I’ve been reading a lot of art history and criticism during the winter break. Consuming Walter Benjamin’s essays on aesthetics before watching Julian Schnabel’s immersive At Eternity’s Gate was very illuminating. Among other things, Benjamin wrote that the filmmaker closes the distance between the audience and the subject while painting necessarily involves that distance. Schnabel, who is a painter and filmmaker, clearly intended to close any distance in putting both himself and the viewer in van Gogh’s shoes. The camera often films from the perspective of the painter’s head with shots including downward glances of his legs and shoes hitting the ground. In his efforts to become van Gogh, Schnabel also makes statements about artists, particularly towards the end of the film, that feel both grandiose and profound. “God is a painter for those who have not yet been born,” is the one I remember most.
More recently, I read an essay arguing that modernism’s attempts to depersonalize nation states in favor of a uniform industrial capitalist aesthetic were met with reactionary desires to define and affirm individuality in various ways. I kept that in mind while viewing MFA Boston’s exhibition of work by Rineke Dijkstra, Nan Goldin, and Sheila Hicks.
Hicks’ early fiber work was created alongside the AbEx movement and is clearly the least representational of the three artists. Two of her works are shown – Bamian (1968) and Kneeling Stones (circa 1990).
Nan Goldin’s photography is deeply personal with subjects including the LGBT community, mental trauma, and drug addiction. Goldin, who identifies as bisexual, suffered the loss of her 11-year-old sister to suicide during her childhood. Her ensuing years were troubled and she became addicted to OxyContin for a period. In recent years, she has been a tireless activist against Raymond Sackler’s family, who continues to profit from the drug and whose members make major donations to many art-related organizations. (They should not be confused with Arthur Sackler, a relative also involved in art philanthropy but who was uninvolved with OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharmaceuticals.)
I am the least familiar with the work of Rineke Dijkstra and my perceptions seem culture bound. I felt her photographs were somewhere in between, or perhaps were a melding of the impersonal and the intimate. All of her presented photographs appear to have been shot in the same series. The subjects are all children who were photographed against minimal, homogeneous backgrounds of the outdoors – mostly green grass and woods. I was hesitant to say that the subjects appear somewhat homogeneous until I read that, at least in the photograpgher’s other series, the children in the photographs were from the United States and Europe. Their postures are static and rigid – as if they are posing for a painted portrait. Their gazes are never directed in the shot but always outside of it – generally at the viewer although some stare off into space.