Philip-Lorca diCorcia, A Storybook Life, 164 pp., Twin Palms, $80.
"A Storybook Life" is a sequence of 75 color photographs, beginning with a close-up of Philip-Lorca diCorcia's somewhat overweight father resting on a bed, with a teddy bear next to him (suggesting the second childhood of senility), and ending with a long shot of his father in a coffin, arranged for viewing in a funeral parlor overloaded with flowers.
Between this morbid, vaguely grotesque alpha and omega, many other people appear in diCorcia's autobiographical narrative -- some seem more personally meaningful than others -- but the photographs are less about people than they are about places, as their titles suggest. Hartford (where his father lived and died), Singapore, New York, Ouarzazte, Salonika, Los Angeles, Wellfleet -- to mention a few of them. Virtually all were visited more than once (Hartford ten times), and seem to be more intimately known than the people: even when the people are seen in intimate situations, it is the setting and space that seem to matter more than they do. No doubt people are important to diCorcia, but even when they loom large, they seem incidental to the environment.
DiCorcia's voyage through life has taken him to many places, each with as much personality as the people he visits. Indeed, the places often seem much more interesting, visually and emotionally -- inherently interesting, not just interesting because of diCorcia's involvement with the people who live there. For diCorcia, the environment seems perpetually unfamiliar -- each time he visits a place, he discovers something new in it, or sees it in a different light and from a different angle, making it seem fresh and unexpected, often oddly unreal however real -- while the people fade into static familiarity and self-sameness.
#59 makes the point succinctly: the pleasantly smiling young woman, reclining on a bed, is a narrow slice of bright light in a threatening dark space. However welcoming, she does nothing to dispel the discomforting darkness. Also seen through an open door, the people in #29 seem secondary to the gray subway car they sit in. It casts a pall on the space, almost overwhelming the light in the car. The indifference of the environment has infected them: they seem blind to the larger-than-life image of the beautiful cat -- clearly a symbol of life -- visible through the window behind them.
Similarly, the man in the luminous room of #45 is a minor event in the gathering gloom, as indifferent to his existence as the pitched roofs of the houses are to the life of the surrounding trees. The man asleep with his head on the table in #61 is closer to us, but he is also only an obvious detail in a complicated, blurry scene, less easily comprehensible than he is. The woman breakfasting in bed in #20 is less colorful and more boring than her surroundings. The cluttered room with the loving young couple in #36 is more intriguing and complex than they are -- just as the bedroom and funeral parlor in diCorcia's photographs of his father are much more interesting than he is.
Like the seaweed-strewn beach in #35, the crowded rooms have a bizarre, charismatic presence of their own. Again and again diCorcia brings out the strangeness in seemingly ordinary environments and the ordinariness in apparent strangers. They may have created the environments in which they live, suggesting that the environments are a kind of self-portrait, but they have an inner life of their own. They exist in and for themselves, independently of the human beings who inhabit them -- human beings who sometimes seem to contaminate or impinge on their space.
Sometimes the environment seems to dwarf the people -- conspicuously in #42, an Egyptian night scene in which a dark pyramid looms over a man on a motorcycle, threatening his machine with ancient history. Sometimes it seems to swallow them up, as in #25: the car is a vulnerable trace of human presence in an inhuman, almost lifeless desert. The baby resting on the earth in #30 holds its own in the anonymous space of nature, but it is even more vulnerable than the people in the automobile. Luminous in pure white, it is a triumph of life, but a short-lived triumph, as the gathering shadows suggest.
So is the body of the nude in #47, but her worn face suggests an unhappy life, and the white of the smooth bathtub is more luminous than her skin, which will wrinkle and crease. It is an erotic image, but also an image of fragility and mortality. She is not obviously sick, as the man in #63 and #64 seems to be, but just as isolated and ingrown, and thus less seductive than she might be at first glance. Her sexuality is secondary to her vulnerable position. If this is the "male gaze," it is compromised by a sense of the loneliness of the person it is gazing at.
There is a subtle pathos in many of diCorcia's photographs. #67, the picture of a man, seen from the back, in a bleak public passageway, is a superb example. His isolation is all the more stark because of the large, bright space. Indeed, many of diCorcia's people are isolated in space, as though arbitrarily thrown into it -- finite fragments of human life in seemingly infinite spaces, which however humanized, seem indifferent to them. Signs of the infinite abound: a path crosses the park, going from nowhere to nowhere, and the passageway is a path to an even more clean, well-lit nowhere. In the beach scenes, the sea's edge often cuts across the sand, forming a moving horizon that stretches beyond the picture.
The insular couple in #34 are no different than the man in #67, however less lonely: they also are abandoned in space. It is the manicured natural environment of the park rather than the completely manufactured environment of the passageway. The park is more user-friendly than the dehumanized passageway -- not even a "humanizing" advertisement on the wall -- but the grass is parched, and the space almost as bleak. Nonetheless, both environments will remain long after the people who have passed through them are gone.
The point is made with poignant clarity in #53: the golden arch of McDonald's and the golden Shell gas station sign loom out of the dark landscape -- distant, ironical traces of human presence and modern life on the run -- but the landscape is likely to be around after the signs have burned out. (Unless, of course, it becomes the site of a housing development. The view suggests it might. But then, as Robert Smithson suggested, nature will always reclaim itself.)
DiCorcia is probably projecting his own sense of being a transient visitor in spaces that no matter how familiar -- no matter how many times he sees and studies them -- always feel peculiarly foreign and incomprehensible. And profoundly -- relentlessly -- indifferent. Indeed, the uncanny indifference of the environment suggests human tragedy to diCorcia: the well-dressed man in #69 is tragic not because he has fallen -- tripped on the anarchistically uneven sidewalks of Manhattan -- and lost his dignity, but because nobody is around to help him up. The surrounding urban environment is unconcerned with his fate.
DiCorcia's images of children and mothers and fathers and bathers, often naked children of nature, as in #26 -- the life-giving return to nature is a recurrent theme -- hold their own against the more insidious images, but the latter seem more memorable and evocative than the former. The frog in #33 is a mirage of life, like the infant dripping saliva in #57. The aura of light on both creatures -- each in a state of nature -- suggests their miraculous presence.
But it is a dreamlike, momentary presence: the frog will soon disappear into the water, the infant's mother will carry it away into the bright world beyond the shadowy boardwalk that shelters them. Soon it will join society, and grow up to be another commonplace adult. DiCorcia shows the radiant dream of innocent life, but also, more often, the rude awakening into engulfing everydayness: the triumph of social banality -- and time -- over natural spontaneity and aliveness.
A great many photographs present the environment as such, revealing it to be an abstract construction whatever its psychosocial -- human -- import. It is diCorcia's sensitivity to formal reality that makes him a master photographer, whatever the narrative content of his images. He is an aesthete, perhaps despite himself. He brings out the sensuous depth -- the vital colors, dramatic lines and quirky beauty -- of even the most ordinary phenomena: food in the freezer of a refrigerator (#39), Christmas gifts in a living room (#24). Abstract esthetics lurks in everyday appearances, alleviating the banality of the environment and finally redeeming it.
The sprawling urban highway complex in #55 is a brilliant planar construction, involving multiple contrasting geometries. So is the scene in #31: it is an intricate, oddly absurd arrangement of contrasting shapes and textures -- most conspicuously a rusting giant white satellite disk and an immaculate octangular wooden bench -- existing in their own abstract right, whatever the scene tells us about human society, preaching communication and togetherness but inventing new wastelands. Planarity also rules, and seems responsible for, the bleak worlds of #67 and #34: the figures themselves are planar patches in the corners of an immense flatness, if much more colorful and so less brutally flat than it.
The panoramic, awe-inspiring view of New York in #51 shows the same split consciousness: the city is a dazzling display of interlocking planes, some in shadow, some glaring in the sunlight, but the high rise buildings seem like hollow capitalist shells, especially in comparison to the ornate foreground church. It is a proud sacred structure that barely holds its own in the profane urban space, however tall it stands. The skyscrapers are a glamorous commercial facade hiding an inner void, indeed, a social stage that cannibalizes those who perform on it.
A similar sense of bold, deserted modern space -- wide open but not exactly a place to put down roots -- is dramatically evident in the factory-like space in #58. Modern space is centerless -- it has no core: the avenue below the buildings and the raised car in the garage are false, nominal centers -- at best ironical off-centers in limitless space, essentially a homogeneous grid however differentiated the objects placed in it.
The human talent for turning the natural environment into a wasteland is suggested by the household litter in #62. #60 is the picture par excellence of a Cubist-Minimalist wasteland -- a marginal industrial space, adjoining an elevated highway, with no sign of human presence (not even cars), apart from the schematic figure in the pedestrian crossing sign. Just as there's a token figure, there's a token fledgling tree, planted in concrete. It is no competition for the hydra-headed lamppost on its concrete base. This is the ultimate modern -- and modernist -- space: a sort of bankrupt sublime space, not unlike the elegantly bleak white cube of art gallery fame.
Thus the dehumanization of art that Jose Ortega y Gasset spoke of is ironically complete in a sited structure that reads as public sculpture. Why go to the desert to build your geometry when you just have to look around the corner, where it is readymade, better, and more tough-minded than anything you can do? DiCorcia emphasizes the interplay of vertical and horizontal, solid and void, artistically saving the scene for our eyes but not from its own indifference.
DiCorcia sees what he sees without flinching: he keeps his emotional distance, however physically close he gets. His camera seems like a casual observer, but it is always structuring the scene esthetically, without distracting from the subject matter. In #65, the red suit and blonde hair of the elegant woman in the gray elevator vividly contrast with the pale aging skin of her hands and face, making us aware of their shocking difference. Contained in the elevator, her self-containment becomes apparent. But she and the elevator and the contradictory coloration form an esthetic whole that seems sublimely remote. DiCorcia stands in the elevator with her, and catches her curiosity, but he is as indifferent as the environment itself, if empathic enough to respect the woman. The camera spares him the need to talk: he need only see, even if he seems to stage what it sees.
Indeed, virtually all the photographs have a staged, even contrived look, however casual they seem. Even the irregular lines of traffic in #72 seem contrived. Everything seems planned and fabricated -- every object seems carefully placed and invented for the photographic occasion, rather than caught on the spur of the found moment, as in Cartier-Bresson's photographs. These are not snapshots, however sharp-eyed, but seem calculated to the least detail -- so well organized that nothing is left to perceptual chance. Nothing seems unpredictable, not even the changing light and atmosphere and often rich color. Everything seems nailed down, as though divinely preordained. Even the woman and dog, happily facing each other seem in #73, seem like actors playing prescribed roles.
A storybook is a book for children, in which events are idealized however strange, giving them an eerie artificial quality. DiCorcia's book of photographs is a storybook romance, in which reality seems like unconscious fantasy, suggesting that the photographs are a series of random screen memories, even wishful hallucinations, rather than accurate representations -- if there is such a thing. This is no doubt the way one's many worlds of experience look when one seriously reflects on them, which best occurs when one is no longer entirely moved by them.
Taken as a whole, diCoricia's photographs offer us a skewed perspective on his lifeworld, but they are a sum of parts that do not add up to a whole, suggesting that they are fragments of a discontinuous stream of consciousness in which the same space and time never occurs twice. No eternal return for diCorcia, only the machete of his camera, cutting a crooked path through his life, and restlessly changing position in search of esthetic perfection, but finding only an imperfect, fictitious world, an everlasting illusion full of objects of dubious desire.
"Philip-Lorca diCorcia: A Storybook Life" is on view Sept. 4-Oct. 11, 2003, at PaceWildenstein, 534 West 25th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.
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