Michael Kimmelman commented in a recent article that we go to museums
to find truth in pictures. He was referring to a group of photographs
by Thomas Struth. His remark, though, extends to all who tend to look
for this truth particularly in photographs.
It seems there is something in human nature that wants to believe that whatever is represented in a photograph truly exists in the world. Whether it is inherent to the photographic medium or programmed in our minds, we want to believe that photographs provide a kind of visual truth. Instead quite often the photograph succeeds in convincing us of its emotional truth.
Within the last 30 years or so, a trend has emerged of exploring the loss of innocence in art, specifically in the genre of portraiture. Two recent shows — Pretty Baby, curated by Andrea Karnes at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and Family Pictures, curated by Jennifer Blessing at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York — reflect this trend. Working as an intern in the Education Department at the Fort Worth Modern, I have dedicated a lot of time to thinking about the issues explored in these shows. Although independently curated, they both focus on the delusion of innocence and the fantasy of purity; the contemporary trend toward deconstructing the “normal” family unit; and the general social ignorance that surrounds family issues.
Pretty Baby, which runs through June 24, is a general survey of the loss of innocence revealed in depictions of children that touch on a number of atypical and intriguing aspects of childhood. Bringing in artists such as Catherine Opie, Nathalie Djurberg, Rineke Dijkstra, Loretta Lux and collaborators Jennifer Zackin and Sanford Biggers, Pretty Baby investigates both the difficulties and the mundane normalcy of growing up, as well as the dark, often suppressed aspects of relationships between children and adults, and the misconceptions surrounding atypical family units and physical disabilities. The works in this show, which include media beyond photography and film, force the viewer to acknowledge the impure and often darker face of adolescence.
Family Pictures features many of the same artists as the Modern show, but it places more of an emphasis on examining issues dealing with family values and it is strictly limited to the photographic medium, including film. The Guggenheim exhibition primarily focuses on suppressed aspects of familial relationships seen through the work of artists such as Opie, Janine Antoni, Tracy Moffatt, Gregory Crewdson and Thomas Struth. But it explores the illusion of innocence as well, primarily in the work of Sally Mann and Robert Mapplethorpe. Some of the stronger works in this exhibition focus on the taboo issues of race, homosexuality and constructed identities.
The sinister sexual undertones of encounters between adult men and young children associated with pedophilia and child pornography are explored in Djurberg’s claymation film Florentin (2005), included in Pretty Baby. Djurberg’s wonderfully crafted film shows two young girls in a room with an adult male figure. It is unclear whether or not this man is the two girls’ father, uncle or just an acquaintance. However, there is a disturbing sense that something inappropriate is looming. The male figure and the young girls proceed to play: the girls bounce up and down on the man’s knee. In a surprising, though equally disturbing, turn, the two young girls begin to bludgeon the man and soon overpower him, beating him repeatedly.
In her series Innocence and Otherness (2005-2006) also included in Pretty Baby, Margaret Meehan deals with issues more often ignored or overlooked. Her astonishing, petite sculptures of young girls with various deformities bring the viewers to an awareness of the rather isolating condition of physical and mental retardation. As Karnes notes in the catalogue, one of the primary issues Meehan’s work raises is how society deals with what she refers to as “medical anomalies.”
Family Pictures, on the other hand, focuses more specifically on portrayals of children in uncommon settings and poses, leaning quite heavily on abnormal situations and the darker side of familial relationships. Works by Mapplethorpe and Mann, both mentioned in the Pretty Baby catalogue, picture young children in non-traditional situations. Often physically exposed, carefully posed, and dangerously close to pedophilic, the young children in their pictures have a strange likeness to the awkward teenagers that Dijkstra photographs in beach settings.
The best aspect of Family Pictures, though, is its investigation of the family unit. With Opie’s Flipper, Tanya, Chloe & Harriet (1995) and Oliver in a Tutu (2004), placed in contrast to Struth’s The Richter Family I (2002), the exhibition juxtaposes two radically different portrayals of what constitutes a family. On the one hand, there is the flawless, yet tense, image of the “normal” family unit in Struth’s portrait of German artist Gerhard Richter, his wife, and their two children, one boy and one girl. On the other hand, in Opie’s picture of two lesbian couples, it is difficult to discern the roles assigned to individuals in intimate relationships, typically by gender, while the portrait of her son, Oliver, dressed like a young girl in a pink tutu, confronts the viewer with its overt questioning of biologically determined gender roles.
Moffatt’s images investigate a number of disturbing social issues, including racism and various forms of abuse. The series Scarred for Life (1994) in Family Pictures includes nine poster-like works that are reminiscent of advertisements from the 1990s aimed at curbing sexually transmitted diseases and physical abuse. In Heart Attack, a nude adult man stands at the foot of a bed, reaching toward a young girl, probably around the age of 8 or 10. The caption reads: “She glimpsed her father belting the girl from down the street. That day he died of a heart attack.” In Wizard of Oz, a father sitting in a chair faces his young son, dressed as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. Below the image we read: “He was playing Dorothy in the school’s production of the Wizard of Oz. His father got angry at him for getting dressed too early.” Other works address race in their use of both Aboriginal and Anglo Australian children. The viewer is left to fill in the gaps of these single-frame narratives, with a variety of interpretations to be had.
One wonderfully serendipitous aspect of these two independent exhibitions is the inclusion of Crewdson’s work in Family Pictures and Nic Nicosia’s in Pretty Baby. Nicosia’s intensely toned black and white photographs, owned by the Fort Worth Modern, pair nicely with Crewdson’s color photographs. Both show scenes extravagantly lit, heavily staged and painstakingly posed. They also share a common theme—curiously strange and uncomfortable scenes of suburbia. One of Nicosia’s photographs portrays a young girl in the spotlight on a kitchen counter, dressed like a ballerina. Hidden away in the background are a man and woman, presumably her parents. The image is dark and unsettling. Crewdson’s photographs are similarly perplexing and disconcerting. One image shows a very pregnant woman in the front yard of a lower middle-class home, standing in a child’s plastic pool. Rays of sunlight focus on her pregnant belly. Nearby, a young, severely overweight boy, assumed to be her son, lies on the ground. No sense of narrative exists and the viewer is oddly unsure what to make of this scene.
What is refreshingly pleasant about both Pretty Baby and Family Pictures is the revealing nature of the work they incorporate. Many of the subjects and much of the imagery are not for the faint of heart or those wishing to remain in the blissful ignorance of innocence. On the other hand, these exhibitions are enlightening: You will walk away contemplating things far from the typical associations attached to images of children and innocence.
Images courtesy The Fort Worth Modern
Stefanie Ball-Piwetz is a writer and grauate student at TCU in art history.