Seven years ago, the photographer Tanyth Berkeley met an albino woman named Grace on the subway and quickly turned her into her model and muse. A retrospective of Tanyth's mildly disturbing pictures of Grace has just opened at Danziger Projects' new 24th Street space.
Grace is depicted as a lost soul, the sun shining through her see-through white dress, other photos highlighting her apparently chubby buttocks and thighs. At the afterparty at the club called Apartment, I asked Tanyth Berkeley if she and Grace were friends. The artist replied, "Grace lives down the street from me. I often fix her up with male friends. We get together about once a month to plan projects, but I wouldn't describe Grace as a friend."
When I asked dealer Jim Danziger if Grace was nearsighted and could appreciate the photographs of her, Danziger answered, "She has to look at the photos up close, Charlie, and take them in piece by piece, as a sort of mosaic." The Museum of Modern Art owns a number of Berkeley's photographs, on the presumed assumption that she has transported some Arbus-style freaks into the full-color 21st century paradise that illuminates her snaps. The question is how much of Berkeley's vision is a cynical manufacture and how much is "real"?
Guess what, I talked with Grace extensively at the opening and the afterparty. She had been at the DMV most of the day getting a new picture ID and still managed to arrive in a gorgeous black dress and faux emerald earrings. She is one of the most beautiful women I have ever beheld and is smart as a whip. She works as an executive at Univision, is physically buff, has a gracious sense of humor and was surrounded by dozen of adoring friends.
I thought of the intimate relationship between John Waters and Divine, a lifelong creative love match, and then I thought of the cold attitude of her photographic enablers to Grace, who is very much enamored of the fame she had acquired, in a relaxed, if not humble way. Whatever their intentions, in my view, Grace does not deserve the people around her. The Berkeley pictures present a false, verging on exploitative, view of this remarkable, nay, transcendent person. It is the art world, stultified, dehumanized, and narrow, at its worst.
Tanyth Berkeley, "Grace," Mar. 14-Apr. 25, 2009, at Danziger Projects, 534 West 24th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).