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Neil Flavin, Miss USA pageant

 

More Than One: Andrea Rosen Gallery • New York, New York

by Sari Carel

 

Using the subject of the human group as a point of departure, curator John Connelly takes us on an ambitious ride through a loose string of images from the last hundred years or so. Ranging from vintage prints by anonymous photographers to glamorous shots by Gigli, the show looks hardly like a survey of any sort. It is more of an occasion to realize again, in case we forgot, what there is to really love and relish about photography.

 

Looking at a Weegee shot of Coney Island beach, an endless sea of sun bathers look right back at you. Spilling beyond the limits of the frame, those in the front of the scene acknowledge the photographer with a relaxed and approving gaze, hardly disturbed or bothered by the presence of the documenting lens. Neil Flavin’s photos from the ‘70s of organizations, clubs, and professional groups, reveal the quirks and eccentricities which flourish in the midst of a huge, seemingly homogenous, American society. Some of the happy subjects include a “Lose Weight Now” camp in Tahoe, “The International Twin Association”, “The Electrolux Vacuum Sales Convention” and a “Mr Brooklyn Contest”. These and many other microcosms,  joined together in an instance of solidarity, even if just for a brief period of time, pose before Flavin’s non judgmental lens, beaming as their identity is validated and honed by the group. Flavin has such a good nose for the pleasantly perverse, and for revealing the outlandish in  the mainstream. This talent travels well and smoothly through his diverse endeavors. These are not your average images of marginality, say of a Samoan drag queen shooting up in a yellowishly lit hole-in-the wall in Hell’s Kitchen. Yet they layout in front of our eyes how strange, awkward, and ill fitting people naturally are, while celebrating this fundamental fiction of adequacy and belonging for what it is. As a result, these photos are irresistible and florid images tinged with lush tackiness.

 

That streak of the slightly grotesque glimmers even in the most glossy, formal, or fashionable images in the show. In a Richard Avedon larger-than-life group photo of Allen Ginsburg and his family, vaguely portraying a staged afternoon soiree, the diverse group of giant family members looms over the viewer, almost tumbling out of the paper they are printed on. In a Clegg and Guttmann photo titled the art consultants, a group portrait is staged in the best tradition of European painting and what it endorses. The guild-like projection of a society of professionals gives a veneer of gloss and virtue to the fact human communication is primarily marked, as well as defined, by currency exchange. The photograph, as artifice, reflects the constructed nature of the image of those in it. James Van Der Zee’s pictures from the ‘20s and ‘40s of group portraits commissioned by various organizations and institutions, show a dignified and flamboyant diversity in the Harlem community. In that they mirror a preoccupation with identity and its initiation stages.

 

Some of the most wondrous images in the show are photos of mass human formations, circa 1917, of various American icons such as a profile of Woodrow Wilson or a human US shield. This patriotic enterprise, produced by Mole & Thomas, created meticulous images with the minute orchestration of thousands of men (21,000 in Woodrow’s case and 30,000 comprise the shield). These images were made in order to be photographed, since only through the photograph can the image survive the instability of its components (Mole & Thomas had to use military men, since civilians did not possess the discipline or the endurance for performing in such lengthy and elaborate collaborations). There is a fascinating tension between the clarity of the image, its beauty lying within its fragile complexity, and the necessary obliteration of any stringent of individuality, in order to keep the image intact, successful, powerful, and convincing. These turn of the century patriotic projects make a crystal clear and brilliant emblem of the politics at play. This is the rhetoric of “the group”, which in Flavin’s work is marginalized and problematized. Or in Olaf Breuning’s photo, princess,   this rhetoric is turned inside out, and shifted once more into the realm of Pop culture and role play. Role play being, the final yet sometimes overlooked ingredient, essential to the existence of “the group”.

Richard Avedon, AllenGinsberg's Family, Patterson, New Jersy, May 3rd, 1970, vintage silver print

“More Than One” is definitely not your typical New York Summer show. A breezy but well thought out curatorial effort, which leaves out of the gallery nagging tendencies such as making juxtapositions and connections which are mere illustrations of a somewhat imposing theoretical dialectic.

 

There are no recipes for doing a good job of placing one image next to the other. Nonetheless, “More Than One”, immerses you in the tasty magic that coagulates between one picture, and another, and another.

 

Sari Carel

New York, New York

2001

 

 

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