Thursday, May 16, 2013

Martin Parr -- "Life's a Beach." A review

"Knotte, Belgium," Martin Parr, All rights reserved

First, an admission.  Before I looked at  his show, “Life’s a Beach,” at Aperture Gallery, I had convinced myself that Martin Parr’s hyper-bright, in-your-face ironies were mostly an exercise in hype -- a sort of art brand on the make. But I left the show thoroughly charmed.
How did that happen?  Before this, I had only seen Parr’s work sized small, online or in magazines, and had gotten the idea his pictures were supposed to be jokes.  In fact, I enjoy jokes, but Parr’s images had seemed to me detached and over-calculated, like a comedian’s punch lines with choreographed pauses for laughter. Looking in the context of this show’s large prints, I saw that his work is much more complicated than that.
Is Parr’s work funny? Yes, often. Does he shoot as an outsider? Yes, of course.  Parr could never manage his pictures if he was also participating in the dramas swirling around in the frame. On the other hand, he could never get the shots at all if he didn’t have a participant’s instinctive knowledge of what’s going on.

"Art," Martin Parr, All rights reserved

I imagine Parr as a participant-observer, a sort of photo primatologist among his peers.  Put simply, he understands  that – released from workaday discipline by holidays or special events – ordinary people behave like the complicated primates we actually are. We gossip, flirt, eat, play games, make jokes, dress up in uniforms and costumes, dance, drink, bask, show off, analyze each other’s status, display awful – if exuberant – taste and so on.  In these settings Parr seems to have found  his gift in another primate ritual. He takes pictures.

In Parr’s career he has showed us ourselves abundantly -- through 50 books and over 80 major exhibitions of photographs, four movies, numerous TV documentaries, membership in Magnum, a co-written scholarly history of photo albums, an extensive post card collection and more.

The man loves pictures.
"Think of England," Martin Parr, All rights reserved

In “Life’s a Beach” Parr has for the first time assembled his best work from a 30-year obsession with photographing beaches around the world. The prints push-pinned to Aperture’s  walls include work from Argentina, Brazil, China, Spain, Latvia, Japan, the United States, Mexico, Thailand and the United Kingdom. For Parr, beaches are “…that rare public space in which general absurdities and local quirks seamlessly fuse together.”
Some of the images are indeed evocative of every culture. Parr’s iconic 1997 shot of a sunbathing older woman, for instance, delivers a maximal satiric jolt by cropping out everything but her glistening, sunburned face and arms. Even in the savage heat of the mid-day beach, the woman wears all her gold jewelry.  Her thin, freshly-lipsticked mouth is pursed grimly, and -- where her eyes ought to be -- surreal bright blue protective eye-cups seem to pop with otherworldly rage.

"Sunbathing lady," Martin Parr, All rights reserved

Who is this terrifying woman? Why is she so angry? Parr leaves it to our imagination. Every culture has agreed-upon types to refer to. The picture was taken  in Benidorm, Spain -- perhaps the woman is a fierce duenna, strictly chaperoning a family’s sulky adolescent daughter. Maybe the correct title should be dowager –she’s  an updated British version of Wilde’s Lady Bracknell.  Other tribes will assign their own special roles.
"American speedo," Martin Parr, All rights reserved

"Rio beach boy," Martin Parr, All rights reserved

Parr’s pictures also nail specific cultures. A garish stars-and-stripes-themed speedo droops off the sagging ass of a middle-aged man from Miami; a godlike, gleaming black beach boy from Rio sizes us up through designer sunglasses; in places like New Brighton and Eastbourne,  beachgoers in robes and sensible shoes sit in folding chairs and read headlines like “I Want to Hang Them” or “Fergie’s Final Boob;” in Miyazaki, Japan, hundreds of revelers frolic happily in artificial surf under fluorescent lights in a place called Ocean Dome.
"The Sun," Martin Parr, All rights reserved

Other pictures move across the sticky divide between cultures. For example, on a beach in Goa, India, a young Western couple encamped with flip flops and towels are disconcerted by a large white sacred cow, which gazes at them mournfully as two fully dressed Indian men stride purposefully by.
It’s interesting that so few of these cross-cultural shots cause the viewer any real discomfort. The only picture in the show that is at all disturbing depicts a big beefy Western man lounging under a palm tree, simultaneously getting a manicure and a pedicure from two tiny Balinese.  The picture has a slightly seedy, obscene feeling. But it’s hardly gut-wrenching.
"Miyazaki, Japan," Martin Parr, All rights reserved

I wonder  -- not for the first time – why Parr chooses to take the viewer to the point of laughing out loud but never to the verge of outrage.  And then I wonder, why am I even thinking about chastising Parr for not making me angry? By the end of the show I decide to appreciate his gentleness. As a shooter, he has the chutzpah to walk up to strangers and fire off his ring-flash from closeup range, but the resulting photographs – though bold and arresting --  are the opposite of harsh. In fact, I’d call them deeply sympathetic, even rather  fond.
Parr is a skilled satirist, but from the evidence, not an angry one.  To my eye he seems at least as interested in entertaining viewers as in changing their mind. Enjoy him.

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