Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

Nan Goldin exhibit showcases the need for chosen family

Posted on November 08, 2017 in Arts & Culture
By USM Free Press

Johnna Ossie

Nan Goldin’s photography is the kind of deeply personal art that makes you want to immediately sob, laugh and kiss the person closest to you. On display at the Portland Museum of Art through Dec. 31, this is the first time Goldin’s work has been shown in Maine. The last time it was shown in New England was over 20 years ago, in 1985 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.

Goldin was born in Maryland in 1953 to a middle class, suburban family, but left her home at the age of 13. Her photographs explore the LGBTQ+ subcultures of Boston, New York, Provincetown and elsewhere. Many in the LGBTQ+ community will recognize the fierceness of love, the deep intimacy, the grief of loss and bonds of friendship that Goldin displays among this chosen family of friends and lovers. The works spans from the 1970s to present day.

In three separate slideshows set to music, Goldin’s photography gives the viewer the feeling they are reading someone’s secret diary. In Scopophilia, Goldin’s juxtaposition of photographs taken in the Louvre after closing time and her own portraiture give a tenderness and emotionality to her subjects. By contrasting portraits of her friends in New York City apartments or hotel rooms with renaissance paintings of long haired, nude women in an embrace, or the close up hands and breasts of sculptures, Goldin shows a vision of love, magic and intimacy that is not easily captured through the lens.

In The Other Side, named after a gay bar in Boston that Goldin and her friends frequented, Goldin captured positive images of LGBTQ+ life that were rare to find at the time. Goldin’s photographs are raw, humanizing and poignant. Her images of drag queens not only on stage but sitting quietly in their apartments or getting ready backstage offered a lens into the community that was not easy to come by during the time she took her photographs. In Other Side, her friends sit in filthy apartments or laugh in bar booths. They picnic by the ocean or hold hands in tousled bed sheets.

Goldin offers to the viewers a chance to sit with the emotional complexity, love, grief, friendship and joy of the community in which she lived. In the background of Other Side, John Kelly sings Joni Mitchell’s, Woodstock, adding “…and I dreamed I saw the drag queens…and they found the cure for AIDS for all the nations.” Goldin photographed the LGBTQ+ community leading into and throughout the AIDS epidemic,and her photographs capture her friend’s grief, emotion and loss as they lose loved ones to AIDS. Many of the people in the photographs died of AIDS themselves.

In Goldin’s opus, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a 45-minute, 800 photograph slideshow, she exhibits moments of love, marriage, sex, domestic violence, substance use, children and friendship. In the same slideshow we see a woman cradling an infant at her breast in the bathtub and later someone injecting heroin into their arm. Goldin displays the breadth of the human condition in a way that is heart wrenching. As with most of Goldin’s work, the balance between love and anger, hard and soft, closeness and distance is on full display to the point that the viewer feels they have stumbled upon something deeply secret. It feels as though you should look away – but cannot.

Goldin’s on again, off again lover of several years, Siobhan, shows up regularly throughout this exhibit. In photographs that are almost piercingly honest, Siobhan stands nude in the shower, lies in bed or sits in a window, all the while staring straight into the camera. Goldin herself appears in the Ballad of Sexual Dependency.

Whether in a bedroom, drag bar, hospital room or water-side picnic, Goldin presents to viewers a set of photographs so moving and so rooted in the humanity of her subjects that it is easy to get lost in time while viewing her work. Goldin’s is the kind of work that reminds us that we should spend more time by the sea, holding our friend’s hands or noticing the way the light comes in through the window.

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