Progression of Art
Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City
In this photograph, Nan Goldin sits with her lover, Brian, on a bed. Goldin is lying down behind him, her head on a pillow and half obscured by her black sweater. She is looking at Brian while he looks down and off at something outside of the frame. He is smoking and the sun highlights his face and shirtless body.
The ambient lighting, seemingly unaware male protagonist, and bedroom setting suggest an intimate, rarely captured moment between lovers - although the presence of the camera; presumably set up with tripod and timer by the artist, or composed by the artist and then photographed by a friend - complicates this simple façade of closeness. The photograph may not be posed in a traditional sense, but it is certainly planned.
The most exciting and unique part of this photograph has to do with the "gaze", or where and how the photograph's subjects are looking. In Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City, both Nan, the artist and female protagonist, and the viewer are looking at Brian's naked back. Brian, in turn, looks away from us both. This arrangement of looks establishes an uneasy and unusual power dynamic. The predominance of "the male gaze", an idea first put forward by Laura Mulvey in 1975, usually means that images (including classical nudes, horror films, advertisements) are made of naked women, by men, for other men. In this photograph we immediately empathize with the clothed woman in bed, Nan Goldin, both artist and subject, because we share her gaze towards a naked man.
Nan Goldin's expression, as she gazes at her lover, is an uneasy one that makes the image difficult to look at. Instead of admiration, kindness, softness, Goldin's face is one of longing, distrust, and weariness. This photograph portrays the unequal balance of power in heterosexual relationships and how this power balance plays out in art and images, with a nuance, emotion, and sensitivity that is unparalleled in art and photography.
Nan One Month After Being Battered
Nan One Month After Being Battered is perhaps Goldin's most famous self-portrait, and is a unique and vital contribution to photography, portraiture, and contemporary art in that it draws attention to domestic violence against woman and shows the artist herself as a survivor of this violence - reminding us domestic violence can happen to anyone, and any woman especially. About the photograph, Goldin has said, "I wanted it to be about every man and every relationship and the potential of violence in every relationship."
The artist sits square in the picture frame in front of domestic lace curtains, with the top of her large curly hair cut out of the photograph. Looking straight on, Goldin displays her face, clearly beaten and bruised. Her left eye is barely open, but through a swollen lid we see it, red and glossed over. Goldin wears striking make up, glossy red lipstick, silver earrings, and a pearl necklace. The red lipstick is particularly striking in its color and application, matching the blood red of her injured eye and drawing parallels between stereotypical markers of femininity - such as red lipstick - and the potentiality for violence - as in her black and swollen eye.
The self-portrait is confrontational. Goldin looks straight at the camera, making direct eye contact with the viewer. She wants to be seen, and challenges you to see her as both victim and survivor of domestic violence.
While this portrait, like many of her others, is credited to Goldin, the self-portrait photograph was taken by a friend, though composed by the artist (and subject).
Tate Modern, London
Misty and Jimmy-Paulette in a taxi, New York City
In this portrait, two drag queens sit in the back of a taxi. The background of the portrait looks outside the car's windows, capturing other NYC taxis sharing a busy street. The flash of the camera highlights the subjects' glossy outfits and heavy makeup. Misty, on the left, wears a blue wig with bright, disco ball heart-shaped earrings, her tight black clothing reflecting the overly bright flash. Jimmy-Paulette, on the right, wears a sleek gold wig, her curls falling into her heavily made up face. She looks directly at the camera, her mouth slightly open and is wearing a torn white mesh top and gold bra with the straps falling off her shoulders. Both queens look at the camera with a mixture of boredom and disdain - a far cry from the glamorous personas drag queens put on to perform.
Goldin captures an everyday moment of banality in this close up shot of the back of a taxi. Usually associated with high production, glamour, and performance, Goldin's queens are in the middle of a commute - an unglamorous and easily recognizable part of drag queens' work that is rarely documented or considered. Here, Misty and Jimmy-Paulette are workers on their way to perform - they are people we can empathise with and understand, documented as friends rather than glamorous performers. Furthermore, the image complicates the popular idea that drag queens are just men dressed as women to perform. Who are Misty and Jimmy-Paulette? Are they on their way to or from work? Gender identity here is ambiguous, constructed, and ambivalent.
This photograph is one of 800 images used in Goldin's most famous body of work, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which comprises of candid photographs of friends, lovers, and the artist while she was actively involved in queer, party, and drug scenes. The series is shown in several ways: as an artist's book, as a 45-minute projected slideshow, or printed and hung in an exhibition space. In recent years, Goldin has adapted the collection further, adding a soundtrack and additional images to the collection. The decision to continually update The Ballad of Sexual Dependency keeps the work fresh and alive, allowing viewers to come back to the emotional journey over and over again to see it anew.
Self-portrait in my Blue Bathroom, Berlin
In a later self-portrait, Goldin photographs herself in the bathroom. Serving as a backdrop, which is multiplied in the bathroom mirror's reflection, the blue tiles take up most of the image. The geometric shapes are only broken up by Goldin's face sitting in the bottom corner of the mirror. She looks off and out of the frame, her red curls loosely framing her face.
The blue tiles overpower the portrait, engulfing Goldin's disembodied, hovering head. Goldin often photographed people, especially women and young girls, in bathroom mirrors. The artists use of mirrors again plays with expectations of the gaze between photographer, photographic subject, and viewer: here photographer and subject are the same woman, and it's hard to tell if she is looking at herself or something else. As viewers we are not acknowledged, however the subject knows we are watching her.
The bathroom is a place usually associated with privacy, where people, and especially women, and queer people can be both comfortable and safe, while also being a space they can transform themselves into the type of person they want to present to the world or, alternately, the person the world demands them to be. Bringing the camera into the bathroom reinforces Goldin's interest in addressing the unspoken or hidden private moments that build up into identities, appearances, and selves.
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Valerie Floating in the Sea, Mayreau Island
This portrait photograph captures an ecstatic moment of weightlessness. The subject, Valerie, floats naked in the water, her head tilted back, eyes closed, mouth open, basking in the sun. The image is shot from a low angle just above water level as if we were swimming in the water next to Valerie ourselves. The photograph is in high contrast, seen most explicitly on Valerie's body. While the sun highlights parts of her face and breast, other parts of her body are lost in shadow.
Taken later in her career, this photograph demonstrates Goldin's ability to maintain her personal touch while expanding, both conceptually and formally, the look of her photographs.
The 2000s marked a shift for her, moving her camera outside the domestic realm and into nature.
Along with Valerie Floating, Goldin shot a number of landscape photographs. While visually the colors, lighting, and emphasis on the body resemble her previous photographs, this portrait of Valerie has a lightness to it that many of the other photographs do not - the space around the subject gives the viewer space to breathe and enjoy this moment with both Valerie and Goldin. Much of the artist's work focuses on moments of pleasure, but this portrait seems to be the most unambiguously joyous and calm, even as a dark sky threatens the swimmers in the background.
Caviar20 Gallery, Toronto
Swan-like embrace, Paris
In this diptych, two images are placed side to side. The one of the right is an older photograph Goldin took, with the image on the left a photograph she took of a painting in the Louvre. Goldin was originally prohibited from photographing work in the museum, although in an exhibition in the early 2000s her photographs were placed in the museum amongst classical works of art. She saw a great deal of overlap in the topics and themes that intrigued her and that of the works created centuries before. After the success of her exhibition, the Louvre allowed the artist to walk through the museum and take photographs of anything that caught her eye. Goldin then created a side-by-side comparison, in this work capturing the intertwined bodies in a "swan-like embrace." Speaking about the process, she said, "Desire awoken by images is the project's true starting point. It is about the idea of taking a picture of a sculpture or a painting in an attempt to bring it to life."
The exhibition at the Louvre was titled "Scopophilia," from the Greek term "the pleasure of looking." Scopophilia is a term used by Freud to describe a psychoanalytical malady and picked up on by Laura Mulvey in her essay defining the "male gaze" - where images are produced to entice this particular (assumed to be male) pleasure. As a woman photographer photographing people of all genders and sexualities, Goldin turns this pleasure upside down, expanding it to include the looks and desires of all genders as well, at the same time as reframing classical works in the Louvre's collection in these broader frames of looking and pleasure.
Paired with paintings by Corot, Delacroix, and Rembrandt, Goldin's images highlight her contemporary interest in love, lust, bodies, and relationships depicted in very similar ways from centuries ago. The exhibition thus reveals the universality of these interests throughout time, a quality of Goldin's work that has made it so important and influential in the art world at large.
Mathew Marks Gallery, New York