In his book Tulsa (1971), Larry Clark infamously wrote: “once the needle goes in it never comes out.” At that point he was almost a decade removed from shooting amphetamine every day as a teenager. His early photographic work was praised for its authenticity; and it was frequently noted that the artist was an active participant in all he documented. As he expanded into collage and film, what was once freshly autobiographic became inexorably blurred with the ache of nostalgia. This perplexing exhibition, “they thought I were but I aren’t anymore . . . ,” appeared to be castoffs from shipping containers headed for a museum retrospective: a few early black-and-white photographs, some new color portraits, a handful of relatively recent large collages and, most bewilderingly, four oil paintings—shown publicly for the first time.
The glorious and inglorious acts of youth—and some of the inevitably dire consequences—have remained at the heart of Clark’s oeuvre. After almost 40 years of collaging older photos into new tableaux, his tactics give the impression of an artist wrestling with his own fixations and the subsequent mess he’s obsessively accumulated. In the 11½-foot-long collage I want a baby before u die (2010), a print of a woman’s pubic hair, with the tattooed name “Larry” lurking above, anchors a barrage of debris: scraps of memorabilia with images of Marilyn Monroe and Bob Dylan, a little reproduction of Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man (1483), newspaper clippings recounting tragic teen violence, snapshots of kids having sex. Some old muses intermingle with new ones. A smiling young Latino’s face from Tulsa is echoed in the intense gaze of a crouching naked Jonathan Velasquez—the young star of Clark’s 2005 film Wassup Rockers—whose head casts an alluring profile in shadow. This oddly poetic assemblage belies its own disarray and strikes a delicately elegiac tone. Much like Dylan’s classic song “Tangled Up in Blue,” the narrative shifts in time and perspective, but the different pieces flow into a consistent hue.
Yet, some of the stories Clark attempts to tell through collage can leave one with nothing but the sketchiest of details and a dull queasiness. Knoxville (homage to Brad Renfro), 2011, with its relentless barrage of small color photos documenting the troubled actor bloated, shirtless and obviously in the throes of an addiction that would ultimately take his life, veers troublingly close to exploitation. One wonders whether such sheer brutality is an appropriate tribute to the artist’s compatriot or if there is at the very least some sort of survivor’s guilt at play.
Clark’s paintings, while clumsily compelling, remain difficult to grasp outside the context of his entire modus operandi. The abstract construct of a painting by its very nature seems less exploitive than photography. A painting can often magically suspend or even transcend time, while a photograph almost always affixes a specific moment. In Jonathan (1), 2014, Clark poses his subject against a vibrant yellow and green lushness. His shadowed profile here is distressed by drips of yellow paint. The impasto surface and figurative smears evoke vague traces of Albert Oehlen, New Imagists and an earnest first-year art student dabbling in eroticism. Clark is striving for a timelessness, but what he ultimately achieves is a charming failure. Since his renegade imagery became consumed and co-opted by mass media it would be foolhardy to simply dismiss these efforts as an avaricious attempt to be on trend in the Chelsea marketplace. Clark’s motivations may be sordid at times, but never simply monetary. Still, one wonders why Clark didn’t just show his paintings on their own. Perhaps that would’ve been the defiant act of an old artist’s latest youthful stab at freedom.