Shrink art—many of us have seen it. I’m not talking about shrunken objects or about things wrapped in clear plastic. I’m referring to something more intimate and private, something many of us have knowledge of but rarely mention: the art and objects that grace the offices of the therapists and analysts we have known.
My own feelings about shrink art came rushing back to me in Shellburne Thurber’s exhibition of 33 medium-sized color photographs. Even if you’ve never seen a shrink, or the only one you’re interested in is Tony Soprano’s Dr. Melfi, the minute you see these images you’ll know that you’re looking at an array of analysts’ inner sanctums. Not surprisingly, considering his patriarchal status, the template is often Sigmund Freud’s ur-office in Vienna with its oriental carpets, objets d’art, antiquities, and trinkets—although I don’t remember seeing Kleenex dispensers in his chambers.
Thurber’s photographs work best if viewed as anthropological evidence or a peek inside worlds many of us never get to see. Individually, her pictures are good and skillful, but not especially arresting. Some are bland. Perhaps owing to the purpose of these rooms, many of the photos have similar color schemes; the vantage point is usually from the same middle-distance eye level. I often have misgivings about single-subject photographers, people who shoot strip clubs, motel rooms, old factories, dilapidated homes, teenagers’ bedrooms, death chambers, lesbians, or closets. But Thurber doesn’t go far enough: She could have photographed offices all over the U.S. It would be illuminating to see the differences between blue-state shrinks and red-state ones, uptown and downtown, city and suburban. Nevertheless, as a group, Thurber’s images are fascinating and voyeuristic.
They’re also scarily familiar, yet strange: rooms you’ve never been in, but whose occupants and exchanges you start vividly imagining. I thought I could divine what kind of shrink and patient inhabited each office, and maybe even what kinds of problems were hashed out there. Each picture is a treasure trove of shrink symptoms. There are messy shrinks and anal-retentives, those with no clocks and those who place the clock in the middle of the room. There are doctors whose chairs are only inches from the couch and those who sit around the corner; creepy offices and drab ones. Some shrinks face their patients, some don’t. I felt sorry for the patients who lie on the divan isolated in an otherwise empty attic.
It’s immediately clear that these offices aren’t all from the same country. Twenty-six are from the Boston area, where Thurber lives. The rest are from Buenos Aires, where in 1998 she was staying with a friend whose mother was an analyst. To escape the family’s incessant soccer watching, the mother suggested Thurber read in her office. As Thurber remembers, “I went in and realized this is really strange.” She had a subject.
Better yet, it’s a subject that’s also a metaphor for artistic creation. As with artists’ studios, something very specific, private, and pure repeatedly goes on in a shrink’s office. Many of these analysts appear to work in their basements, nurseries, dens, or whatever cubbyhole they can carve out. I fancied a few were child psychologists or parents because of toys lying about. Yet, no matter how hard these analysts might try, none presents what I would call a blank slate or a neutral space. Each room is a personal statement. In addition to professional degrees, file cabinets, TV monitors, artifacts, and even family pictures, these offices are filled with art. One office had a trashy Bernard Buffet print, another Dürer’s brooding Melancholia. I spotted cheesy Chinese landscapes, museum reproduction posters, decorative weavings, crappy tapestries, and Hallmark art. I saw Rousseau’s The Dream, Homer’s Boys in a Pasture, Michelangelo’s God Creating Adam, and something insane by Blake.
But the biggest reason these pictures seem so uncanny is my own memories of my former shrink’s midtown office and the large poster of Jasper Johns’s deeply transitional painting Eddingsville that hung directly in front of me. For a long time before I told him what was on my mind, I brooded about whether or not I should tell my shrink that I knew Johns and that having his painting here made me feel weirdly intimate with him and that now when I saw him I felt like he had been in the room with us. Also, despite my love of Johns’s work, I intensely disliked this particular painting and thought that this choice showed bad taste on the part of my shrink and that this bad taste would limit my analysis and that the more I ruminated over it, the overall office decor seemed tacky and in bad taste and how could someone like this ever help me and maybe I should just quit. All this, of course, was what my shrink used to call “the work.” Amazingly, the painting and decor in that shabby office opened up marvelous doors. Thurber’s pictures sometimes do that too, and give you an inkling of how rich and sometimes wild what goes on in these offices can be.