everything and nothing at all

January 29, 2011

A week ago I couldn’t stop humming hymns. I don’t know how it started, but it was like someone pushed a button in my brain and out came all these old, wonderful songs that I grew up listening to and singing. I never thought about it at the time, but looking back I’d say that there were some very sweet and catchy tunes in the old hymnal. If any of you have been to an Episcopal church you know what I mean. This week I’m quite taken with a Sharon Van Etten song, One Day. It almost makes me want to cry a little bit.

I just finished watching he HBO mini-series, The Pacific, hoping to understand my dad better. And in some strange way hoping to be closer to him. I’ve cried a lot while watching it and wished desperately that I knew if my dad had kept his dress blues or his Marines dog tags, I would have spent more time in that horror show of his burnt out and trashed house searching for them if I’d known they were there.

Last night RU and I went to the Portland Art Museum to hear Catherine Opie give a lecture about, well, really her whole body of work. It was interesting and we were joined by an interesting mix of queers, museum patrons, folks looking for some intellectual stimulation, and maybe some folks feeling kinda nostalgic for the 90’s. Not that those are mutually exclusive groups.

I hate to admit it but I only heard of Cathy 3 or 4 years ago; for a big chunk of the 1990’s I wasn’t really paying attention to art. But I did see her retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2008. I think Cathy’s early series of portraits, which pretty much made her as an artist, are powerful, and I’m glad i saw them in person. Because the slides don’t convey the power of them. You have to be confronted by them in person. The photos in those series are big and aggressive and put into technicolor something that Mapplethorpe started. Those photos are like “boom,  mother fucker. We’re are here and we are fucking queer.”

I don’t think she’s done anything as powerful or as moving since those portraits. For for more intimate portraiture, I’d pick Nan Goldin. For social commentary, I’d pick Robert Frank or Lee Friedlander. Off the top of my head, I can’t say who I really like for  landscape, but I don’t find Cathy’s landscapes particularly compelling, except for the ice house series.  But I was still fascinated with listening to her talk about her work. In part because she’s funny and she’s smart enough to know how to work the crowd. Also, I have a certain personal affection and admiration for her because she’s unabashedly butch and talks about it like it’s absolutely no big deal.

But the landscapes aren’t really that interesting and overall are pretty forgettable. It’s her narrative about them that gives them meaning – what she was thinking or doing when she took the photos, the camera she used, the stories about her travels and sometimes what she was trying to accomplish by framing them the way she did. There was a lot of cliche in what she said, which I didn’t care so much about except that she tried to present it as a unique perspective, like taking a photo of the back of sunflowers and how that goes against expectation. The other thing that was interesting was just listening to the language of talking about art – pieces in conversation with other artist’s work, and football fields and strip malls as social landscapes, witnessing personal experience through portraiture. it was kind of like the performance of intellectualism.

I’m still an Opie fan though.

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