Saturday, July 1st, 2006

Nan Goldin: Chasing a Ghost

Matthew Marks Gallery
522 West 22 Street
New York City

March 11 to April 22, 2006

Nan Goldin Self-Portrait at my Sister's Graveyard, Virginia 2004 three mounted cibachrome prints, 25-1/4 x 78 inches (overall) Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Nan Goldin, Self-Portrait at my Sister's Graveyard, Virginia 2004 three mounted cibachrome prints, 25-1/4 x 78 inches (overall) Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Chasing a Ghost, Nan Goldin’s recent show of photographs and a 39-minute DVD projection, may be her most ambitious work to date. Goldin first became known in the 1980s for nervy, observant photos of the Lower Eastside party scene and its painful aftermath of addiction and AIDS. Her work was personal and at the same time dealt with universal themes such as desire and destructive impulses. This body of work deals with similar issues, but it is a more mature, complex examination of the concerns that have dominated her life and work. Here she takes her distinct style and favored themes to a new level with a foray into cinematic media.

Saints, Sisters, Sibyls, the triptych at the core of the exhibit, is heartbreaking. The first segment illustrates the story of St. Barbara with footage of medieval drawings and paintings. A neutral voice introduces the theme of the rebellious, persecuted woman, explaining her imprisonment in a white-turreted castle and subsequent torture and execution for her conversion to Christianity.

The second segment chronicles the short, tragic life of the artist’s older sister Barbara. Often in trouble with boys and confused about her sexuality, she was hospitalized several times and committed suicide at 19 by lying down in the path of an approaching train. Her harrowing story — culled from psychiatric, police and coroner reports — is related directly to the audience without the use of a moralizing or didactic tone. The camera takes us on a haunting walk through the woods near the scene of Barbara’s suicide. We wander through the dry, brittle woods and along the train tracks, looking down at a carpet of dead leaves and then up at a bridge over the tracks. The camera pauses momentarily, as if to pose a question. Why did Barbara want to die? The footage is as much an inquiry as it is a memorial.

This is followed by Nan’s story told in her own words. “My sister’s psychiatrist said that I would end up just like her. I thought that I would commit suicide when I was 18. I left home at 14 and found a new family. Drugs set me free. And then they became my prison.”

Carefree shots of partying friends from the 1980s slowly transition to sober portraits and footage of hospital rooms. After six years of being dry, Goldin is once again in rehab. Vignettes of life in rehab move across the screen — the daily schedule of therapies, conversations with friends, snapshots of the desk in her room, moments of introspection caught in the mirror, and the brutal, disconcerting self-inflicted cigarette burns on her forearms. Johnny Cash sings the melancholy accompaniment, “I hurt myself today to see if I could still feel. I focus on the pain…the only thing that’s real. Try to kill it all away but I remember everything…”

Thematically and aesthetically, this slide show is a sophisticated book-end to Goldin’s earlier landmark work, Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which established her reputation as a serious artist.Ballad was comprised of seemingly spontaneous portraits of her “family of friends.” The pictures are of intimate moments of daily life and distill each subject’s personality to its essence. They relate to the artist’s examination of her own life and her motivations for making pictures. The book introduces the story of her sister’s suicide and relates it to the exploration of her own sexuality, which began a week after her sister’s death with her seduction by an older man. The photographs became the visual manifestation of an internal dialogue. Who are my friends? What is my relation to them? What is the source of my self-destructive urges? Why do we suffer?

Goldin’s combining of documentary techniques and psychological introspection is honed inSisters, Saints and Sibyls. Always the participant and impartial observer, Goldin records the world around her. A portrait of a middle-aged man from the rehab center is less spontaneously voyeuristic and more direct. We meet his eyes from a middle distance. The camera is still the means of introspection, but is now focused more frequently and unerringly on the artist herself. And while this work is explicitly confessional, it also alludes to more generalized and timeless destructive forces. The tragic tale of St. Barbara’s life and the video’s final dedication “to all of our sisters who have committed suicide or been institutionalized because of their rebellion” serve as a reminder. Attempts by society to oppress female sexuality often have had disastrous consequences.

Aesthetically, Goldin’s move into cinematic media is a logical extension of her photography. Her earlier pictures, carefully lit with a moody combination of artificial and natural light, often seemed like out-takes from larger narratives, like still shots from a film. The use of moving imagery only strengthens her narrative capability. A well-known early photo of the view from a moving train suggested inner turmoil. Now we accompany the artist more closely on her various psychological and physical journeys. The camera tours the confines of the rehab center, coincidentally echoing St. Barbara’s prison with its faux medieval architecture. She examines her scars in a car as the landscape passes by in a blur. We tour the cemetery where her sister is buried and watch Goldin tend the grave.

Goldin’s color sense has changed over time. The garish flash lighting of the early works celebrated the “snapshot” aesthetic. The images had a raw, unsentimental feel. Over time, the ubiquitous, strong flash has been relinquished in favor of a more compassionate and ambiguous mix of artificial and natural light. The colors are more saturated, warm and forgiving.

Goldin also continues to employ her unique and stylistic use of blur to lend allegorical complexity to her pictures. While the blur or the double exposure once seemed a metaphor for a drug-addled state of mind or perhaps the ambiguity of sexual identity, it now suggests a more complex understanding of the human spirit. A blurred image of a cherry blossom in full blossom symbolizes the memory of her sister’s fragile life. The camera’s unfocussed pan over the curled pattern of the carpet in the rehab center suggests anxiety or ambivalence.

Goldin’s long-standing interest in landscape is manifest in images of dramatic cloudy skies that pay colorized homage to Stieglitz’s Equivalents. But the landscapes also become reflections of mental states. A dark night sky becomes a calm moment of acceptance amidst turmoil. A shot of a path in the woods becomes a search for answers. A wet and glistening rain soaked road raises the possibility of salvation.

Chasing Ghosts changes our perspective on Goldin’s earlier work. All of those pictures of clubbing and getting naked in the 1980s were in fact something more than an impromptu record of the times. Goldin’s work is an internal journey — the struggle to come to terms with the experience of sexuality, family history, and a range of potentially destructive impulses. One is struck by the difficulty of taking the journey and recording it impartially at the same time. Goldin manages to process the most intimate details of her life as she makes an unflinching and pitiless record of it. Her work is an exploration of universal forces that shape human experience and to which we can all relate. This accomplishment makes her one of the strongest portraitists of her generation. With her move into cinematic media, she is also one of the most versatile.