featured gallery for March 2002

Intimate Situations

An important direction in postwar photography has involved using an approach, or finding a subject, that pushes past the previous boundaries of intimacy. In the 1950s, Roy DeCarava and Robert Frank infused their documentary photographs of New York cityscapes and Americans on the road with a dramatic sense of personal melancholy. In the 1960s Diane Arbus turned the genre of documentary portraiture into a psychological vortex. The viewer was not just close up in direct confrontation with the subject, but actually felt transported into the subject's psyche through that problematic sleight of hand where the photographer's psyche is grafted onto the subject's psyche, while the subject is still regarded as a separate objective entity.

In the late '60s and then the '70s, Larry Clark and then Nan Goldin described subject matter from positions within it; they were like their subjects and part of their world, and their access afforded views of heightened intimacy, windows into situations that were ever more private, ranging from lovemaking to drug taking, with a wide range of shared moments in between.

Legitimized by the success of the highly personal subject, point-and-shoot photography by such '90s artists as Richard Billingham and Annelies Strba utilized the style of snapshot family portraiture, embracing the raw and the naive, in order to convey the kinds of intimate, quotidian scenes within the family that were now seen as not only aesthetically expressive but also culturally illuminating.

Painting has had its own developments, but the re-emergence of the figure as a valid subject in the mid-'70s, first in a feminist context, treated by such painters as Joan Semmel, and later, in a neo-expressionist vein by such artists as Francesco Clemente, has, along with the influence of London school painters Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, and Paula Rego, grown to include many of the most important painters of the '90s, from Sue Williams to Jenny Saville, from Lisa Yuskavage to John Currin. Figurative work raises narrative possibilities, and just as a hunger for ever more intimate situations influences the course of photography, so, too, does that same desire affect what we now see in painting.

"Intimate Situations," an online exhibition of photography and painting, drawn from the Visual AIDS Archive, begins in 1983 with painters Ken Goodman and Marc Lida and continues through the present with recent work by Eduardo Mirales in 1999 and Rene Capone in 2000. All of it involves figures in situations, with varying degrees of narrative, and accomplished through a variety of styles and approaches. In most of these situations, we hardly question how we happen to be witness to such intimate encounters, because these private moments have come to be such a staple of much recent painting and photography, not to mention film, television, and theater. We expect to be drawn ever closer to the subject, collapsing the usual limits of privacy or taboo.

In Marc Lida's "Black Party," we see a sex act theatricalized, performed onstage in a gay club, to the collective rapture of onlooking men. Paired with it is Luna Luis Ortiz's photograph from 1994, "Chad and Efrain Embrace," which depicts an erotic embrace from much closer up, one figure nestling in the buff chest of another. In Ken Goodman's 1983 study of a crouching figure, we are again in a tight space, but alone with a single figure, an anxious eavesdropper, who listens through a wall in a cameo of suspense. On the more sensual side, with Rene Capone's reclining nude of 2000, we are standing above and behind, contemplating the alluring but preoccupied Adonis, who is fingering a necklace. He is so near in space but so far away in his attention.

Eric Molnar's couple from 1992, "Together Again for the First Time," in a vivid style reminiscent of Max Beckmann, pairs a man and woman of equal strength and monumental drollness, who could be the sparring sophisticates of Noel Coward's PRIVATE LIVES. Hugh Steers' "Chair to Bed," from 1993 describes an ambiguous situation, drenched in an atmosphere redolent of Hopper, in which a seated man lends a steadying hand to a nude figure who seems to be shimmying out of drag, perhaps the conclusion of a passing fantasy or the end of a long night out. The understanding between the two is intriguing; they could be lovers, best friends, or simply roommates; an exotic moment is absorbed and accepted into the everyday.

David Abbott's cheerier "Afternoon Delight" is less ambiguous; the guys are hitting the hay in an attitude of fun, a bright and jovial wink at unabashed lust. Eduardo Mirales and Garrett Brock give us two versions of bodies in repose, enveloped in each other's arms; one couple registers the still suspense of a waking dream, the other the idyllic touch of an allegorical tryst.

The bathroom vies with the bedroom as being the most typical intimate space, and both Martin Wong's "Saturday Night" and Michael Mitchell's "The Plummer" stage stylized fantasies in that site of bodily function. Wong invokes the romantic glamour of a bygone era, and Mitchell tips his hat to classic porn.

The embrace is treated by Niccolo Cataldi as a farewell gesture among three friends, and by Albert Winn as the clutch of two dancers home alone, sharing a slow song. Stephen Andrews, with a page from his diary-esque Album series, suggests with the scribble of one character noting the restless sleep of himself and his lover, a night passed under duress, and the piercing intimacy shared through sickness and caregiving.