Soviet Brutalist architecture is beautiful and strange, much of it like some odd abandoned spaceship, long-forgotten Hollywood Sci-Fi set from the 60s, or perhaps the fevered product of a very rigorously-minded architect on a great deal of hallucinogenic drugs. Frédéric Chaubin, when not editing Citizen K, has been taken with documenting odd buildings for some time, thus it seems natural he’d be drawn to these secular icons while traveling through the former Soviet Union. The images depict an era from 1970-1990 when the ideology of the time manifested itself in concrete and steel – and now, in most cases, it rots in its place, or stands alone in the landscape like a peculiar, somehow flamboyant fragment of a complicated, uncomfortable past. Chaubin’s CCCP (or “Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed”) is almost, ALMOST, dispassionate in its coverage of this strange moment in this region’s sociopolitical (topographical?) history. The buildings seem either openly unused or somehow inherently unusable in spite of the determinedly practical features, disagreeing so fiercely with both their natural surroundings and all preceding (and subsequent) regional architectural conventions. Maybe Leonid Breznhnev’s ghost is pissed he never got to use that strange UFO of a villa.
My thesis advisor, the wonderful Allen Frame, formally introduced me several months ago to the work of Neil Goldberg. I knew “She’s a Talker” (which much of the internet knows, and appreciates on a less, say, political level than perhaps the artist intended)
from my time as a Film/Video student at SAIC, but it took almost a decade for me to be exposed to Goldberg’s full catalogue (or, more accurately, find out who the awesome “men with their cats” video guy was, and see what else he could do). Much of Goldberg’s work is video based and largely silent, and it’s the sort of work that describes a deep love for and understanding of the medium – this is a man who made “Ten Minutes with X02180-A,” a single channel video of random strangers interacting with a “particularly fetching lilac bush” in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, for example, and my personal favorite, “Salad Bar, depicting intense close ups of people silently selecting food from salad bars. In his photographic work a similar love for the mundane (yet uncanny) is gloriously evident.
These stills from “Missing the Train” transcend their NYC-specific titles (each is labelled with the specific subway the subject has missed, at which station) and become, to the artist, something almost referential of an old master painting.
From the oddly poignant gesture of filling his deceased father’s Camry with brilliantly colored leaves to the simple act of capturing the iconic (yet commonplace) trucker’s arm while paused in his daily commute, Goldberg’s eye transforms small gestures and fleeting, subtle indicators of humanity into epic, funny, heartbreaking works of art.
Last Fall I has the good fortune of enrolling in previous Camera Club guest blogger Pradeep Dalal‘s “Expanded Documentary” class as a part of my MFA coursework at Pratt Institute. While I was definitely introduced to several artists who altered my own approach to image making, the work Pradeep exposed us to that I found most hard to walk away from was Casa Susanna. I can count on one hand (possibly three fingers) the number of times in my entire art school-attending life I’ve come home from a class to immediately, intently scour the internet for a book, then spend days wondering when it would show up on my doorstep. This collection of images was discovered quite accidentally in an NYC flea market by Robert Swope and co-edited with his parter Michel Hurst, who seem to have wondered why the owners would have discarded a collection so personal (and frankly expansive). At first glance, the work is rich in its banality – these seem to be simple snapshots or faded holiday greetings depicting, say, typical housewife-types, some less glamorous than others, engaged in silly chores or unremarkable, silly vacation fun with “the girls.” A closer look reveals they are, in fact, men, some more able to pass seamlessly as the (now rather dated) feminine archetypes their poses, clothing, and accessories proudly proclaim. The resort, Casa Susanna, seems to have existed in upstate New York in the 1960s as a safe place for these men to express their feminine personae. What drew me to the work was the urgency to document the normal. As many who have written about Casa Susanna (the book) have stated, transvestites in pop culture are shrouded in a veritable haze of stage lights, glitter, and feathers, but these ladies are, more often than not, altogether domestic and grounded – posed demurely for Christmas cards, in near-matronly cocktail dress, simply living out roles as average women, hardly a Cher or Jayne Mansfield in the bunch. There is something irrefutably real about these images, in spite of the sly subterfuge of makeup, wigs, and costume – perhaps it’s the dichotomy of a casual snapshot of something so carefully crafted and orchestrated.
My friend Arlene Gottfried has been shooting in and around her hometown of NYC since the 1970s. Her latest book (which is just coming out), “Bacalaitos and Fireworks,” tracks her 40 odd years documenting her time in and around the Nuyorican community. From the quiet portraits of her dearly departed Miguel Piñero to the crackling, color-saturated moments stolen during parades and everything in between (a pig roasting in a rubble-filled city lot, little girls in crisp communion gowns marching past the dystopian, surreal setpieces of a crumpled car and a battered tv, bizarre moments of city life that would seem staged if the characters caught therein weren’t so irrefutably genuine), Arlene manages to make the viewer feel like he or she is with her in that moment, like a welcome participant in some grand secret, great spectacle, private moment, neighborhood function, or deep sorrow. She’ll be presenting her work at 3pm today at B&H’s Event Space on 34th and 9th.