Posts Tagged ‘public performance

14
May
19

Exhibition: ‘The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day’ at ONE Gallery, West Hollywood, California

Exhibition dates: 1st March – 17th May 2019

Curator: David J. Getsy

 

 

Greg Day. 'Stephen Varble in the Suit of Armor' October 1975, printed 2018

 

Greg Day (American, b. 1944)
Stephen Varble in the Suit of Armor
October 1975, printed 2018
Digital print
© Greg Day 2019

 

 

“Varble’s total irreverence is no more evident than in his willingness to “cross party lines,” as he did when he wore his Suit of Armor, constructed with gold VO labels from Seagram’s boxes, to both the 1975 Easter Parade and to West Village leather bars! He was an equal opportunity offender, rubbing up against conformity in all forms.”

Bob Nickas. “Stephen Varble: Now More Than Ever,” on the Affidavit website [Online] Cited 10/04/2019

 

 

Confusing queen reigns, on parade

In an era of reactionary religious and right wing hypocrisy – Christian sleaze and paedophilia anyone, anti-Muslim and gay Facebook posts in the Australian election, murderous right wing rampage in New Zealand – now more than ever, we need artists like Stephen Varble.

I love doing these posts on artists that certainly I, and I suspect a lot of the readers of this website, would have never have heard of. Artists full of spunk, full of daring-do, artists who rise to challenge the patrons of patriarchy, and the colluders of capitalism (Varble became ever-more critical of commodification and capitalism). Artists who declaim the value of the individual, who shine a light on the plight of the downtrodden and discriminated against. Can you not once bring yourself to utter the word “AIDS” you bigoted president?

“Varble made the recombination of signs for gender a central theme in his increasingly outrageous costumes and performances… [He] sought to make a place for himself outside of art’s institutions and mainstream cultures all the while critiquing them both.” Australian artists such as Leigh Bowery and Brenton Heath-Kerr have a lot to thank Varble for.

He might have risen from the gutter, but his intentions were full of stars.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for Art Blart

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Many thankx to the ONE Gallery for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Varble’s work wasn’t drag in the conventional cross-dressing sense, or “gay art,” which was often defined from a predominantly masculine perspective in the immediate post-Stonewall years. His intention was to stretch and break down the very idea of binary identities, confuse the concept of gender, leave it optional. And this goal puts him well in the framework of queer and transgender thinking now. …

For a series of mid-1970s performances he called “Gutter Art,” he would arrive, elaborately dressed, by limousine (paid for by a Japanese patron, Miyazaki Morihiro) in front of luxury stores on the Upper East Side. Once parked, he unloaded old kitchen utensils from the trunk and started washing them with black ink, as if referring to the domestic life of sweatshop labor. He soon gained notoriety as a kind of cultural terrorist. (Tiffany’s hired guards to keep him out.) He turned up, uninvited, at red carpet events – film premieres, the Met’s Costume Institute gala – to dazzle and deride the guests.

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Holland Cotter. “Stephen Varble: The Street Was His Stage, the Dress Was His Weapon,” on The New York Times website January 10, 2019 [Online] Cited 10/04/2019

 

 

Greg Day. 'Stephen Varble in the Demonstration Costume with Only One Shoe (for the Chemical Bank Protest)' 22 March 1976, printed 2018

 

Greg Day (American, b. 1944)
Stephen Varble in the Demonstration Costume with Only One Shoe (for the Chemical Bank Protest)
22 March 1976, printed 2018
Digital print
© Greg Day 2019

 

 

“A chauffeured Rolls Royce glides glacially to the curb in front of the Chemical Bank at New York’s Sheridan Square. The uniformed driver, out in an instant, holds open the passenger door. Rather than a well-heeled person to which such a car would belong, a more hallucinatory sight will emerge, equally glamorous and ridiculous. Two legs appear, only one of which has a shoe. The full length of the body gradually appears, improbably covered in netting and not much else, the entwined nets adorned with crumpled bills. What seem to be bare breasts droop from the chest of a figure of otherwise unidentifiable gender, further confused by a toy fighter jet, poised for takeoff, at crotch level. While no words are spoken, a cartoon speech bubble overhead proclaims, cheerily but with a disgruntled undertow: Even Though You May Be Forged, Chemical Still Banks Best!”

Bob Nickas. “Stephen Varble: Now More Than Ever,” on the Affidavit website [Online] Cited 10/04/2019

 

The Chemical Bank Protest was Varble’s most notorious and widely reported disruption, and it encapsulated his disdain for commerce, capitalism, and propriety. To contest a forgery against him, Varble went to the Sheridan Square bank to demand his money returned. He created his Demonstration Costume with Only One Shoe from Christmas tree packaging, gold leaf wrappers, and fake money. His costumes often combined different signs of gender, and here he wore tow condoms filled with cow’s blood for breasts and a toy jet fighter as a codpiece. The toy referenced the plane ticket the forger purchase with the money, and one shoe was missing to “symbolise his economic loss.” Hovering over his head, a speech bubble touted, “Even Though You May Be Forged, Chemical Still Banks Best!”

Varble’s performances often affected an ironic enthusiasms for his targets (be it a bank, a boutique, a gallery, or a presidential candidate), and his insincere flattery was meant to provide cover for his disruption of business as usual.

Arriving in a borrowed limousine, Varble boldly entered to make his demands as the line of customers at the teller window gawked. On being told by the manager that he could not be helped, Varble punctured the blood-filled condoms and dipped a pen in the spilled blood to write checks (for “none-million dollars”) in his dramatic, mime-like movements before sweeping out to the sound of applause from the customers.

Wall text from the exhibition

 

“Varble began to truly set himself apart from other gender-focused 1970s performance artists with his outré 1976 performance at Chemical Bank in Sheridan Square. After hearing that someone had forged his signature and emptied out his bank account, Varble walked into the bank dressed in fake money, with breasts made out of condoms and filled with cow’s blood. He demanded his money back. When the bank teller could not comply, Varble punctured his condom-breasts, spilling blood all over the floor, and wrote checks in blood for “none-million dollars,” which he addressed to his companion at the bank, Peter Hujar. The exhibition includes a photograph Hujar took that day, evoking a time when the lax security in banks allowed artists to perform and express themselves, however outrageously (although Varble was then escorted out of the cow’s blood-filled bank by security).”

Extract from Michael Valinsky. “A Forgotten Precursor of Genderqueer Performance Art,” in Hyperallergic website [Online] Cited 14/05/219

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day' at ONE Gallery

Installation view of the exhibition 'The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day' at ONE Gallery

 

Installation views of the exhibition The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day at ONE Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day' at ONE Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day at ONE Gallery showing, at left top, Greg Day’s Stephen Varble with the Enormous Pink Satin and baby Doll (1975); left below Stephen Varble Performing in a Garbage Can at his Loft on Franklin Street (1975); and at centre, Closing Party with Varble’s Enormous Pink Satin Skirt (1975)

 

 

Franklin Street Exhibition and Party Performance

in 1976, Varble organised an exhibition of his own work in the loft her share with Jim McWilliams on Franklin Street. He painted the interiors pink, built large decorations, and displayed all his costumes on cut-out mannequins mounted on the walls. The largest piece in the exhibition was a new work the Enormous Pink Satin Skirt, some fifteen feet in length. The object played a central role in the “Gala Ending” party that closed the exhibition, as can be seen in the photograph (main above). For this major event Varble enlisted the help of established gender non-conforming performers such as Mario Montez, Jackie Curtis, and Taylor Mead to act as living mannequins for his most iconic costumes. Modelling Varble’s art they paraded with his satin silhouette dolls through the crowd and did impromptu performances – such as when Agusta Machado enacted a campy drama of claustrophobia in Varble’s refrigerator. Day was there to capture the wild party, managing to take individual portraits of some of the major performers in attendance…

In the midst of the playful chaos, Varble gathered these Warhol stars and others (such as Paul Ambrose and New York drag personality Ruth Truth) inside the Enormous Pink Satin Skirt, and at a designated time they al burst forth dancing. As the exhibition gave attendees a retrospective view of his output the performance provided a testament to Varble’s place in the queer performance culture of New York. As the art critic Gregory Battock remarked, “It was the kind of event only Stephen Varble could have planned: chaotic, meandering, spurious and very New York […] Even though invitations were hard to come by, everybody was there.”

Wall text from the exhibition

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day' at ONE Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day at ONE Gallery with, from left, Greg Day’s Stephen Varble Destroying his Blue and Green Corrugated Paper Dress from the Camera (October 1975); Stephen Varble in the Elizabethan Farthingale; and Stephen Varble in the Suit of Armor

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day' at ONE Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day at ONE Gallery

 

'Stephen Varble, Gutter Art flyer' [recto] 1975

 

Stephen Varble, Gutter Art flyer [recto]
1975
Xerographic print on paper
Courtesy Greg Day and the Leslie-Lohman Museum
Photo: Courtesy Greg Day and the Leslie-Lohman Museum

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day' at ONE Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day at ONE Gallery

 

Greg Day. 'Stephen Varble in the Elizabethan Farthingale' October 1975, printed 2018

 

Greg Day (American, b. 1944)
Stephen Varble in the Elizabethan Farthingale
October 1975, printed 2018
Digital print
© Greg Day, 2019

 

 

In costumes made from street trash, food waste, and stolen objects, Stephen Varble (1946-1984) took to the streets of 1970s New York City to perform his “Gutter Art.” With disruption as his aim, he led uninvited costumed tours through the galleries of SoHo, occupied Fifth Avenue gutters, and burst into banks and boutiques in his gender-confounding ensembles. Varble made the recombination of signs for gender a central theme in his increasingly outrageous costumes and performances. While maintaining he/him as his pronouns, Varble performed gender as an open question in both his life and his work, sometimes identifying as a female persona, Marie Debris, and sometimes playing up his appearance as a gay man. Only later would the term “genderqueer” emerge to describe the kind of self-made, non-binary gender options that Varble adopted throughout his life and in his disruptions of the 1970s art world.

At the pinnacle moment of Varble’s public performances, the photographer Greg Day (b. 1944) captured the inventiveness and energy of his genderqueer costume confrontations. Trained as an artist and anthropologist and with a keen eye for documenting ephemeral culture as it flourished, Day took hundreds of photographs of Varble’s trash couture, public performances, and events in 1975 and 1976. Varble understood the importance of photographers, and Day was his most important photographic collaborator. This exhibition brings together a selection of Day’s photographs of Varble performing his costume works and also includes Day’s photographs of Varble’s friends and collaborators such as Peter Hujar, Jimmy DeSana, Shibata Atsuko, Agosto Machado, and Warhol stars Jackie Curtis, Taylor Mead, and Mario Montez.

Varble sought to make a place for himself outside of art’s institutions and mainstream cultures all the while critiquing them both. The story of Varble told through Day’s photographs is both about their synergistic artistic friendship and about the queer networks and communities that made such an anti-institutional and genderqueer practice imaginable. Together, Varble and Day worked to preserve the radical potential of Gutter Art for the future.

The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble builds upon the 2018 retrospective exhibition of Stephen Varble’s work at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York, titled Rubbish and Dreams: The Genderqueer Performance Art of Stephen Varble, as featured in the New York Times on January 11, 2019. The new ONE Gallery exhibition, with its focus on the collaboration of Varble with the photographer Greg Day, will explore the ways in which Varble’s disruptive guerrilla performance art has lived on primarily through vibrant photographs that captured his inventive costumes, transformed trash, and public confrontations.

The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s photographs by Greg Day is curated by David J. Getsy, Goldabelle McComb Finn Distinguished Professor of Art History at the  School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble is organised by the ONE Archives Foundation, Inc. Generous support is provided by the City of West Hollywood.

About the ONE Archives Foundation, Inc.

The ONE Archives Foundation, Inc. is an independent 501(c)(3) dedicated to telling the accurate and authentic stories of LGBTQ people, history and culture through public exhibitions, educational projects and trainings, and community outreach programs. Our exhibitions, school programs, and community outreach programs are free. We depend entirely on members of the public and private foundations for support.

Press release from the ONE Gallery [Online] Cited 10/04/2019

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day' at ONE Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day at ONE Gallery showing, at left, a still from Stephen Varble’s video Journey to the Sun (1978-1983); and at right Greg Day’s Stephen Varble in the Piggy Bank Dress (1975)

 

Stephen Varble (American, 1946-1984)
Journey to the Sun
1978-1983
U-matic video transferred to digital, 2018
Courtesy David J. Getsy

 

 

Varble receded from the art world and from street performance around 1977, becoming ever-more critical of commodification and capitalism. As he told an interviewer that year, “This is the age of pornography and contempt. The dollar is good. […] The end of capitalism is coming.” Varble instead began to develop private performances and videos about his private mythologies and messianic dreams. His last five years were consumed with working on an epic, operatic work of video art: Journey to the Sun. It started in 1978 as a performance about the mythology of Greta Garbo, and Varble invited friends to his Riverside Drive apartment to view his monologues accompanied by project slides. His ambitions soon outgrew this format, and he turned to video for its ability to combine text, image and performance. He considered these videos to be revivals of illuminated Medieval manuscripts with their rich visual play between words and pictures, and he called his group of collaborators in the video the “Happy Arts School of Manuscript Illumination.” The aim of the “school” was to promote Varble’s vision of societal transformation through the making of modern fables in the form of videos, books, and prints. His “video books,” as he called the tapes, offered an “antidote to nature’s ruin on this heavenly globe.”

Journey to the Sun tells the story of a musician, the Grey Crowned Warbler, who undergoes tribulation and metamorphosis on a journey to transcendence. The tale is a loosely autobiographical fable of an artist who encounters a stern mystical teacher, Sage Purple Pythagoras (played by his partner, Daniel Cahill) who tests the Warbler. Many of Varble’s iconic costumes feature in the video, and he combined elements of his own history with references to literature, religion, and popular culture (notably, Garbo). Combining heavily scripted monologues with improvised performances. Journey to the Sun does not offer a tidy or easily understood narrative. Rather, it sketches a fantastic and surreal visual world in which dreams are realised through the transformations of everyday objects, popular imagery, and rubbish.

To make this “rodeo-paced” video, Varble filled his apartment with drawings and writings on the walls, blacked out the windows, and began filming scenes both scripted and improvised with collaborators. Journey to the Sun is remarkable for its time due to the complexity and density of the video editing – all of which was done by Varble in his apartment. He only completed about thirty percent of his planned work before his death from AIDS-related complications in January 1984. This screening copy presents a continuous segment of around 80 minutes that has been selected from the three surviving U-matic master tapes, but no changes have been made other than the choice of where to begin and end this combined excerpt. This is but a fragment of the much longer video epic Varble hoped would be his major contribution.

Wall text from the exhibition

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day' at ONE Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day at ONE Gallery showing Stephen Varble’s Blue Boy

 

 

“One afternoon, Stephen invited me to accompany him to a performance in midtown Manhattan. He bought Blue Boy with him. We took the F train uptown from Washington Square. Sitting on the subway car bench and wearing his Chemical Bank Protest attire. Stephen hugged, kissed, fondled and poked Blue Boy. He spoke to him in an affectionate and sometimes argumentative language of moans, “ohs” and clicks. I sat across from him and watched as people entered the car. They stared, laughed, gasped, and made disparaging remarks about his sanity before moving to another part of the subway car. Even riding the train was an opportunity for Stephen to shock.”

Greg Day
Wall text from the exhibition

 

Gutter Art: Stephen Varble and Genderqueer Performance on the Streets of 1970s New York with David J. Getsy from Leslie-Lohman Museum on Vimeo.

 

Gutter Art: Stephen Varble and Genderqueer Performance on the Streets of 1970s New York with David J. Getsy

 

Greg Day. 'Stephen Varble at the 12th Annual Avant-Garde Festival' 1975

 

Greg Day (American, b. 1944)
Stephen Varble at the 12th Annual Avant-Garde Festival
1975
Digital print
© Greg Day 2019

 

 

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626 N. Robertson Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90069

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06
Sep
09

Exhibition: ‘In Focus: Making A Scene’ at The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Exhibition dates: 30th June – 18th October 2009

 

What a fabulous selection of photographs to illustrate a fascinating “scene”. I love staged, theatrical, constructed, conceptual, collaged, surreal, imaginary, narrative photography.

Marcus

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Many thankx to the J. Paul Getty Museum for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Hill & Adamson (Scottish, active 1843-1848) '[Lane and Peddie as Afghans]' 1843

 

Hill & Adamson (Scottish, active 1843-1848)
[Lane and Peddie as Afghans]
1843
Salted paper print from a paper negative
20.6 × 14.3 cm (8 1/8 × 5 5/8 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum

 

 

The team of Hill and Adamson initially began making dramatic portrait photographs as studies for one of Hill’s composite paintings. They also produced costume studies, including this scene in which Arabic scholar Mr. Lane and Mr. (Peddie) Redding appear in foreign garb.

 

Unknown maker, French. 'Woman Reading to a Girl' c. 1845

 

Unknown maker, French
Woman Reading to a Girl
c. 1845
Daguerreotype
9.1 × 7.1 cm (3 9/16 × 2 13/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum

 

 

Through a skilful manipulation, the light coming from above and behind the figures casts the faces of mother and child in a softly modulated half-shadow. Their close grouping and familiar, intimate gestures evoke tenderness. The reflected light on the woman’s pointing finger and on the glowing white pages of the open book forms a strong visual triangle, drawing the viewer’s eye and serving to integrate and balance the composition.

 

Oscar Gustave Rejlander (British, born Sweden, 1813-1875) 'The Infant Photography Giving the Painter an Additional Brush' c. 1856

 

Oscar Gustave Rejlander (British, born Sweden, 1813-1875)
The Infant Photography Giving the Painter an Additional Brush
c. 1856
Albumen silver print
6 × 7.1 cm (2 3/8 × 2 13/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum

 

 

Oscar Rejlander’s photograph could be read as a metaphor of his own career. The additional “brush” or image-making tool provided by photography to painters was evident from the beginnings of the medium. Many early practitioners arrived at photography from painting, as did Rejlander. Photographs were often thought of and used as sketching tools for painters. Although photographs never managed to signal the death of painting as initially predicted, they did frequently assume the function that drawing had traditionally held in relation to painting.

Compositionally, this is an unusual photograph. Rejlander employs a narrative device from painting: the use of figures, or parts of figures, as allegorical representations for ideas. A very young child represents the infant medium of photography. The Painter appears only as a hand extending into the frame at the upper left, although the traditional arts are also represented by the sculpture reproduction in the lower left corner. The Infant Photography, identified by the camera on which the child supports himself, faces away from the camera, his features totally obscured. The mirror behind the child gives a clear reflection of Rejlander at his camera, making this image.

 

Roger Fenton (English, 1819-1869) 'Contemplative Odalisque' 1858

 

Roger Fenton (English, 1819-1869)
Contemplative Odalisque
1858
Albumen silver print
35.9 × 43.8 cm (14 1/8 × 17 1/4 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum
Gift of Professors Joseph and Elaine Monsen

 

 

Three years after traveling in the Crimea, Roger Fenton made a series of Orientalist photographs in his London studio using props gathered during his travels and non-Eastern models. Orientalism refers to just such romanticised depictions of imagined scenes of Muslim culture in the Ottoman Empire and its territories in the Near East and North Africa.

Orientalist scenes were more often fiction than fact. Cultural biases and misunderstandings were laid down on paper or canvas and frequently became the only source of information on the subjects depicted. When a group of these Orientalist photographs was exhibited in 1858, one reviewer described them as “truly representing some phases in the life of this interesting people.”

But not everyone so easily accepted Fenton’s images at face value; a more astute critic called for “the necessity of having real national types as models.” The same model shown here also appears as “Nubian” and “Egyptian” in other photographs by Fenton. This photograph may have originally been exhibited with the title The Reverie. The odalisque, meaning a slave or concubine in a harem, poses upon her sofa. Barefoot, blouse open, her surroundings convey a sensual disarray that conforms to an Orientalising fantasy of the available woman.

 

Julia Margaret Cameron (British, born India, 1815-1879) 'The Rosebud Garden of Girls' June 1868

 

Julia Margaret Cameron (British, born India, 1815-1879)
The Rosebud Garden of Girls
June 1868
Album silver print
29.4 × 26.7 cm (11 9/16 × 10 1/2 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum

 

 

As evolutionary science and increasing secularism transformed the way Victorians understood the world, Cameron remained a devout Christian. She photographed influential public figures of her day as well as the women of her household, casting them in allegories of literary and religious subjects. Like her artistic contemporaries, the Pre-Raphaelite painters, who modelled their work on medieval religious and mythological art, Cameron intended her photographs to evince a connection between the spiritual and the natural realms.

 

 

Julia Margaret Cameron (British, born India, 1815-1879)
Venus Chiding Cupid and Removing His Wings
1872
Album silver print
32.4 × 27.3 cm (12 3/4 × 10 3/4 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum

 

Lewis Carroll (British, 1832-1898) 'Saint George and the Dragon' June 26, 1875

 

Lewis Carroll (British, 1832-1898)
Saint George and the Dragon
June 26, 1875
Albumen silver print
12.2 × 16.2 cm (4 13/16 × 6 3/8 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum

 

 

Like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and his other books, Carroll’s photographs are fantasies starring the children of his friends. In this production, the Kitchin siblings enacted the romantic legend of Saint George, the patron saint of England, who slayed a child-eating dragon before it devoured a princess. George later married the rescued princess and converted her pagan town to Christianity. Using crude stagecraft to reference key plot points, Carroll condensed the entire legend into a single scene in which the princess appears as both damsel in distress and bride.

 

Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden (German, 1856-1931) 'Untitled [Two Male Youths Holding Palm Fronds]' c. 1885 - 1905

 

Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden (German, 1856-1931)
Untitled [Two Male Youths Holding Palm Fronds]
c. 1885 – 1905
Albumen silver print
23.3 × 17.5 cm (9 3/16 × 6 7/8 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum

 

Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden (German, 1856-1931) 'L'Offerta' (The Offering) 1902

 

Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden (German, 1856-1931)
L’Offerta (The Offering)
1902
Albumen silver print
22.4 × 16.8 cm (8 13/16 × 6 5/8 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum

 

 

Von Gloeden left Germany and settled in a coastal town in Sicily, where he took up photography. His subjects were young native boys, whom he often photographed nude in classical compositions. Rather than reenact specific historical or literary scenes, von Gloeden mused nostalgically on the ancient Greek and Roman ancestry of his attractive models.

 

Guido Rey (Italian, 1861-1935) '[The Letter]' 1908

 

Guido Rey (Italian, 1861-1935)
[The Letter]
1908
Platinum print
21.9 × 17 cm (8 5/8 × 6 11/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum

 

 

A deliberate homage to an earlier artistic style that Guido Rey admired, the composition derives from a painting made by Dutch artist Jan Vermeer in the 1600s. In this posed scene, a young suitor bearing flowers approaches a woman seated at her writing desk, with her pen poised in mid-air as she turns to greet him. A leaded glass window opens into her room, providing a natural light source for the photograph’s illumination. The mounted corner clock, decorative jar on the desk, and painting on the wall were Rey’s everyday household items or objects borrowed from friends, carefully chosen for period accuracy. Likewise, a seamstress who lived in the attic of Rey’s home in Turin created the costumes to his specifications.

 

 

“Photography, although commonly associated with truthfulness, has been used to produce fiction since its introduction in 1839. The acceptance of staging, and the degree of its application, has varied greatly depending on the genre and the historical moment, but it has persisted as an artistic approach. The photographs in this exhibition, drawn exclusively from the J. Paul Getty Museum’s collection, make no pretence about presenting the world as it exists; instead, they are the productions of directors and actors who rely on stagecraft and occasional darkroom trickery to tell stories.
 Spanning photography’s history and expressing a range of sentiments, the images in this exhibition are inspired by art history, literature, religion, and mainstream media.

Like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and his other books, Lewis Carroll’s photographs are fantasies starring his friends’ children. In the image below, children enact the mythological story of Saint George, the patron saint of England, slaying a child-eating dragon before it could devour a princess.

 

Life Imitating Art

Well-represented in this exhibition are tableaux vivants (living pictures), inspired by the popular Victorian parlour game in which costumed participants posed to resemble famous works of art or literary scenes.
The genre paintings of 17th-century Dutch masters Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch fascinated Guido Rey. Not self-conscious about being slavish to the past, he carefully studied the paintings and then arranged similar tableaux for his camera. His photographs captured equally serene domestic scenes and mimicked the minute architectural details of 17th-century interiors, such as the leaded-glass windowpanes and the checkerboard floor.

 

Playing Dress Up

The exhibition also includes costume studies of people posing as literary characters and self-portraits of artists pretending to be other people. 

American painter and photographer Man Ray and the French artist Marcel Duchamp met in New York in 1915, and they began a playful, iconoclastic collaboration that resulted in the photograph (above), among others. Influenced by Dadaism, a cultural movement that rejected reason and logic in favour of anarchy and the absurd, their work embraced games of chance, performance, and wordplay. Here an irreverent Duchamp appears in women’s clothing as his alter ego, Rrose Sélavy, a pun on the French pronunciation “Eros, c’est la vie” (Sex, that’s life).

 

Imaginary Subjects

A number of photographs in the exhibition explore the medium’s capacity to visualise subjects of the imagination by using darkroom trickery to manipulate prints.
 An optician and family man, Ralph Eugene Meatyard photographed his children, friends, and neighbours enacting dramas in suburban backyards and abandoned buildings near his Lexington, Kentucky, home. He often used experimental techniques, such as multiple exposures and blurred motion. Uncanny details imbue Meatyard’s otherwise ordinary vernacular scenes with the qualities of a dream or supernatural vision.

 

Theatricality as a Critical Strategy

In recent decades there has been renewed interest in theatricality among contemporary photographers whose highly artificial scenes critique mainstream media and representation.
 In her series Family Docudrama Eileen Cowin blurs the boundaries between truth and fiction, and private behaviour and public performance. Drawing equally from family snapshots and soap operas, Cowin presents staged domestic scenes in which she and members of her family, including her identical twin sister, perform as actors. In these ambiguous, open-ended narratives, dramatic moments are exaggerated, and the camera’s glare is ever present.”

Text from The Getty Museum website [Online] Cited 16/04/2019

 

Man Ray (American, 1890-1976) 'Rrose Sélavy (Marcel Duchamp)' 1923

 

Man Ray (American, 1890-1976)
Rrose Sélavy (Marcel Duchamp)
1923
Gelatin silver print
22.1 × 17.6 cm (8 11/16 × 6 15/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum
© Man Ray Trust ARS-ADAGP

 

 

When Man Ray moved to Paris, he was greeted by his friend and artistic compatriot Marcel Duchamp, who introduced him to members of the Dada circle of writers and artists. The two men had collaborated in a number of creative endeavours in New York, including the creation of a female alter-ego for Duchamp named Rrose Sélavy (a pun on the French pronunciation Eros, c’est la vie “Sex, that’s life”). Man Ray photographed Duchamp several times as Rrose Sélavy.

 

Man Ray. 'Larmes' 1930

 

Man Ray (American, 1890-1976)
Larmes (Tears)
1930-1932
Gelatin silver print
22.9 × 29.8 cm (9 × 11 3/4 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum
© Man Ray Trust ARS-ADAGP

 

 

Judging from his inclusion of this image in other photographic compositions, Man Ray must have considered Tears one of his most successful photographs. A cropped version of it with a single eye also appears as the first plate in a 1934 book of his photographs.

Like the emotive expression of a silent screen star in a film still, the woman’s plaintive upward glance and mascara-encrusted lashes seem intended to invoke wonder at the cause of her distress. The face belongs to a fashion model who cries tears of glistening, round glass beads; the effect is to aestheticise the sentiment her tears would normally express. Man Ray made this photograph in Paris around the time of his breakup with his lover Lee Miller, and the woman’s false tears may relate to that event in the artist’s life.

 

Dora Maar (French, 1907-1997) 'Le Simulateur (The Pretender)' 1936

 

Dora Maar (French, 1907-1997)
Le Simulateur (The Pretender)
1936
Gelatin silver print
26.6 × 21.7 cm (10 1/2 × 8 1/2 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum
© Dora Maar Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

 

 

In this picture Dora Maar constructed her own reality by joining together several images and rephotographing them. The seamlessness of the photographic surface makes this construction believable and leaves the viewer wondering about the strange world the figure inhabits. On closer examination, the viewer may notice that the floor is an upside-down ceiling vault, that the bricked-in windows are drawn in by hand, and that the figure was added separately. Despite these discoveries, the picture resists logical interpretation.

 

Ralph Eugene Meatyard (American, 1925-1972) 'Untitled (Michael and Christopher Meatyard)' 1966

 

Ralph Eugene Meatyard (American, 1925-1972)
Untitled (Michael and Christopher Meatyard)
1966
Gelatin silver print
16.8 × 17.5 cm (6 5/8 × 6 7/8 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum
Gift of Christopher Meatyard and Jonathan Greene
© Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard

 

 

An optician and family man, Meatyard photographed his children, friends, and neighbours enacting dramas in the suburban backyards and abandoned buildings of Lexington, Kentucky. He often used experimental techniques, such as multiple exposures and blurred motion. Uncanny details imbue Meatyard’s otherwise ordinary vernacular scenes with the qualities of a dream or supernatural vision.

 

Lucas Samaras. 'Photo-Transformation' November 22, 1973

 

Lucas Samaras (American, born Greece, 1936)
Photo-Transformation
November 22, 1973
Polaroid SX-70 dye diffusion print
7.6 × 7.6 cm (3 × 3 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum
© Lucas Samaras

 

 

In this self-portrait, Lucas Samaras reaches out as if trapped in the photograph. In sharp contrast to the indistinct background of his upper body, his crisply defined fingers curl forward, as if he is searching for a way to transcend a two-dimensional world of his own creation. An overriding sense of claustrophobia defines this image, underscored by the small scale of the Polaroid print. Samaras, a hermit-like person, made many Polaroid self-portraits like this in the 1970s as a means of observing himself. The images are open to a wide range of interpretation. Here, Samaras may have tried to convey the sense of isolation he experiences as a reclusive person.

 

Lucas Samaras. 'Photo-Transformation' September 9, 1976

 

Lucas Samaras (American, born Greece, 1936)
Photo-Transformation
September 9, 1976
Polaroid SX-70 dye diffusion print
7.6 × 7.6 cm (3 × 3 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum
© Lucas Samaras

 

 

As if engaging in a tug-of-war with himself, Lucas Samaras confronts and struggles with his own reflection in this self-portrait. The leg-less reflection is incomplete, however, giving the impression of a deformed adversary. A monochromatic polka-dot background and a vibrant green and red border act as a stage for this dramatic struggle.

Samaras’s Photo-Transformations, which he made in the 1970s as a means to examine various facets of himself, could be understood as visual manifestations of internal conflict. They are complex psychological investigations that, according to at least one critic, illustrate one person’s efforts toward spiritual healing.

 

Lucas Samaras (American, born Greece, 1936) 'Photo-Transformation, 1976'

 

Lucas Samaras (American, born Greece, 1936)
Photo-Transformation, 1976
1976
Polaroid SX-70 dye diffusion print
7.6 × 7.6 cm (3 × 3 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum
© Lucas Samaras

 

 

Submerged in narcissism, nothing remains… but “me and myself, I am my own audience, the other, contemplating my existence.”

Made in the 1970s as a means of studying himself, Lucas Samaras’s photographs illustrate the internal struggle that can occur between conflicting aspects of one personality. Bent over a captain’s chair, Samaras rests his head as if he is at the guillotine. Another blurry form hovers above, about to violently attack the submissive figure.

Samaras made his Photo-Transformations, a series of self-portraits, with SX-70 Polaroid film. Still wet, the film’s emulsions could be manipulated to alter the finished image. He used straight pins, rubber erasers, and other simple tools to “draw” into the developing surface. For this portrait, he created a diamond pattern over and around the dominant figure that underscores the frenzy of motion.

 

Joel Peter-Witkin (American, born 1939) 'Mother and Child (with Retractor, Screaming)' 1979

 

Joel Peter-Witkin (American, born 1939)
Mother and Child (with Retractor, Screaming)
1979
Gelatin silver print
36 × 36 cm (14 3/16 × 14 3/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum
© Joel-Peter Witkin

 

Eileen Cowin (American, born 1947) 'Untitled' from the series 'Family Docudrama' 1980-1983

 

Eileen Cowin (American, born 1947)
Untitled from the series Family Docudrama
1980-1983
Chromogenic print
48.4 × 60.7 cm (19 1/16 × 23 7/8 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum
Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council
© Eileen Cowin

 

 

In her series Family Docudrama Cowin blurs the boundaries between truth and fiction, and private behaviour and public performance. Drawing equally from family snapshots and soap operas, she presents staged domestic scenes in which she and members of her family, including her identical twin sister, perform as actors. In these ambiguous, open-ended narratives, dramatic moments are exaggerated and the camera’s glare is ever present.

 

 

The Getty Museum at the Getty Center
1200 Getty Center Drive
Los Angeles, California 90049

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Friday 10 am – 5.30 pm
Saturday 10 am – 9 pm
Closed Mondays

The Getty Museum website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Mask’ 1994

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