The American Trip

“The American Trip” can be split into two sections: photography and Cady Noland. Clark, Prince and Goldin all work with photography as a nostalgic medium, playing on their abilities to capture identities for posterity, identities that exist only through their reification by the camera lens. Placed within this exhibition, they become signifiers of cultural trends, not of individual experience. Noland’s recycling of press images, on the other hand, offers viewers an opportunity to reflect upon the acts which moved certain individuals from anonymity to infamy.

Clark’s early series, shot in Tulsa in 1971, portrays drug addicts and petty criminals. Most of the images involve shooting: a pregnant woman injecting drugs, one man aiming a gun under the stars of the fifty states, and another writhing from a bullet-wound in his thigh. These were Clark’s comrades. His pictures record their daily life. Within the context of “The American Trip,” Clark’s social documentary, which grew out of his ordinary experiences, becomes social commentary highlighting the incongruity of those experiences with the American Dream.

His other two series, Forty Second Street (1978-85) and Untitled (1991), are sexually charged images of youths – mainly boys. The untitled images appear staged (which they were, with parents’ consent), whereas those from the street have a more honest and sensual appeal (albeit tending toward pedophilia). The portraits embody youthful self-absorption, revealing a tendency toward narcissism on the part of the photographer or, at the very least, a yearning for his own lapsed adolescence. A picture of a naked boy with a skull and cross bones tattoo on his right thigh suggests the elusive nature of youth, innocence and beauty that is yet the obsession of American culture.

Richard Prince re-photographs and enlarges biker magazine images of women, posed on motorcycles, hanging off their “old men,” or partying and, for the most part, in various states of undress. The undercurrent of these grainy slices of life is that these could be the girls next door and, in fact, likely are. This realization pales when compared to the construction of masculinity in these images. The few men actually portrayed in this series on biker culture seem to be held up – both literally and figuratively – by their props, be they tattoos, bikes or women. Their identities, in contrast to those of the larger-than-life barely clad women, seem somehow fragile and sustained only by masquerade.

Such irony, the strength of Prince’s work, is emphasized again in one of the smaller pieces. An image of a corpse-like woman on the grass, with a beer can nearby, is called Party. Here Prince manages in one small picture to accentuate the absurdity of what North Americans consider a good time, while parodying an age-old artistic trope: that of femininity and death.

Like Prince’s bikers, the subjects of Nan Goldin’s photographs, Boston and New York drag queens, construct their identities with props. The black-and-white Boston pictures, taken in the seventies, display fashions reminiscent of recent runway styles and have a certain poignant quality which recalls Diane Arbus’ anonymous portraiture. Unlike Arbus, Goldin photographed beautiful subjects who were her friends. They appear to have engaged her, just as they engage the viewer now. The New York scenes, larger than the Boston ones, and in full colour, encapsulate the glamour and vitality of drag performance, while reflecting a fatigue perhaps implicit in lives lived “on the frontiers of gender transformation.”

David at Grove Street, Boston (1972), marks the epitome of Goldin’s attempt to honour what she has called “a third gender that made more sense than the other two.” Without makeup, clad in a halter top, David signifies a decision to live out sexual alternatives. This ultimate act of autonomy, according to Monk, identifies him as an outlaw.

In contrast to David, the outlaws in Cady Noland’s work are known to many people. Noland silkscreens wire-service photographs of notorious cultural icons (such as Charles Manson, Patty Hearst and Lee Harvey Oswald) onto aluminum and stainless steel plates, producing effects of both transparency and reflection. These objects stand like cardboard cutouts, scattered within the gallery space. The flatness of her sculptures is a metaphor for the two-dimensionality of Western culture’s iconography. Like Clark’s, her art signifies the dissolution of the American Dream, but on a much larger scale. The breadth of her commentary is a function of the shift from anonymity to fame: that an occasional Oklahoman got shot is of far less consequence than that a president did, or that the girl next door became a biker is less frightening than another’s voluntary membership in the Manson Family.

Collected together in “The American Trip,” these disparate outlaws – some sexual, some criminal – are united as a signifier of America as outlaw. Whether they are a symptom of America’s obsession with a “frontier metaphor” (most notably manifested in space exploration as the final frontier) or a shadow for the continuing mythology of the American Dream, one is led to wonder if pushing the boundaries is not in fact one of America’s most salient defining characteristics. Moreover, as eras from other times and other places are unwrapped and put out to thaw through their embodiment in the characters on display here, “The American Trip” underscores capitalism’s role in shifting identities such as these outlaws from the realm of artistic representation to popular, commercial culture.