Sunday, February 3rd, 2008

Katy Grannan at Salon 94 Freemans and Greenberg Van Doren; Lina Bertucci at Perry Rubinstein

Katy Grannan: Lady into fox
Salon 94 Freemans until February 23
1 Freeman Alley, off Rivington Street, between Bowery and Chrystie Streets, 212-529-7400

Katy Grannan: Another woman who died in her sleep
Greenberg Van Doren until February 16
730 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, 212-445-0444

Lina Bertucci: Women in the Tattoo Subculture
Perry Rubinstein until January 5
534 West 24 Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, 212-627-8000

Katy Grannan Gail, Baker Beach (II) 2006 2006 archival pigment print on cotton rag paper mounted to plexiglas 28-1/2 x 35-5/8 inches, Edition of 6 + 2AP Courtesy Salon 94
Katy Grannan, Gail, Baker Beach (II) 2006 2006 archival pigment print on cotton rag paper mounted to plexiglas 28-1/2 x 35-5/8 inches, Edition of 6 + 2AP Courtesy Salon 94

There is a pervasive ambivalence in Katy Grannan’s portraits: the gaze that returns the viewer’s is a mix of coyness and exhibitionism. The images themselves oscillate between similar extremes, building a visceral sense of the present through precision while succumbing to a remoteness that results from theatricality.

She has two shows up in New York right now, which together with a show at San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery constitute a body of work she calls “The Westerns.” This East Coast-born and -educated artist moved to the Bay Area in 2005: a unifying theme of “The Westerns” is the particularity of Californian light, which, in her hands, is intense and dispassionate.

Her Salon 94 presentation features a pair of middle-aged transsexuals, Gail and Dale, while Greenberg Van Doren presents a single protagonist — a younger, woman named Nicole, photographed in gutsy, flamboyant poses over an extended period of time.

Ms. Grannan finds her sitters through ads in local papers, and clearly seeks out people who are itching to share what they imagine others will view as a peculiarity — often sexual — that expresses something vital to their sense of self. Yet, at the same time, Ms. Grannan has an uncanny knack for capturing moments of doubt, cracks in a mask of defiance. Once you get used to the fact that these are big photos of odd people in forlorn places, the real subject that emerges is the negative space between individual and type, introspection and performance.

These photographs are big, typically printed at 40-by-50 inches, but their scale is complex. Through radical simplification of composition and meticulous capture of detail, they have a cinematic intimacy—that is to say, at once up close and enveloping.

In “Gail and Dale, Pacifica” (this series is all from 2007), the friends are caught between introspection and camera-awareness. Gail, a redhead, is looking down with her hand on Dale’s shoulder. Dale’s vacant gaze hovers at a middle distance. She has white hair; they both wear white dresses, and the sand, sea and sky behind them are bleached, all of which gives an abstract, ethereal glow to the image. But the camera manages to pick out highly literal specifics of texture and tone  such as dress fabric or creases of skin. .

In “Dale, Southampton Avenue,” Dale is nude, lying on an unmade bed and casting a long shadow against a cream-colored wall. The pose recalls Goya’s “Majas” in its langor, mixing voluptuousness and indifference. A worn, somewhat frumpy body tells the tale of a struggle to find inner femininity, her hands and face still burdened by masculinity. Transsexuals are perfect subjects for Ms. Grannan as they are caught between states.  Even “post op,” being oneself entails acts of defiance against nature and nurture.

Just when tolerance and technology allow a person born male to transform him/herself into a woman, women of different ages have found boyish ways to be feminine. Dale and Gail are at an age when women sometimes adopt the Senator Clinton approach of short hair and trouser suits, yet these two subjects are compelled by circumstance to cling to anachronistic trappings of the feminine with flowing dresses and PreRaphaelite locks that only serve to reinforce their biological origins.

A common problem among older transsexuals is economic marginalization — they lost the jobs they had as men and spent their savings on surgery — and thus they cannot afford to dress with feminine distinction. The photographs of Gail emphasize this tragi-comic twist in their frumpy vulnerability. This is the odd thing about Ms. Grannan: despite deliberation and composition, these photographs feel like an unsentimental version of the realities of their sitters’ lived experience. In comparison, Nan Goldin’s seemingly snapshot, diaristic, “real” photographs have the glamor of “La Cage aux folles” or “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”

Katy Grannan Nicole, Sunnydale Avenue (II) 2006 2006 archival pigment print on cotton rag paper mounted to plexiglas, 40 x 50 inches Courtesy Greenberg Van Doren Gallery COVER February 2008 shows detail
Katy Grannan, Nicole, Sunnydale Avenue (II) 2006 2006 archival pigment print on cotton rag paper mounted to plexiglas, 40 x 50 inches Courtesy Greenberg Van Doren Gallery

Coming to the uptown show from Gail and Dale you might have had to ask the receptionist — as this viewer did — whether Nicole, too, is a transsexual. While biologically feminine, she is no Nicole Kidman. Ms. Grannan’s merciless lense captures every bump and bruise, sunburn and freckle, stretch mark and body hair, on this slightly butch, working-class young woman.

In contrast to the Gail and Dale series, in which the camera sometimes seems to spy on the lives of the protagonists, the Nicole photographs project a more overt, performative collaboration between model and artist. Nicole lolls in a pin-up pose in “Crissy Field Parking Lot (II), (this series all 2006) and in a Madonna-like stretch in its pendant, “Crissy Field Parking Lot (I).” She strikes a body-builder’s pose in “Sunnydale Ave, (I),” looks like she is about to give birth in “Potrero Hill,” and, in “(Afternoon II), Lombard Street,” crouched at the top of a bed wearing heels, a skimpy dress and a white wig, seems to mimic a Cindy Sherman self-portrait photograph in the extremity of her grimace and pose.

In her camp scramble for odd types Ms. Grannan has drawn comparisons with Diane Arbus. One critic named her the “legitimate heir,” an honor she lives up to in “Gail and Dale (Best Friends), Point Lobos” where the pair face each other in matching twin outfits. But these shows, with their mix of theatricality and literalness, beg comparison less with other photographers than with two painters: Lucian Freud and Edward Hopper.

Hopper because of the lonely isolation of figures in washed-out, banal yet observed surroundings (sparse and tawdry) that — in a kind of cruel visual democracy — receive fastidiously equal attention. Mr. Freud comes to mind particularly in the Nicole pictures because of the way forced poses sit uncomfortably with a resigned sense of physicality. Working with a medium-format camera and slow exposures, Ms. Grannan brings out a kind of anxious boredom familiar in sitter’s expressions in a Freud painting from the long hours of posing and his exacting way of painting.

This stretching of time is of the essence in Ms. Grannan. The sitters try to express themselves when they dress up or down and strike their pose, but in fact, it is in the lag between the attainment of persona and sinking back into a literal, physical self that bathos seeps in.  The sitters do their utmost to project difference[end italics], but actually what comes across is a duller humanism, that we are all just people in time and space.

Lina Bertucci Kerstin, 24, Drama Student / Works in Vintage Shop 2007 C-print, 36 x 29 inches Courtesy of the artist and Perry Rubenstein Gallery, New York
Lina Bertucci, Kerstin, 24, Drama Student / Works in Vintage Shop 2007 C-print, 36 x 29 inches Courtesy of the artist and Perry Rubenstein Gallery, New York

Ornament is crime, according to the Austrian architectural theorist Adolf Loos.  Two culturally prevalent forms of ornamentation that bear out this stricture, arguably, are graffiti and tattoos. But much as they violate the purity, respectively, of buildings and bodies, these ornamental systems have deep roots and cult followings as popular forms of artistic expression.

Lina Bertucci traveled to tattoo conventions around the world making portraits of women between the ages of 19 and 59 (mostly closer to the first figure) sporting wildly adventurous body decorations. Her photographs are likely to engender reactions of fascination and repugnance, sometimes in the same viewer. On show at Perry Rubinstein Gallery, they are also fabulous images: crisp, clean, and resonant. Tinged with voyeurism, and unabashedly “arty” in their adopted poses and settings, they nonetheless attain a documentary precision, a coolness that allows the individuality of their sitters to come through while capturing the ambivalent emotions surrounding the practice of making one’s skin the permanent support of an ornamental decoration.

The prevalent facial expression is somewhere between defiance and resignation.  There is little evidence of humor or delight on these women’s faces, although whether that was on the instruction of the photographer or reflects the general mood of heavily tattooed women is open to conjecture.

“Kerstin, 24, Drama Student / Works in Vintage Shop” (2007) brilliantly captures the central paradox of making permanent a transient taste. The young woman sports an array of tattoos — pinups, Japonism, nautical motifs — on her chest, arms, and right thigh. She wears a Victorian-style bathing suit which is itself decorated in anchors and bathing suits. The wall behind her has a dense black and white floral wallpaper and there is an animal pattern on the ground. The attire and furnishings represent rich, strong tastes that will be outgrown and replaced as they loose their luster, humor, novelty. The tattoos, however, which are all the more tacky and ephemeral, are there for “good.”

“Deborah, 45, Assembler in Machine Shop” (2007) has a finely drawn fan on her back and around her waist and buttock, intricate tattoos representing garters that, on her right leg, hold up an elaborate, gaudy “stocking”. Her flesh is beginning to sag, and with it her bold design. Were she a painting, it would be time to restretch the canvas.

Many of these tattoos are extraordinary in their artistry, wit and imagination, but more extraordinary is the decision to subject the body to a layer of decoration that can hardly be removed. However their moods or outlooks on life might change, the bearers can never strip down beyond the taste or whim of an extreme moment’s ornamental decision.