We visited Spring 2022: Collected Works at the Rennie Museum this past week. A group exhibition showcasing the work of 3 photo-based contemporary artists – Katy Grannan, Larry Clark and Andres Serrano.
The palpable weight of the exhibit was heavy -oppressive – albeit enticing. I gazed freely, partaking in intimate moments lived by vulnerable people; bearing witness to friendships and communities, sharing their dark realities and the fragile humanity encased within. The photographs presented in this exhibition expose themes of violence, death, sadomasochism, addiction and xenophobia through the lens’ of these 3 diverse artists.
Katy Grannan’s work, The 99 Series, depicts honest portraits of seemingly forgotten people living in towns along Highway 99 in California. Grannan photographed her subjects against stark white backgrounds in the intense heat of the mid-day sun, intending to remove them from all context. “You didn’t need to know where they lived – it wasn’t about that – it was all about the person.” She captured the significance of their everyday rituals and interactions and displayed their dignity despite the unforgiving reality in which they live. As we engage with these portraits, we apply our own story to each, perhaps giving us an inkling of the deeper realities they live.
“It’s important that the photograph describes a particular subject, but it also has to speak to something much larger, so that the viewer has the sense of shared history; they’re portraits of all of us.” Katy Grannan
The Tulsa portfolio is a piercing confessional photographed by Larry Clark. Documenting his life from 1963 to 1971, Clark undoubtedly was inured to his environment as he unwaveringly recorded difficult moments and unsightly details without contrition. Clark started shooting amphetamine at the age of 16 and spent years photographing his friends and the lifestyle in which he was participating. This direct involvement with his subject conferred an authenticity on the work, which brought it great praise at the time. Viewing this portfolio piecemeal, as I have, is an entirely different experience than standing in front of the full breadth of the series and viewing it as one portrait. Clark’s unrelenting perspective and his exposure of raw details and harrowing moments are sobering making it painful and challenging to view. The authenticity and breadth of detail in this sombre body of work differentiated it from any others in the early 1970s and it was considered in high regard.
Andres Serrano’s work thrives off this space of challenge, as his pieces are open for interpretation and often leave room for debate, eliciting strong reactions of passion, intolerance, and violence. His subject matter, born from his interest in dissecting American culture, is always transgressive and controversial and includes dead bodies, feces, S&M, KKK and religious figurines submerged in bodily fluids. One of his most well-known pieces, Piss Christ, an image of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s own urine, still bears the damage incurred by French Catholic protestors in Avignon France. Hanging adjacent to Piss Christ are 5 pieces from Serrano’s series The History of Sex which were destroyed by neo-Nazis in Sweden using crowbars and axes. Serrano felt strongly that the slashed prints remain as is.
“It’s important because the damaged works make a statement in and of themselves. It’s a different statement than the original intent of the work, but now the work has been transformed and politicized, and it’s important for people to be able to see the works that they’ve been reading about in the paper.” Andres Serrano
The Renni characterizes the work in this show as one that “exposed lives and fomented conversations that have not always been acknowledged”. I believe this rings true. This show will be read differently by everyone, based on their subjectivity, personal experiences, and moral compass. But as a whole, it brings to the forefront a reminder of the complexities of human existence and how photography when used with purpose can open us up to wider conversations about how photography can act as a mirror to its audience and function as a medium to bring ideas forward. So often, photography today is about filters and obfuscating the truth. The work in this show is antithetical to this as it presents people authentically in their pain and vulnerability.