were only described as “[shoe] size 10”.)

As I looked at the works I’d chosen, it was obvious that one distinct part of my sensibility had come into play—a part I’ll call American noir. I borrow this term from film—as in film noir--of course, which refers to a genre of hardboiled American crime dramas of the 1940s and 50s shot in a German Expressionist-derived style of black-and-white cinematography. (Key examples include the films adapted from Raymond Chandler’s novels such as The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely and The Long Goodbeye.) They are simultaneously—and paradoxically—highly subjective but emotionally removed. Typically described as “stylized (melo)dramas that emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations,” they are above all else—and this is unusual in visual art—highly narrative.

Like the blues, noir isn’t typical art historical language. Is it insufficiently formal? Too theatrical? Ironically, art criticism during the film noir era of Abstract Expressionism was dominated not by art historians but by poets whose language was redolent with sensibility. With this in mind, let me evoke the American noir sensibility through the contemporary notion of key words (here grouped for poetic effect): Contorted Narrative Alienation / Distant Blue Darkness / Dramatic Adjectival Allure / Visceral Black & Blue Bruises / Pleasureless Expressionist Stiletto / Awkward Lone Gothic / Unforgiven Repressed Revulsion / Strangled Outsider Vernacular. Into the dark, indeed.

The prototypical film noir archetype is the detective or private investigator so often at its heart. To recount my own exhibition-related sleuthing, for more than two decades I’ve looked for additional works by the wonderful artist John Sapp, who was included in the long-ago Media to Metaphor exhibition I helped organize, but who must have died around that time. (There are currently no images of his work in the online registry.) When discussing my ideas for this web show with the always-helpful Visual AIDS staff, I was directed to a couple of artists, including one, Nancer LeMoins, whose work I’ve selected as the show’s final image. It’s called Woman on Shoe 1, and it’s an intriguingly metaphorical photo-image of a woman’s face printed on the sole of a man’s show. Perhaps you’ve heard the term gum shoe? (If you haven’t, it means detective.) In the world of American noir, every picture has a story attached.