JTF (just the facts): A total of 17 works: 4 oil paintings, 2 mixed-media collages, 5 photographic composites (dozens of small color and/or black-and-white prints fastened to foamcore or museum board), and 6 single photographs (1 pigment print, 3 archival ink jet prints, 2 gelatin silver prints), hung against white walls in the entry area and the main and back galleries. Pieces vary in size, the largest being a diptych—Knoxville II (Homage to Brad Renfro)—in which each frame measures 48 x 96 inches. Most of the pieces are unique and framed in wood. The 6 single photographs are mounted here without frames and come in editions of 3+1AP. One of the single photographs dates to 1961 (print is 2014) while the majority of the composite works were assembled between 2011-2014. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: No one knows what to make of Larry Clark anymore. Who hasn’t wondered why the 71 year-old photographer has maintained the same voyeuristic obsessions that he exhibited in his infamous twenties? Isn’t it long past time for an artist who qualifies for an AARP card to discover new themes besides the perennial buff young men and women shooting hard drugs and having rasty sex?
Then again, as with Charles Bukowski’s unapologetic portrait of himself as a skeevy boozehound or Balthus’s painting and photographing nubile girls into his nineties, Clark’s willingness to ignore the scolds and advertise his immaturity reflects a set of principles, however skewed. Given the pressures to be a useful cog in America’s machinery, his refusal to be a responsible adult—if that would mean being alienated from his crazy teenage self—can seem valiant, particularly at this stage of his life. By documenting 50 years (and counting) of reckless or self-destructive behavior, he is making sure we don’t forget that every generation since the 1950s has been fascinated by sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Mick Jagger is almost Clark’s age and his stage persona isn’t too mature and sensible either.
Entertainment stars and rabble-rousers as their powers diminish, however, shouldn’t keep trying to hit the same notes and expect their weaker voices will continue to lift audiences out of their seats. For whatever reason, either because Clark is more consumed these days by his film projects or because he isn’t certain anymore what to photograph except his outrageous standbys, this disappointing show has only a couple of hits that will remind fans why they have admired him in the past.
Although much of the work here was done in the last two years, as if to meet a deadline, two of his earliest photographs are also in the mix. Taken in 1961 with his mother’s Rolleiflex, they are black-and-white portraits of male friends. One of them, wearing a scowl and an Elvis coif, is posed in dappled light against a house, much the way that Clark posed another young man here in a 2014 photograph, this time in color. The other friend from 1961 also has his hair gassed back and stands in a backyard holding up a photograph in a book. He is unsmiling and inscrutable behind a pair of sunglasses, a future artist or wise guy.
Biographic curiosities, the pictures indicate that Clark at an early age ran with the bad boys. By his own admission, he was into amphetamines as a Tulsa lad, and to judge from the looks of his pals when he was 18, he shared with them a pride in being an outcast who didn’t often attend Sunday school.
The other news headline here is that he is exhibiting for the first time his oil paintings. The four 2014 examples–three of a naked teen named Jonathan and one self-portrait–are more than competent. The boy’s taut muscled torso is drawn with unprurient skill against three different color backgrounds (blue, yellow, red.) Clark portrays himself more sketchily, as hairy, crude, bear-like, no longer young, but unafraid to stare in the mirror. (He attended art school in Milwaukee during the 1960s and may have learned to draw there.)
Those worried that too much sex on the brain has retarded his artistic development have supportive evidence in two large 2014 pieces titled Self-portrait with tan….Each is composed from three dozen or so close-ups of male genitals. The cocks and balls on display, a few erect but many more lazily at rest, are obviously not those of a 71-year old man. (Is he wishing that he were as virile and toned?) If he is making the point that even the most erotic objects when dully repeated are unerotic, he has succeeded. As with Teenage Lust, the photographer never fails to find willing surrogates for his hard-core explorations.
More troubling (and boring) are two giant 2012 tributes to Brad Renfro titled Knoxville. Designed to memorialize the actor and musician who overdosed on cocaine in 2008 at the age of 25, they are made up of dozens of snapshots from that year. In many of them he faces the camera, smiling or posing with his grandmother. But other photos reveal his ravaged body and trash-strewn surroundings, and a select few show him putting a needle in his arm.
Clark planned to cast Renfro in Bully, a movie about potheads. While visiting the actor at his home in Knoxville, the director was appalled by the depraved state of his leading man and sought help. Renfro died despite Clark’s efforts to help him get clean. The director went so far as to drive his star to Florida and escort him to 12-step meetings.
It can’t have been easy to recover from a shocking death so close at hand. The four-year gap between the photographs from Knoxville and the final assemblage suggests that Clark wasn’t sure about a proper response. He probably should have taken more time. Neither piece has emotional rawness or intricacy and depends too much on our knowing that Renfro overdosed. Adding drops of blood (Clark’s, I sincerely hope) to the background only compounds the ghoulish kitschiness of what is meant to be a heartfelt farewell.
Clark’s doesn’t miscalculate as badly with his photo collages and one example from 2010, I want a baby before u die, is the most pointed work in the show. Among its many elements is a large-format Polaroid of a woman’s mons veneris where the name “Larry,” tattooed in blue ink, is visible beneath her pubic hair. This photograph of “real life” dominates the left side of the piece which also features a reproduced Botticelli portrait of a youth; magazine portraits of Andy Warhol, Howdy Doody, Marilyn Monroe and Lindsey Lohan (“I like to think of myself as sexy, my breasts have been a really big hit” reads the pull quote); an L.A. Times headline and a New Yorker cover; a pair of two-dollar bills; an invitation to a Martin Kippenberger opening; a strip of photographs of two prison inmates rough-housing; and hand-written messages such as, “Let me tell you something about women: they’re all crazy and they want to fuck their fathers.”
We are left to guess which elements of the piece may be autobiographic. Clark has two adult children and the untold potential for human disaster, his own and others near to him, exists as a theme from his earliest days. As with Keith Richards, it’s amazing he isn’t dead.
That he hasn’t heeded the warnings of his critics and begun to act his age must mean that Clark thinks his vitality as an artist is inseparable from his contact with the young. He may be right. No living photographer except Robert Frank has been as influential on more hipster subcultures. To strung-out fashionistas, waifish skateboarders, to the X-Games and “Jackass” crowd that prefers risky to safe choices, and to cheap and dirty filmmakers everywhere, Clark’s has been the father figure who didn’t preach to his wayward children. Just because in this show he is looking in the rear-view mirror at his life, noting a few of the casualties he has passed on the side of the road, doesn’t mean that we can expect him ever to be too introspective. Being a teenager never gets old for Larry Clark.
Collector’s POV: Prices for the works in this show range between $20000 for the single photographs to $185000 for the large composites. Clark’s work is consistently available in the secondary markets, especially prints from Tulsa and Teenage Lust. Single images have typically ranged between roughly $1000 and $10000 (with a few outliers higher), while full portfolios have commanded between $30000 and $70000.