Rineke Dijkstra—the justly celebrated Dutch artist whose ripe new work graces Marian Goodman Gallery—makes very ordinary young people look remarkable. Simple and totally unembellished, her photos and videos of molting kiddies employ the harsh clarity of the dressing-room mirror. A portraitist who has spent two decades teasing out the pull tabs of personality from adolescent impostures, pimply faces, and blooming psyches, she has become, bar all other artists working today, the poet laureate of the squirrelly, endlessly analyzed, turning worm we refer to as youthful subjectivity.
Though Dijkstra shares a medium with German photographers Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, and Andreas Gursky—”Strufsky” in awed art-world lingo—her art has long provided a counterweight to the landscapes of unadulterated power the Teutons erected during the neoliberal 1990s. Along with British video artist Gillian Wearing and American photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Dijkstra belongs at the forefront of a more even-handed trend. First among a gang of camera-wielding artists who devote their energies to the inner lives of actual human subjects—and not to picturing disembodied global “networks” and “processes”—she has long reflected a flexible, universalist ideal best expressed aphoristically by Diane Arbus, that Magellan of Otherness: “Every difference is a likeness, too.”
Dijkstra trains her lens on the individual—an effort far removed from 12-foot images of stock markets and crane’s-eye views of rock stadia. Stripping her subjects of their social environments and fixing on them with a lepidopterist’s gaze, she has captured Israeli soldiers as they enter the service, young Dutch mothers after giving birth, baby-faced bullfighters following a bloody faena, and, most famously, a boy bather on a Ukrainian beach (set next to Cézanne’s The Bather at MOMA’s canon-busting millennium exhibition, this straightforward picture set off howls of crotchety outrage). Caught in the scrim of Dijkstra’s paper and emulsion prints, her charges teeter between self-revelation and self-doubt—juvi suspects at an interrogation scripted by Dostoyevsky. Then, one by one, they all cough up the goods.
Dijkstra’s creative setup is as bare-bones as her subjects are seemingly simple. Plain, head-on photographs and videos that she prints and projects with precision but no great fuss, her multilayered pieces match deft effects with a direct economy of means. The current gallery show—her fourth solo in New York, it includes a handful of prints and three distinct video works shot last year while working collaboratively with Britain’s Tate Liverpool—comes at a particularly shallow ebb in contemporary American visual culture. Would that the art world switch off Bravo’s autofellating Work of Art and tune into her moving and still pictures instead.
As good as Dijkstra’s photographs are, in this particular exhibition it is her videos that pull the cart for her slyly empathetic representations. The first of these, Ruth Drawing Picasso, Tate Liverpool, consists of a single-channel projection of a uniformed schoolgirl sitting and sketching Picasso’s 1937 cubist scorcher Weeping Woman. A celebrated canvas that followed Guernica in the Spaniard’s exploration of human suffering, this last portrait of his mistress Dora Maar packs into its garishly colored, jangly planes a screaming misogynist’s cliché along with the great man’s considerable wisdom. In Picasso’s own words about the painting, he meant to generalize: “Women are suffering machines.” To look at the tenaciously attentive, piranha-faced Ruth sprawled across the museum floor, you’d hardly think so.
Just as young Ruth’s doodling lightens up Picasso’s pomposity, a second video, I See a Woman Crying (Weeping Woman), upends the straight idea of portraiture by placing a group of Ruth’s schoolmates in front of the same masterwork, while deploying three cameras frontally to record their observations. A three-channel projection that assembles the group into a tableau reminiscent of Rembrandt’s portraits of Dutch burghers, the video’s framing transforms this peanut gallery into what a certain class of Briton would term “a conversation piece.” Part Bill Cosby’s Kids Say the Darndest Things, part engrossing lesson in what John Berger called “ways of seeing,” Dijkstra’s clutch of boys and girls appear, at once, both adorable and wise. Baby art critics, their descriptions put most adult art commentary to shame. Even children, it turns out—before capitulating to their inner philistine—know to squeeze their visual experiences in galleries for meaning.
Last, but by no means least, the gallery features a particularly ethnographic four-channel work beamed onto as many of the gallery’s walls. Titled The Krazyhouse, Liverpool, UK (Megan, Simon, Nicky, Philip, Dee) after the dance club and dancers Dijkstra employed as proscenium and performers—she built a studio inside the place, then invited youngsters to boogie solo to their favorite tracks—this work presents a controlled study in self-consciousness and self-assertion that’s no less objective for being goosed by the pinch of sexuality. A vertical expression of a horizontal desire, dancing appears as much a mating ritual for Dijkstra’s colts as it is for Bonobo apes (the lucky primates use sex as a greeting, which sounds fun if exhausting). When isolated before a white backdrop, the teeners’ hip flails and arm twists turn into Valentine’s Day on the Discovery Channel.
A Clearasil blonde sways shyly while throwing shapes in the air; a pale goth head-bangs his way through a death-metal number; a leggy black girl blossoms radiantly to the rhythms of a pop tune; a raver throws his jumpy limbs in multiple directions at once; some father’s daughter in a minidress jiggles baby fat while sporting a come-hither look. These are the significant pleasures to be derived from watching Dijkstra’s isolations of teenage self-construction. Their images speak to us less of the privileges of youth than of its endlessly ramifying limitations.
“Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies,” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay, by which she meant, simply, that innocence gets it in the end. (Thank you, doubt, insecurity, gravity, and age!) This is Dijkstra’s subject matter, too. To experience the Dutch artist’s photos and videos is to witness, firsthand, the enduring paradox that is the emergence of the teener Self.