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PHILIP-LORCA diCORCIA

by Marlena Donohue

(PaceWildenstein, Beverly Hills) In its modern and post-modern incarnations, photography has had to sort out its two functions. The modern function (the Cartier Bresson, Alvarez Bravo, Robert Frank camp) says the photo records life, reveals a priori formal, emotional or existential truths that are inherent in real time, the viewing of which pleases, moves or improves us.

The post-modern function recognizes that in our information age, photography is a fictive medium, able to create realities, the viewing of which poses complex questions about how we think, how we ascribe meaning, how we define the real and how we inculcate norms and collective signs (enter folks like John Baldessari, Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman).

Yale grad, New York-based Philip-Lorca diCorcia came into his own as a photographer in the '70s, just as conceptual photography was finding its footing. As such, his works play in the space between representation (docu- menting) and re-presentation (commenting on the process of signification).



"William Everlove, Stockholm
via Arizona", ektacolor
print, 24"x35",1990.




"Eddie Anderson, 21, Houston,
TX", ektacolor print
mounted to 4-ply board,
25-7/8"x37-15/16", 1990.

 

A first West Coast show of his 1989-1990 Hollywood Pictures, originally included in a Museum of Modern Art exhibition, now comes to L.A. The series consists of 20 handsomely haunting ektacolor prints, measuring about 30 inches, taken of common types (in the roughest sense of the term) along Santa Monica Blvd.

By the late '80s diCorcia had made his name shooting meticulously cho-reographed scenes from daily life. The inherent oxymoronic status of staged scenes from daily life is an intended contradiction and the ironic strategy on which much of this work has been built.

Early subjects were family members and friends. In a claustrophobic shot of his brother scoping out his haggard fridge for a snack, it is easy to imagine ennui, poverty and isolation. As the image becomes a Rorschach for the viewer's (as well as the artist's) personal system of signs and symbols. In fact, diCorcia had his brother play and replay the scenario again and again, taking test shots and altering the minutest details of lighting and posture until he had manufactured the most convincing "moment in real time." So Baroque and cinematic is the stage craft here that diCorcia rigged a flash bulb in the fridge so it would go off just at the instant the door opened.


 It was just a matter of time before diCorcia found Hollywood, where created fantasies and merchandised veneers are collectively reified as real life. In the late '80s and early '90s, at the height of the NEA vs. Mapplethorp controversy, diCorcia (who was enjoying success making slick Conde Nast travel shots) applied for and re- ceived an NEA grant to do fine art work. In the prototypically transgressive stance of conceptual art, diCorcia used the federal funds to solicit and remunerate male hookers, addicts and drifters asked to pose in elaborately staged shots.

DiCorcia approached the young men, asked them what they would sell their time for, paid them from grant monies, and then took them to locations where he had worked out in strict detail the scenes that are now on view.

Besides the delicious black humor--advancing the work using funds awarded by the very government agency linked to Mapplethorp's censoring--issues like the marketing of reality, the commodification of identity, art, and indeed morality are all handsomely addressed in the project's conception even before one frame was shot.

 

"Andre Smith, 28, Baton Rouge,
LA" , ektacolor print
mounted to 4-ply board,
28-3/8"x39-5/16", 1991.


As to the pictures themselves, the scenes seem very ordinary. Many boys look less like prostitutes than homesick college kids (eg., William Charles Everlove) who got on the wrong Greyhound. Are we witnessing the persona that the gay men sell diCorcia to get their 40 bucks, or a social statement about innocence lost? Or are we simply given a fantasy completely of the artist's own making? In true conceptual fashion, Hollywood Pictures raise more queries than they answer.

DiCorcia does give you a hint, though, as to where he is headed. First, he adds to images the name tags of rap sheets followed by the price he paid, intimating artifice. Then he borrows the tricks of fabricated Hollywood stills--harsh direct lighting, figures reflected on or through surfaces, sultry poses, a distancing between subject and object--to indirectly invite us into a disquieting world most of us would rather not think about. In a way he accomplishes the same thing that another NEA "bad boy," Andres Serrano does--i.e., the images have a certain "in your face, deal with it" erotic edge. But by his very method, di Corcia makes it harder to dismiss this look at Santa Monica Blvd. as mere petulant porn.