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Anthony Goicolea

at Vedanta V-1, through October 14

Laura Letinsky: Morning, and Melancholia

at Carol Ehlers, through October 14

By Fred Camper

When Anthony Goicolea first picked up a camera in art school, he photographed himself: the reason, he told me, was that he would always be available as a model. A painter who moved in 1994 from Georgia to New York City (where he still lives) to attend Pratt as a grad student, he made himself do things for these shots "that weren't very comfortable"--stuffing toilet paper in his mouth, for example. But he also acknowledges that "it was a totally narcissistic thing." Today Goicolea has pushed his self-portraiture even further by building sets and photographing multiple scenes with images of himself, collaged together digitally and printed out on large sheets of photo paper. Six of the seven photographs at Vedanta V-1 show multiple Goicoleas.

Several factors rescue this work from garden-variety art school self-absorption. Though 29, Goicolea can almost pass for a boy, a quality he told me he uses to explore "that period of 8 to 16 when you're aware of what sex is but are not really equipped to do anything with that information." The fact that he's his own model allows him to create sexually suggestive scenes that would be exploitive if he were using child models. He also refers to our culture's "cult of youth," remarking that there's no real rite of passage for men.

Goicolea's staged self-portraits suggest a fusion of Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall, and indeed he acknowledges both as influences. But what really gives his work its power is its fusion of charm and chaos--the former, perhaps, recalling some of Sherman's self-portraits while the latter can certainly be found in some of Wall's staged shots. In Goicolea's work, scenes that seem to represent fantasies fulfilled are at the same time falling apart, their fragile illusions revealed as fabrications. Saying he wants to "take narcissism to the next level" by interacting with himself, Goicolea presents multiplying clones, acknowledging that theme with all the subtlety of a tabloid headline. At the same time, these photos won't fool anyone. Despite Goicolea's different hair colors, it's clear these are collages of the same person; despite elaborate sets, it all looks quite artificial. Even on a narrative level, something isn't quite right--these boys are almost out of control. It's no surprise that Goicolea expresses an interest in horror movies: his characters seem about to morph into monsters.

A number of things are incongruous in the black-and-white Whisper, in which one boy appears to be whispering to another in a bedroom. The stuffed animals in the background suggest these are young children, but the hair on their legs suggests puberty. The whisperer, looking "offstage" and elaborately cupping his hand, looks like a bad actor pretending to whisper. The boys touch each other's legs in a gesture that might be sexual, but the arm positions are a little strange, and one arm is far too long to be real. Is this an actual scene, as it first appears to be, or is it a digital confection, a Photoshop fantasy?

Morning After is a bit more plausible: three blonds stand against an ivy-covered wall looking a bit debauched in the usual self-conscious teenage manner. One sports lipstick on his collar; another has three hickeys. Their shirts bear the crest of some private school, and an imposing wall with turrets recedes toward some trees on the right. Several elements remove this piece from the realm of documentary, however. Here the boys look like identical triplets, in itself quite unusual; each boy's pose is a little different in a manner that seems too perfectly planned, as if the intent were to present a tiny but exact inventory of variations. Finally, the open space to the right establishes a kind of visual rupture, making the ivy-covered wall seem a theater backdrop, which creates a stage on which Goicolea can play out his fantasies. The size of Morning After--at ten feet wide it's the largest of these large-format images--contributes to the sense of spectacle.

Boys' Room also explores teen sexuality, as four boys ready themselves for a formal dance against the somewhat creepy background of a wall of urinals. In a stall to the right, a boy in an embarrassingly loud plaid jacket pins a corsage on another--the most normal of the three actions shown, though the corsage pinner has pricked his finger. A boy in the background, apparently trying to dry his hands, has unrolled a ridiculously long expanse of towel; in front of him, a blond is kissing his own image in a mirror.

In Porn, the most chaotic and incongruous of these pictures, four apparently preteen Goicoleas lounge in a family room littered with beer bottles. At left, one stuffs his face with cheese puffs while eagerly watching a lesbian scene on TV; nearby video boxes suggest that he might be viewing Big Tit Bonanza. To the right a boy signs the cast on another's leg while in the right foreground the fourth, slightly out of focus, looks down toward his crotch.

The parents are away and the boys are at play, not doing anything all that unusual. But the scene's highly artificial setting--a room with an utterly fake "den" look, stuffed moose head on a side wall and huge faux-picture-window view of a lake on the rear wall--forms an antiseptic contrast to the boys' actions, which seem oddly authentic: at least they're following their animal natures rather than paying phony homage to nature. Similarly, one of the two sleeping boys in Bedwetters has peed while the other has apparently drooled, unconsciously rebelling against civilization's strictures.

Goicolea's work is partly about himself, but he doesn't try to make himself look good the way a simple narcissist might. Rather, these scenes express his wish for an extended boyhood and his celebration of boys' baser instincts--not only their sexuality but their gluttony--in the context of a materialist civilization that tries to both tame and exploit those drives. At the same time the work acknowledges that these wishes can be fulfilled only through the construction of illusions.

Goicolea's spaces seem not only filled with but almost infected by his presence. By comparison Laura Letinsky's 16 untitled 20-by-24-inch color photographs at Carol Ehlers seem almost pristine. Though her subject is the remains of meals--dirty plates, tables with wilting flowers and abandoned fruit--her mostly white surfaces have a cleanliness, a purity, that a few crumbs and stains can't disrupt. But what's most interesting about these works is their implied humanity--their hints at moments in a unique existence, their sensuous suggestion of human presence. The whites of tablecloths and countertops are subtle and delicate, containing faint hints of other colors; the fragments of food and flowers reflect the messy, imperfect lives of the diners. Like the great 19th-century American trompe l'oeil still lifes of Harnett and Peto, these images hint at narrative, though less explicitly.

Letinsky--who's 38, was born and raised in Winnipeg, and now teaches at the University of Chicago--told me that the present series grew out of an earlier project to photograph couples (the book that resulted, Venus Inferred, can be seen at the gallery). Influenced by feminist theory, she intended to "foreground the woman as the main protagonist." But photographing couples in their homes, often naked, she also started to notice "the space that people construct for themselves--the particularity of the sheets, the silverware, the furniture, the clothing."

The title of the present show makes a joking reference to the famous Freud essay "Mourning and Melancholia." Letinsky also mentions as an influence "Barthes' idea of the photograph as a memory device, a kind of holding on to something that can't be held onto, the photo as an object of mourning. But it is a melancholic object because what you're holding onto is an inadequate substitute for the real thing, necessitating a repetition compulsion."

Goicolea and Letinsky both allude to the glut of images in our culture, Goicolea with his clones, Letinsky (who was also once a painter) with her obsessive repetition of scenes of meals past. And both acknowledge an inherent incompleteness in their images: Goicolea allows their artificiality to show, and Letinsky refers to earlier, undepicted moments. Indeed, the petals fallen from table flowers give many of Letinsky's images the feeling of little memorials. One of these (number 3 on the checklist) centers on the petals of pink peonies, which have fallen onto a tablecloth from a cup holding the flowers.

Another (number 5) is far more carefully arranged: four apples sit on a white tablecloth, two of them outlandishly near its corners. But just as prominent is an incongruous electrical cord on the floor. Letinsky plays with the boundary between "natural," unmanipulated compositions and "arranged" scenes--a central issue in photography that Goicolea's stagings approach from a different direction. Everything in Letinsky's work, even the crumbs, has a perfected, controlled, almost under-glass quality: the human presence distilled in a few key markers.

Letinsky's inclusion of casual elements within her precise compositions also causes one to ask questions about the stories behind her images: Was this meal, for example, followed by lovemaking? One wonders why the sliced apples in one photo (number 8) were never eaten, and for how much longer the cut surfaces will oxidize. The dead bugs on the table don't make these fragments any more appetizing. And why was that little sliver of cheese left on the plate in another photo (number 11)? The plate itself doesn't lie flat, balanced as it is on a cutting board and one end of a knife; similarly, the three small dishes in a third photo (number 16) don't sit evenly on the table. This picture also shows a vase with wilting flowers at the upper left corner of the tablecloth, but how did fallen petals come to mix with crumbs at the lower center?

Letinksy's delicacy of color and texture further differentiates her work from Goicolea's. Rarely have inanimate surfaces looked so much like human skin: in the photograph of a sink (number 12), the porcelain surface shows a hint of pink here and there. A single dirty plate and two forks lie at the bottom of the sink, while a few cups and some lemon slices sit on the countertop to the left. Why two forks? Like the petals lying where they couldn't have fallen or the three small plates lying askew, these forks suggest a mystery at the heart of the scene, or perhaps it's all been staged. Like the proliferating Goicoleas, but much more modestly, the two forks remind us of Stan Brakhage's remark about cinema in his film Blue Moses--that there's a filmmaker behind every scene.

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