Monday, February 11, 2008

Katy Grannan's "Another Woman Who Died in Her Sleep"

"Angie & Betty, Nazareth, PA," Katy Grannan, All rights reserved

In general I think very highly of Katy Grannan's portraits. Her practice has been to place ads in small-town newspapers for men & women who want to be photographed & then collaborate with the responders to create portraits . Taking her cues from her subjects' suggestions, Grannan makes pictures that can have an awkward beauty but are often uncomfortable -- reflecting the discomfort of her subjects, who usually choose to be nude or only partially clothed. I like Grannan's portraits because they record without trickery or judgment her subjects' desires -- which may be brave or ridiculous or both at once -- to be likeable, sexy, sophisticated, rebellious, etc.

"Nicole," Katy Grannan, All rights reserved

But , even though Grannan's current show, "Another Woman Who Died in Her Sleep," at Greenberg Van Doren Gallery, follows her familiar rules, I found it deeply troubling (Grannan has another show, "Lady into Fox," running concurrently downtown, which I haven't seen). All the portraits are of one woman,Nicole, who appears to be messed up by drugs and/or mentally ill. Very large color prints show Nicole, posing, by turns, in extreme states -- from hysteria to deep depression. In one photo she's wearing a bleached-blonde wig, crouched on a hotel bed, snarling ferally at the camera. In another she's in the weeds, propped against a cement wall, seemingly tied-up, comatose, her tanktop yanked down past her breasts. Such images of abuse -- drifter, hooker, addict, corpse --are even more painful as we gradually realize that the photos reveal a growing pregnancy. The last image in the show is Nicole, her face completely blank, holding a newborn baby.

I have no objection to this subject matter or to Nicole enacting her fantasies. This is acting, after all -- however close it is to reality -- & even if it weren't, it would be unforgivable to insist, "concerned photograper" style, that exhibiting pictures like these must somehow be presented as good for society. But I object to its presentation as nothing more than a diverting exercise in post-modernism, as only about the photographs.

We learn nothing at all about Nicole except her name. Instead, Greenberg Van Doren's handout for the show tells us, "In the new works, Grannan explores the uneasy relationship between fixed photographic portraiture and her subjects’ mercurial identities. The photographs are replete with ambiguity and contradiction: they are evidence of an invented, unknowable self, confronting undeniable, inescapable photographic description... Here, Grannan questions photography's ability to describe a complex individual with a single photographic 'truth'."

Well -- duh. But there's more. The release even quotes Oscar Wilde's "Anyone who disappears can be seen in San Francisco" in an apparent attempt to pin the denial on California, that "literal & metaphorical backdrop...mythical destination & real end-point... " where Grannan's subjects "...struggle to define themselves under the scrutiny of relentless sunlight."

Personally, I found myself getting pissed at the show's total lack of context. This show's portrait of damage & suffering has considerable power. It evokes real emotions. I wish somebody would take responsibility for it.


Tema Stauffer said...

I had a very similar response to seeing the show last week ( and I, too, am a fan of Katy Grannan's work). This show, however, left me with an empty and uncomfortable feeling.

I think you discussed some of the problems with this work well here.

Nicole Rejwan said...

I haven't seen the show but just by reading your blog and being familiar with Katy Grannans work, I wonder if its possible that she intentionally made it so the viewer would walk away feeling empty and uncomfortable. I think that would make sense given the subject matter. If not, do you think Grannan is aware of this?

Tim Connor said...

Nicole, Thanks for commenting. I'm fairly certain she's very aware of how the photographs make viewers feel. You're right, she probably intends it but I don't know why. It would be interesting to ask her, don't you think?

Nicole Rejwan said...

Absolutely! I wish I could ask her a million questions. I find her work so interesting.

Nicole Rejwan said...

Absolutely! I wish I could ask her a million questions. I find her work so interesting.