Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
At the Corcoran Gallery of Art to Dec. 30
The setting is dreary and familiar: a linoleum-floored classroom with a chalkboard in the corner and a globe on a table. Shelves of encyclopedias bound in faux leather. Neat, monotonous rows of student desksthe kind made of shiny metal and that hard, cream-colored plastic that is always chilly to the touch. An American flag hangs lazily from the wall.
Amid all this ordinariness stand five young, tousle-haired boys, dressed in striped shirts and tightie-whities, stroking their genitals, furtively glancing back and forth between their competitors and a mason jar full of a milky-white liquid.
The circle-jerk imagetitled Prematureisn’t necessarily the most arresting of the roughly one dozen works in the exhibit “Anthony Goicolea: Recent Photographs” now on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s Hemicycle Gallery. In Stigmata, three boys lounge beneath an out-of-place shower head on a suburban backyard deck, with one boy using tampons and maxi pads to help another stanch his bleeding palms. In Pisser, two young boys wash in a frothy bathtub, one peeing, in a perfect parabolic arc, on the other’s back.
In the fake-paneled bedroom of Spit or Swallow, one boy holds down his squirming, grimacing companion in order to lay a 6-inch-long strand of drool right on his face. And in Whisper, two boys in identical striped shirts and tube socks sit side by side on a bed, reaching for each other’s crotches, in full view of shelf upon shelf of children’s plush toys.
Welcome to Goicolea’s worlda world that looks much like our own, but in which teenagers flaunt their sexual impulses in full view of the camera. Except that they aren’t real teenagers. And they aren’t in front of a real camera. Rather, each of the characters is Goicolea himself, acting out fantasy sequences that he photographs and combines digitally into monumental prints, many of them rendered in a cheesy color palette that befits their discomfiting subject matter.
Once Goicolea finds a locationlikely one near his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.he spends a day or two shooting there, occasionally employing body doubles for unusually complicated poses. More often, he simply photographs himself. (He also cuts his characters’ wigs and does his own makeup.) Goicolea says that he doesn’t sketch out the scenes in great detail ahead of time; many of his characters’ poses are improvised on the spot.
After Goicolea has his various images in hand, he uses a computer to manipulate and merge them, almost seamlessly, into a widescreen frame. Each of his cloned figures may be composed of half a dozen separately photographed body parts. Often, Goicolea decides
to leave in the subtle distortions that result from
digital mixing and matching, such as unnaturally elongated arms.
Technically, Goicolea’s images are impressive. At sizes of 3 feet by 8 feet or larger, the prints succeed in swallowing viewers to the limits of their peripheral vision. More important, Goicolea has utilized digital-image applications to their fullest, not-often-realized, potential. His compositions at the Corcoran are so natural-looking that almost all of them could easily pass for real photographs. (A handful of other works not in the show are cut-and-pasted in a more obvious fashion.) The main giveaway that these images are contrived is that Goicolea’s face is absolutely everywhere, tweaked only by his expression and minor changes in makeup; Goicolea is ableat 30 years of ageto play utterly convincing 10- to 16-year-olds.
The works, to be sure, are narcissistic. In addition to being his photographs’ director, producer, wardrobe consultant, location scoutand, for all we know, gaffer and best boyGoicolea is also his pictures’ only star. But at least he’s honest about it; Goicolea never pretends to be a mere photographic chronicler, hiding in the shadows and letting his subjects take center stage. Like Catherine Chalmerswhose show at the Hemicycle a year ago featured photographs she’d made after she placed predators and their prey into the same enclosed spaceGoicolea says he utilizes photography because it’s a convenient way to explore his themes, not because he’s committed to the medium itself.
“I don’t even consider myself a photographer,” he says. “I know how to use a camera to get an image I need, but if someone hired me for a commercial job, I would be hard-pressed to do it right. For me, photography is a way to record an idea and send it out.” Part of what Goicolea finds useful about photography is that it renders his fictitious scenesscenes that weren’t even real during the photo shootsin a way that’s realistic enough for viewers to accept unquestioningly, if only for a second.
And he acknowledges being influenced by several photographers. His works clearly pay homage to Cindy Sherman’s clever, stereotype-busting self-portraits in the early ’80s. They also owe something to the photography of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, an optician in Lexington, Ky., who used his friends and family as subjects in some 18,000 images, many of them fantasies in which characters interact with each other enigmatically. Goicolea is also indebted to Sally Mann, whose black-and-white studies of her own children have proved controversial for their matter-of-factand, to some viewers, sexualizedportrayals.
Because of their (seemingly) kiddie-pornish content, Goicolea’s images are at least as shocking as anything Robert Mapplethorpe made, possibly more so. But in an age when many pieces of contemporary art are scandalous in one way or another, shock for shock’s sake is no longer enough. The fundamental point of Goicolea’s artnotwithstanding its undeniable technical accomplishments and conceptual creativityseems underdeveloped.
Is he breaking new thematic ground? Not really: In the early ’80s, painter Eric Fischl set his dreamlike, sexually charged scenes in humdrum suburban settings. Is Goicolea working through his own childhood experiences, in a wrenching process of emotional self-discovery? Apparently not: Goicolea says that his works are not especially autobiographical. His childhood, he reports rather blandly, was “normal, with some dysfunction mixed in, as with any childhood.”
Then do his works celebrate a budding gay sexuality that will be repressed by an intolerant society? Again, no: “I know that people have asked whether it’s homoerotic content,” Goicolea says. “I feel like you can read that into it, but you could also read something completely different….[The characters] all seem almost asexual in their expression of sexuality. Because it’s open-ended and ambiguous, you can get whatever you want out of them.”
Indeed, in an hourlong interview, the best explanation of his artistic project that Goicolea can come up with is that his works remind viewers what it was like to be young: “People can recognize the things they went through as a childthings they naturally blocked out from sheer embarrassment at how awkward, stupid, and silly they were,” he says. “You’re aware of what sex is, and while you’re not physically there yet, you’re bombarded with messages about it. It’s a period that everybody goes through, regardless of how popular or smart you are.”
That’s a point, all right, but a point that’s neither especially new nor especially revelatory. You get the sense that Goicolea has taken this particular artistic tack less because he has some larger message to share with the world than because he and his infinitely plastic face can actually pull off these grand fantasiesthe artistic equivalent, one might say, of climbing Mount Everest because it’s there. It’s enough to make his art worth a second look, but not necessarily a third.
As he enters his 30s, Goicolea himself acknowledges that he’s going to have to change his modus operandi soon: He’s now planning a series of mylar wall installations that will look very little like his current pieces. Whether he secures a place as a noteworthy artist of his generation or as minor trickster trafficking in the quirks of his physical appearance depends much more on his next artistic pursuit than on his current one. CP