Past blast: Goldin likes to look

During a recent tour of the UVA Art Museum’s show, “Excavating New Ground: American Art in the 1970s,” curator Andrea Douglas observed that what may be radical and extraordinary in the moment often appears unremarkable in retrospect. And perhaps that’s the problem with Nan Goldin’s “Scopophilia,” currently on view at Second Street Gallery as part of Look3: Festival of the Photograph.

Goldin gained fame in the 1980s for her intimate, no-holds-barred photographs of her New York City friends— cross-dressing, having sex, doing drugs, coping with AIDS, and smoking, always smoking. Perhaps her most celebrated image is a self-portrait of her bruised face following a beating by her then husband. At the time, Goldin’s art was raw and transgressive. But viewed through the lens of 2011, saturated with reality TV, “sexting,” and internet porn, it all seems rather normal, more noticeable for the camera’s being out-of-focus than for its prurient content. 

But that is not the point of “Scopophilia,” which is a Greek term for an obsessive love of looking, as Goldin explains in her short (though not short enough) film, screening in SSG’s Dové Gallery. The project arose from an ecstasy Golden experienced while photographing the paintings and sculptures in the Louvre alone at night.

In her film, Goldin juxtaposes images of classical artwork with her own photographs to highlight that the same gestures, physical traits, and social and sexual relationships perpetually attract the artist’s eye. Her accompanying narration of relevant Greek myths about looking, beauty, and pleasure is interesting, but the footage becomes like a laundry list: images of hair, images of water, images of veils, images of men, images of women with women, images of children— you get the picture(s).

Fifteen photographs glimpsed in Goldin’s film hang in SSG’s main gallery. Several are striking for their painterly compositions, such as “Amanda on my Fortuny, Berlin, 1993,” which depicts a peach-skinned nude lying on a couch draped with a silver-patterned orange tapestry. Others seem merely ordinary, including two of couples coupling, which surprise only with their lack of surprise. A third sex scene, “Joana and Aurele Making Out in My Apartment, NYC, 1999,” fares better, thanks to the beautiful play of light.

The photographs in “Scopophilia” represent neither new work nor iconic Nan Goldin images; rather they are pictures an assistant salvaged from her archive of slides. As such, they are simply work— perhaps at one time extraordinary, but now without the “extra.” 

Presented by Look3: Festival of the Photograph, Nan Goldin’s exhibtion, “Scopophila” is on view through June 25 at Second Street Gallery, 115 Second St. SE.  977-7284.