At Portland Museum of Art, Nan Goldin embraces the transgressive
PORTLAND, Maine — It’s ridiculous even to try singling out a particular moment in a work that covers seven years and includes 700 images and multiple songs. It’s even more ridiculous when the work has become as canonical as Nan Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” To describe “Ballad” as a slide show, which it is, is like describing an orgy as a social event: accurate so far as it goes but going nowhere near far enough.
“Ballad” is one of three extensive photographic projects that make up “Nan Goldin,” which runs at the Portland Museum of Art through Dec. 31. The others are “The Other Side” (1995), which takes its name and much of its setting from a Bay Village bar she frequented in the ’70s, and “Scopophilia” (2010), a term that means deriving pleasure from looking. It juxtaposes images from Goldin’s work with paintings from the Louvre. All three are presented as slide shows, with still images from each also in the exhibition. “Ballad” gets an additional alcove, devoted to print iterations. Seeing a maquette for the book (1986) is a real kick.
“Ballad” takes its title from a song in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “The Threepenny Opera.” Like “Opera,” Goldin’s work blends the louche and dangerous: bohemianism with a switchblade. Mack the Knife meets Nan the Lens. The images are a visual diary, at once fond and unflinching, that chronicles Goldin’s life on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and points beyond between 1979 and 1986. It’s a milieu of New Wave rock, considerable drug use, artistic aspiration, and pre-AIDS sex. The photographs have a snapshot, on-the-fly aesthetic, which adds to their sense of immediacy — and menace. They’re pages from a family album interrupted by mug shots.
Goldin began assembling the photographs as a slide show, presenting them to friends and then later to public audiences, a cross between exhibition and performance. The show is transfixing. The accompanying music has a lot to do with that. The score ranges from Maria Callas to the Velvet Underground. Goldin’s ears are as hungry as her eyes. All those public presentations gave Goldin the opportunity to refine the interplay of sight and sound — she was touring her musical before taking it to Broadway — and the results are spectacularly effective.
One particularly sly pairing of image and song brings us back to that singled-out moment mentioned above. The song is Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” The recording is highly infectious (try, try to resist those churchy piano chords at the opening) but about as hip as avocado toast minus the avocado. Ah, but downtown — as state of mind — that’s where Goldin and her subjects planted their flag. In that context, the song becomes a cheerfully clunky self-aware anthem. Even better, in one of the images seen as the song plays we observe a half-dozen bohos intent on a Monopoly board. What could be more humdrum, more just-like-everybody-else average?
The juxtaposition is funny and sweet and, for those very reasons, a bit jarring. But it’s not unexpected. Here Goldin and Brecht-Weill crucially diverge: “Ballad” also includes the domestic and familial. It’s not just the cultural family of artists and musicians. It’s literal family, too. Besides people shooting up and clubbing and sleeping together, we also see (admittedly, less often) babies and errands being run and, yes, a Monopoly game. That dude with sideburns and bleached pompadour and needle tracks? He just might turn up a hundred slides later pushing a stroller.
Candor and sordidness are what jumps out about “Ballad.” But the longer you look, what you notice is a kind of fullness. The transgressive can be as much a part of life as taking a bath or visiting your parents (both of which figure in “Ballad”).
Born in 1953, Goldin grew up in Lexington and graduated from what is now the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts. “The Other Side” offers a kind of Boston prototype for “Ballad.” There are obvious differences. Black and white predominates in “Other.” There’s a smaller cast of characters. “Ballad” really does suggest the novelistic richness, if not the morality, of a Victorian three-decker novel. And the slide show is 15 minutes, as opposed to the 45 minutes for “Ballad.”
What unites them is “creating a history by recording a history” (Goldin’s words) and a refusal to offer any sort of judgment. Goldin accepts each world as naturally as a bird accepts the sky and with a comparable sense of liberation. It would be strange otherwise, since she’s a part of each world.
Disapproving Globe news stories from back in the day refer to The Other Side as a “gay bar.” Goldin terms it “gender euphoric,” a description both far less limiting and far more evocative. This is a realm of drag queens and sexual rebels (or at least experimenters), where to pose is to be. What better environment for a photographer than one in which posing is a defining activity of daily existence?
Goldin takes the viewer backstage, so to speak, except there is no backstage: Everything is stage, whether at the bar or away from it; and the sense of relaxed, matter-of-fact excess throughout is at once inviting and exhilarating. As with “Ballad,” Goldin reminds us that living outside the mainstream is just as much life as living behind a white picket fence. So along with the drag queens and other dubious sorts we also get a sunny dual portrait like “The Sisters” or “Picnic on the Esplanade, Boston,” from 1973.
However distantly, Goldin’s photograph recalls Manet’s then-shocking 1863 painting “Déjeuner sur l’herbe.” Goldin’s interest in painting and art history inspired “Scopophilia.” There are a lot more bared breasts and outré goings-on in these Old Master paintings than in Goldin’s photographs — and Goldin’s photographs have a lot of bared breasts and outré goings-on. It’s amazing what a mythological reference and a gilt frame can do for respectability. Transgression is no less transgressive for being shown, but in being shown — whether with oil paint or photographic chemicals — it can appear far more natural, or at least frequent, than one might think.
Goldin recognized from the outset how endlessly interesting cusps are. In her work, the cusp has been sociological and cultural: between conformity and license. Also at Portland is “Child’s Play: Representations of Adolescence,” and the cusp visible in its 28 photographs has to do with age and endocrinology. The show runs through Dec. 17.
There are photographers here you might expect (Sally Mann, Jill Krementz), and others you likely wouldn’t. Ansel Adams’s “Graduation Dress,” from 1948, does have a big tree next to the young woman wearing the title garment. An untitled Ralph Eugene Meatyard from 1960 shows two boys standing in an overgrown yard. That’s it, but the questions raised are immense and unanswerable: Who? Why? Where? Adolesence is like that.
CHILD’S PLAY: Representations of Adolescence
At Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland, Maine, through Dec. 31 and Dec. 17, respectively. 207-775-6148, www.portlandmuseum.org