The Past is a Foreign Country: On Photos by Peter Hujar and Chris Killip
Chris Killip: In Flagrante Two at Yossi Milo
January 28 to February 27, 2016
245 10th Avenue (between 24th and 25th streets)
New York, 212 414 0370
Peter Hujar: Lost Downtown at Paul Kasmin
January 28 to February 27, 2016
297 10th Avenue (at 27th Street)
New York, 212 563 4474
“One is not only a little individual, living a little individual life. One is in oneself the whole of mankind, and one’s fate is the fate of the whole of mankind.”
Chris Killip and Peter Hujar — in 1976, an ocean apart — photographed a boy and a man, respectively, wearing combat boots. In both photographs, the combat boots are broken in. Leather is scuffed at the toes and sides. Around the ankles, the boots have wrinkled where the laces have been pulled tight, time and again. The rigid soles have softened and worn along the gait. Imprints and residues, scratches and bashes: marks that are on the boundary between body and life.
The geographical separation of these two photographs in 1976 has now, 40 years later, been reduced to a few New York City blocks. It is very easy to be comfortable, insular, and at home in Hujar’s “Lost Downtown” at Paul Kasmin Gallery. Vince Aletti, a critic at the Village Voice, a close friend and subject of Hujar’s, wrote that Hujar “defined Downtown.” Viewing Hujar’s photographs of the intellectual and creative elite, at a time when New York City was at a cultural zenith, could be limited to nostalgia and regret of what New York was and what we have lost. But, in relationship to Killip’s series “In Flagrante Two” at Yossi Milo, both series of photographs metamorphose into universals.
There are other resonances between Killip’s Youth on a Wall, Jarrow, Tyneside and Hujar’s Christopher Street Pier #2 (Crossed Legs). The boots on Killip’s youth seem too large for him. He sits in the crick of a brick wall with his knees drawn to his chest. His face is turned down: his chin tucked and his eyes closed tight like a fist. He pushes his forehead into his hands — hands that are in turn gripped by his knees. His suit jacket with mismatched pants is rumpled and stained. These also seem too big — both in the grown up style and size. Though he fights the collapse, he is being crumpled into a ball. Hujar’s “crossed legs” are laid long: one leg pulled up, the other across his knee, while the torso recedes, back flat. The legs’ length is accentuated by dense, delicate hair bookended by combat boots and denim cutoffs. Two elbows poke from the sides like fins seeming to place his hands behind his head. In Hujar’s photograph, the man balances precariously, on a wooden beam high over the Hudson River. There is little fear, though, in his languid sunbathing. Overwhelmed in clothes and imploding posture, it is Killip’s youth who is more vulnerable.
The solitary figures play with ambivalence. The pose of Killip’s youth is uncertain: what has happened to him? Is he hurt or is he in trouble? The repetitive monotony of the brick wall provides little clue — the photograph feels imprisoning and claustrophobic. For Killip, there is uncertainty in the relationship between the youth and his surroundings; the unknown people and places that define his life. Hujar’s man is confidently at leisure. His surroundings are glimpsed in another seated figure, a large boat, and buildings across the river. Rather, the indecision is contemplation: daydreaming and open to possibility. Ambiguity exists not because of the unknown, but all possibilities are present and imaginable.
Killip’s In Flagrante Two series is being exhibited for the first time in its entirety in America. The series was photographed in the Northeast of England from 1973 to 1985. It features photographs of the largely working class community as it was reacting to the economic turmoil of inflation, recession, challenges to the unions and widespread strikes. Social rebellion, particularly punk rock, rejected the mainstream — punk expressed freedom. In flagrante has a multi-faceted meaning. The term is more typically used in exposing a crime. Here, Killip’s camera is catching people in the act. The photograph becomes a document not of a crime, but of a way of life under threat. Bever’s First Day Out, Skinningrove, North Yorkshire (1982) depicts one man sitting in the driver’s seat of a small car leaning out of the window. Another man throws his body against the car as if to put his arm around the man inside it, instead leaning on the roof. The expression of the standing man’s face is difficult to read. An illegible tattoo slits his throat. His fingernails are short and dirty. Both men look to the left towards a small wedge of ocean. That this is Bever’s first day out is seen in his sallow skin, the squint of his eyes unused to sun, the pucker of his lips in an unfamiliar sigh, and the awkward way he leans against the car. (Though perhaps, Bever is the man in the car, who has yet to get out.) Bever’s pose is of one unfamiliar with a day out, he is attempting the comfort in Hujar’s “crossed legs,” but his body does not quite lay that way.
Hujar’s portraits adjoin death. Not long after these were taken, the AIDS epidemic (and subsequent Culture Wars) killed a generation of artists, including Hujar. In “Lost Downtown,” it is the people that are gone. Death is unambiguously referenced in Hujar’s seminal Candy Darling on her Deathbed (1973) and Sydney Faulkner, Hospital (II), from 1981. Hujar explicitly linked life and death in the only book he published in his lifetime, Portraits of Life and Death (1976). The similarities between the reclining postures of many of Hujar’s portraits with Faulkner show the easy mutability between life and death. Faulkner’s eyelids droop. He looks, perhaps, towards Hujar, but the gaze is unfixed. Fine white hairs at his temple and just under his nose, a hard place to shave, are indescribably poignant. Death is ever-present while the body still finds small ways to grow. The contradiction in life and death is of little relevance as the bond of love is constant. Hujar’s death and those in many of the photographs on display could be a memorial of sorts. Downtown maybe lost but the vivid presence of this community, its creative force and impact on American culture, is potent.
The touches between Killip and Hujar are in the individuals they photographed: combat boots, days off, life and death. The specter in their future is for us to define them as lost. This explanation is too trite, and provides us a nice, comfortable distance from which to mourn. It is a stance that does a disservice to Killip, Hujar and those they have portrayed. Their fate is ours.