Arbus Art (object) as Avatar (image)

When/Where – early August, 2016: Diane Arbus exhibit, “in the beginning” at The Met Breuer. Familiar with her voice in Photography Speaks (2004), familiar with the pop icon of Twins, referenced courtesy of Stanley Kubrick in The Shining, and a total winning moment of a $15 eBay score — Diane Arbus: Family Album (2003), but point beyond fair to mention and a close second motivation for this post is that my experience with her oeuvre was due discolorations courtesy of Susan Sontag’s in On Photography (1977). Despite these, pre-contextual initiates, I could not help but commit and dive in head first. Sparing the saccharine sentimentality of the 2006 film Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of D.A. (staring Nicole Kidman), I carried NOT the reverence of legacy with me, but with my original fascination of supreme artistic agency not to capture her subject, but to reach, represent and immortalise the human condition to find subcultural validation. What Sontag referenced as empty exploitation, my ultimate curiosity was a voice that further fingered an honest opportunism based in a surrogacy for internalisation as projected by the artist. Could this ruthless actualisation, be all that is terminal and common denominator in her work (survey show)? It fair to note that on the way there, I read An Emergency in Slow Motion, the inner life of D.A. (2011) – reference considerations to come.

I love The Breuer, mainly for the man responsible for the cold, mod building that seems to float at street level, but also for the attention to detail and design of their meticulously installed exhibitions—it is always so purposeful in its occupational psychology and layout, borderline contrived maybe, but could there be a better place for this body on display? — just like the work of Diane Arbus. The work was hung at a completely accessible height, intimate and sublimely available centered between the average height of heart and head with a warm glow that seemed to bounce just enough light off the demglass and onto the viewer to soothed abject and immediate inquiry. Each work offered a one-on-one opportunity to engage and get lost in each piece. I bought the hardbound catalogue not as souvenir and love of most of the imagery, but because I really enjoyed the weight held against my chest. It’s outward package design and darkness contained inside instantly reminded me of the Beatles, White Album. Great object!  

The following entry is a distillation, a case study of considerations of sensibilities in appreciation of mechanical image making, artistic intent and the application of an art making dynamic as extension of the artist voice in declaration of the modern mentality and self-referential product. 1) In this entry, I hope to express this investigation as subtextual inquiry of the necessary disconnect used to sustain all that is ill-resolved and ongoing in the creative process in my own studio. 2) My use of the word ‘sensibilities’ express how one might respond to aesthetic stimuli exterior to the studio-mind, execution and/or creative process. In apposite-ness, my mention of Susan Sontag is in direct reference to her insinuation unpacking the “moral standard” dividing both “taste” and response to stimuli caused by the encounter with the image as a fine art object. This may also speak to the history of the mechanical finding egalitarian consideration (at the time) on par with the acceptance of other modern art objects – painting or sculpture and even more-so extenuations precipitous of “portraiture”.

Driving Question:  If the use of ‘image’ executed in the 60’s (through a media of mechanical reproduction), is able to cause theoretical derision in perception of artistic economy and responsible, i.e. moral, application in the 70’s (Sontag), how much more is this example of paradigm implication able to edge viewer use, adopted in today’s attention deficit and addiction to unlimited access to projected perception of self-assigned sensibilities? Allow me to preface with a given: the assumption that Arbus’ work is a departure from reliance on the aesthetic modality (of her time) seeking relief of dependence on the utilitarian use or functionality of the medium. With an attempt to elevate (through portraiture) her content beyond subject (or subjects beyond content), Arbus’ work seems to offer an immediate paradox, meeting with both aspects: subject-of exploitation and an unconditional acceptance, celebration and expression to include ontological collaboration with her subjects. Many of her sitters were not at all snapshots rescued from relevance, but immortalised to represent a symbiosis that in some cases, took over a decade to mobilize (see sitter Lauro Morales).  

Backlog/bio: Born upper east side Manhattan to a successful and very busy fur fashion retailer, Diane Nemerov (pronounced dee-ann) was raised in sterile environs and removed from all that was pedestrian or common. Her brother Howard shared the childhood memory of not being allowed by their nanny to remove their white gloves as they sat in a local playground sandbox. This would hallmark in hindsight, a shared alienation and sense of cold detachment, that would drive longing to connect in her work. Said of Diane, “The world seemed to me to belong to the world….(it) …never seemed to be (of) my own experience” (Arbus, 1972; p.5). Said of her brother in his book Journal of the Fictive Life (1965), he recalls sitting for a commissioned childhood portrait with his sister, and the hired “artist’s difficulty with perspective (which) made us to appear to have shoed stumps instead of feet”, …..”there is some meaningful episode belonging to (that) portrait, which ….I am unable to (recall) because it represents something (that) I can’t look at” (Schultz, 2011; p. 49), …..he recalled this stark sentiment and their reliance in similar context with one another served as a kind of unspoken, silent bond. In this capacity for his (like her) perception of self, even mundane trappings always seemed a foreign experience. Together, they held a sort of interdependency on each other sharing this reflection of self. In short, as co-conspirator, not uncommon of siblings close in age, they valued both secrecy and shared isolation, remaining a connection by which they could depend and identify. With this, they shared detachment even in their closeness.

A capstone photo “…that reproduces Arbus’s early trauma—the sense of disconnect and aloneness, (and) the fear of disapproval” (Ibid., p. 94), see A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970. Becoming coin, her titles provide a literal description juxtaposed to an intimate moment within a series of interactions that would allow access and a window opening towards an alternate universe. On one side, the viewer is offered the solitary occasion captured in the moment itself; on the other, the artists and sitter existed in an ongoing and nurtured arrangement and a narrative unique to a dialogue in every shot. Eddie Carmel died two years following this image. He was said to be 8’9” tall at his peak, but shrunk before his degenerative demise due a condition called kyphoscoliosis. Diane met Eddie during her many hours as passive patron at sideshows on Coney Island. She relayed his “charming dream” (Schultz, 2011), was to become the world’s largest comedian. Like Carmel, those held as photographic subjects became warm and trusted characters through what Diane ultimately considered a collaborative process. A popular contrasting candidate was A Mexican dwarf in this hotel room in NYC, 1970. Lauro Morales, whom she first met at a circus in 1957, became a confidant of sorts from 1960 – 1970, he allowed multiple shoots in intimate locations. Peaceful eye contact in this image conveys a narrative that must have existed through the device. At first glance, contributing exchanges concluding in this image might seem unnecessary, but speaking toward a shared ethos making this moment belonged to both of them. Signifiers taboo and freakish portraiture at the time, her disavowed belonging to the world found her camera a portal, a pathos to an underworld. Who’s to say what she shared in her approach? “She merged with ….experiences, she became part of their experience. She formed intense affectionate bonds that lasted years.” (Schultz, p. 78).

Following her (Estate of Diane Arbus) exhibition Revelations, 2005 at The Met, a journalist was able to locate Colin Wood. Colin was The Child with a Toy Grenade, 1962. In the heat of tumultuous times (southeast Asia), a military toy with emphasis on weapons used to approximate hand to hand combat, a child stands lock-jawed, clutching his toy in one hand, the other openly clinched, arm muscles cocked in spasmed recoil, chambered and ready for battle. The stark overexposed background presents a suggested horizon line sweeping an imaginary oblique regiment approaching the little soldier. This was an internalized, imaginary battlefield. Colin’s pose seems to seek intermediate approval from Diane and his expression as banal and effortless suggests connectivity beyond her Mamiya C series. Said of Colin years later, “…Arbus felt a special empathy with that kid — with me …I was alone in many ways.” (Schultz, pg. 93); “There’s a sadness in her that she also saw in me, this need, …very big in me…to be accepted and appreciated and paid attention to. I was not directed, but there was a collusion of some kind.” Wood concludes, “Arbus sought out her own heart in people and love and sympathy in what she did, I also think (she) went down this pathway that brought her to an inconclusive place. What she ultimately found was nothing. ….a woman who was misled in many ways by herself.” (Ibid., 93). Schultz goes on to relate words from her mentor Lisette Model, “her images reflect her own personal trauma”.

In 1956, she entered The New school and studied under Model, whom she found of catalysing affect. Equipped with this image making machine, Arbus felt empowered and secure in a level of obvious detachment in approach of her subject(s), on the street, back alley, back stage, in their hotel room, the camera may have served as a neutralizing variable accepted by her subjects as an extension of her persona, just as Diane’s acceptance of their aspects of specialization. Said of Zoe Strauss, her images ..”do not emphasize the subjects aberration, but rather (their) humanity. What the world called ‘freaks’, Arbus saw as ‘aristocrats’, who had suffered and endured their worldly fate and somehow survived it.” (Orvell, p. 11). Her carefully chosen subjects seem to exist in two camps: those of abnormal context exciting on the fringe or just outside of aesthetic expectancies, and those who appeared normal, even ideal specimens, the picture perfect nucleoid of all that is aesthetically pleasing and marketable. Through the lens of Diane Arbus, one might argue both actually reside in the dark recesses of the human psyche — as haves and have nots (mainstream social capital).  

Spring of ’71, Arbus was invited into the Southern California home and back yard of Ozzy and Harriet Nelson. In this image the couple, as president and first lady of “America’s Favorite Family”- (sitcom intro), stand hip to hip, in full length portraiture fashion, smiles glowing and Harriette’s playful furrowed brow and chin lunging forward as if to say “Hey, what do you mean, we’re not perfect anymore?” (at the time, 5 years off the air). At this point, the couple has to have allowed such a sitting (for Esquire magazine) with understanding of potential art making, prefaced with no personal expectation. “For those she satirized, there was no concealing her ridicule” (Orvell, p. 12). This image was printed in the June issue, the preceding Diane’s overdose.

Before taking the name of Arbus, Diane Nemerov worked in the her fathers marketing department when a young photographer by the name of Allen caught her eye. Declared by her father, not a possible suitor, Allen and Diane secreted their relationship until her father’s eventual forfeiture. They were married from 1941 to 1969. Pre-art only mode, Diane and Allen was a dominate name in fashion photography transforming the photo pictorial as the cornerstone of NY fashion, the beast they helped to bare through photography would develop into the modern, eventuality of the supermodel industry and celebrity spectacle known as New York haute couture. Like Tansey’s take (see previous post), the capital of haute couture would shift from Paris

(1850) to New York (1950) to follow trends in fine art modality. There year following their divorce, Allen would move to Southern California to dedicate time exclusive to the other side of the camera. Following his first love (of theater) found while in high school, Allen Arbus found a run on the television series M.A.S.H. in the role of Dr. Sydney Friedman. Without using this blog as my personal psycho-analytic venue, I was drawn to this series as a child. From the opening melodic line by Johnny Mandel, Suicide is Painless, 1970, to the string of characters representative of the potential individualistic roles of eclectic characters, any viewer could tune in and immediately relate. Comedic moments in the face of war, living in tents and endless waves of trauma that promised job security to highly educated medical professionals. Using sardonic castings of camp to cope with the very real blood and gauze, intestinal clamps, colostomy bags and misguided sutures made in haste due waves of intermittent dust descending in the O.R. as caused by enemy mortar all around, survival mode leveled the proverbial to antiquate Korea with more recent Vietnam and the return of the disenfranchised patriot in ultimate recovery.  Two generations prior to the term PTSD, the prevailing atmosphere never lifted or lessened the reminder of human fragility. Complete with the incompetence of administration, the blue blooded, ivy league contemporary and even the cross-dressing Corporal Klinger, each episode seemed written with an Arbus (Diane) narrative in story board. The role played by Allen Arbus must have held my attention with each returning of 12 episodes. The last of the twelve, (as I recall), was his treatment of Hawkeye Pierce played by Alan Alda. Written in formulaic tradition, this particular series incanted the splicings of past episodes to render the cataclysmic conclusion of Hawkeye in tears, total emotional devastation. His break down came at the sound of his own words in dire recognition in retold scene(s) offering the admitted result of a near death experiences that claimed the life of an infant at the hands of its own mother. The final sacrificial act of smothering the hungry child in order to save the lives of the truck load of refugees, to include the surgeon himself. For a child, up way past my bedtime, this dark sitcom left its lasting impressions. Forgive my indulgence. 

Taken on a field trip to a newly restored property off her block as a teenager, Diane longed to talk to the strange sort loitering in adjacent doorways. Like these strangers, caught in a void of belonging to nothing, young Diane could not superficially relate, their lasting impression beckoned undeniable attention. Once introduced to the camera by her soon to be husband, and later encouragement by her mentor Lisette Model, Diane would commit countless hours returning to doorways and derelict deadens to engage with similar periphery to include social deficits and unsavory company on the fringe of literal disability. Her choice of expression came at a concession made in exchange of limited companionship with her subjects —the act of this “basic premise”…certain: “taking a picture is NOT an innocent act.” As “a record of a relationship between the photographer and the subject, ….(an) inherently unequal” symbiosis is undeniable. (Orvell, p. 11) Questions explored by Zoe Strauss in concrete expositions of humanity or access to a certain population as a public good. By economic explication, a public good requires content qualifiers as non-rivalrous and non-excludable. Arguably, it was/is possible for anyone with a camera to capture an image at large and without protest, covert or not. (At times Zoe employed a fake lens aimed in a different direction in order to capture her intended subjects.) Additionally, this agency, theoretically, is withheld by no set of enforceable standard. To be more accurate, the special populations enjoined by Arbus, was least likely to pursue the breach or failure of photo release declaration in her work, if by nothing more, her courteous exchange of time and attention paid in earnest appeal and acceptance. None could be of greater disadvantage in this capacity than subjects of August Sander (see Blind Children, 1930 -31). Introduced to her by Walker Evans, partly in his private collection, this massive catalogue entitled People of the Twentieth Century, provided both belonging and potent disassociation with the optimism of Evans’ dominate aesthetic sensibility. “Of his developing style (Evans), the photographer not only recored what he saw, but also what he felt, keeping a spiritual ‘faith in the validity of his institutions.’” (Lee and Pultz, p. 37). For Sander, his subjects held precedent as documentation of an industrialised nation and depictions of uncelebrated realities far from Washington and New York’s gilded remnants. For Evans, present at the opening of MoMA as foundations were laid, his provincial grasp of the franchise and provocative candor offered the rub of patron elbows to vest endowed commitment to the newly embossed facility. “Evans was a conventional, if well groomed bohemian.” (Ibid., 37). Ironic in that, Evan’s return from Paris, claimed genuine disgust in corporatised America. Compared to both persona and photographic prowess of Walker Evans, Arbus resembled what Schrödinger’s cat may have embodied in Sontag’s alternate universe. 

Not only were subjects in Arbus’ work described as “freaks” (by Arbus), their fulcrumisation, a deplorable departure from what Sontag considered responsible, artistic renderings in the function of a well developed oeuvre, blatantly opportunistic and sustaining the tradition of exploitative work under seedy control of the minstrel side show. This contrast very much spawned internal conflict in Sontag’s research of genuine, artistic sensibilities. “Who …better than Arbus…by profession (in fashion), a fabricator of the cosmetic lie that masks the intractable inequalities of birth and class and physical appearance.” “…her way of saying f*@k Vogue …fashion …what’s pretty.” (Sontag, On Photography, p.44). To acknowledge disruptions in sensibilities in use of her contemporaries: “Sometimes it is in the name of sophistication or of prettier lies… (to)  …developed a repertoire of paroxysmic gestures that show (her) unmistakable influence.” (Sontag, p. 105).

Arbus’ artistic dynamic is representative of an interexchange of sensibilities (to her subjects) existing on both sides of the camera. Her work may be known as transcendent, but it may also serve as direct indicators outside of paradigmatic reasoning. Originating in the visual medium which is photography and following potential derivatives, her work reaches conceptualisation of the image construed outside of self to include performative aspects purposed to reflect the maker. To acknowledge disruptions of sensibilities in use of by her contemporaries: “Sometimes it is in the name of sophistication or of prettier lies… (to a)  …developed, ..repertoire of paroxysmic gestures that show (her) unmistakable influence.” (Sontag, p. 105). Her subject practically surrogating her innermost composites of self and malaise.

If I were to extend the definition of “maker”, it would be likened unto that of a parental role. As a producer or co-author of said genetic code, mine is not to compare or contrast the masculine or famine attributes, but to acknowledge the improved-upon metaphysics existent in the exchange of being(s). Upon introduction or completion of the making process (work of art or work of biology), the ‘eye’ outside of this exchange might identify the relationship between participating role(s) and perception(s) of self, or the portraiture-sation of this process, even primordial exchange. I am uncertain if current and continued state of the human condition (in conception of self), is capable of anything more than this? I suspect the ur-selfie is at root.

Objectification of the ‘image’ can be representative of its expected functionality, Expressly through the use of portraiture as evolved convention, I pose considerations of the making of an image by Diane Arbus, as extension of ‘self’, a mask to similar affect. “Since every photograph is contingent (and thereby outside of consensual meaning, it) cannot signify…except by assuming a mask.” (Barthes, p. 34) The mutation of artistic expression causing the artist’s eye to exist through superimpositions on both sides of the machine or art making apparatus, concludes causation as inevitable forfeiture in ‘the will’ of the subject itself supplanting even the choice of the artist. Enter the exchange of ‘image’ for ‘proxy’ and/or ‘identity’ through the sublime act of reciprocation for one’s perception of self (evolution of image or avatar), one might pose said catalyst, as shifting sands on the slippery slope of technological advancement. From developer and fixer emulsion to CF card, to the algorithmic, innumerable versions of firmware updates to conceit or sustained metaphor, or image of a selfie (Oxford, 2013) — exists as action which is circumstance to variable-ise the use of portraiture, or supposed ‘identity’. Here lies the the basis of the disconnect. Broad as this may seem to paint, but the archaic (image) use of the object is still limited to perceptions of the beholder and the alacrity of the viewer confusing camp for ill-resolved superimposition contriving meaning. In today’s social extroversions through the use of smart, media applications, I wonder what is ultimately at risk?

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