Larry Clark’s latest exhibition, “they thought i were but i aren’t anymore…,” is a small survey of sorts, composed of photographs, collages, and — for the first time — paintings by the New York-based artist/filmmaker who made his name more than 40 years ago with the publication of Tulsa, the (still) notorious collection of lurid, autobiographical images that laid bare a seamier side of America’s youth. Although the current show is chock-full of bare teenage bodies indulging in sex, drugs, and other transgressions, its overall mood is somewhat wistful, searching. As the “i” of the title suggests, Clark seems to be after a kind of self-reclamation, weaving his past into his present. A number of self-portraits hangs throughout the show, and although Clark’s life and art have always been inseparably entwined and erotically charged, it’s his reflective moments that soften the works’ blows.
The earliest images here are Johnny Bridges and Billy Mann (both 1961), photographs of friends taken long before Clark, who turned 71 in January, had gained infamy as a procurer and paterfamilias of the teens he continues to shoot. The show quickly moves to more recent work, including Untitled (2013), a modest collage with a photo of young Clark at its center; and an enormous one, I want a baby before u die (2010), constructed of personal ephemera such as snapshots, newspaper articles, and body hair stuck to a tissue and preserved in a plastic bag. Also included: three 2011 portraits of an unsettlingly beguiling Adam Mediano, the then-16-year-old star of Clark’s film Marfa Girl (2012); and two photo collages that pay homage to Brad Renfro, the young actor from Bully (2001), who died of an overdose in 2008.
Two of the show’s funniest, strangest works are also collages. Self portrait with a tan… and Self portrait with a tan (2) center on selfies of a younger Larry Clark surrounded by dozens of snaps of male nudes, many of which zoom in on penises. For all the head shots (as it were), no faces appear aside from Clark’s own. The bodies can’t be his, of course — they’re too young, too bronzed. Whether he’s sending up the desire to be young again or expressing his own deep wish, at the very least, the artist is making it come true as a work of art.
The wildest cards in this exhibition are the paintings. Capturing your subjects with a camera is one thing; executing in oils is quite another. If these works aren’t as accomplished as the photographs, that’s understandable. Clark took up the medium a little more than a year ago, and the three larger-than-life nude portraits of Jonathan Velasquez (Clark’s longtime muse and star of his 2005 film, Wassup Rockers), exhibit all the sloppy, eager strokes one would reasonably expect from a novice. (For a little formal fun, compare Clark’s photographed close-up of cum dribbles to his gooey paint drips.) The artist’s genuine, tender attempts to render a body he has photographed for years will command a fan’s attention for their handwrought intimacy. That said, it might come as no surprise that the some of the canvases’ most vital and intriguing moments are found in the half-abstractions of Velasquez’s cock and the dissolving double of his shadow.
Lurking in the third and last room of the show is the small Self portrait (2014). Painted in a scrambling hand and somber palette, Clark portrays himself as a clownish, Christ-like bust punctuated by gaudy daubs of blue, yellow, and red. The message might be a bit much: Does he see himself as having been publicly crucified for his radical revelations so that all of our sins may be forgiven? For that matter, is his work perverse, or (worse) simply popular? The answer, of course, depends on how you choose to look at him.