There was a time not long ago when what we could call the critical elite would, from a historical perch, peer down on the creative voice of art whose agenda was not in line with that of the arch-bourgeoisie, but which instead reflected what seemed the general sentiment of new, halcyon generations. In a favored form of calumny, the conservative view would refer to this as “pop culture”, meant oxymoronically, while viewing what was called the “contemporary” as the the serious, legitimate, deserving heir to high modern art. But pop culture as a phrase no longer means much because all culture is popular, which is to say, resonant to all things contemporary. And the most meaningful acts in regard to a survey of such culture’s interest in the conditions of art are not those which question the ancien regime – this is an obsolete concern – but rather those which establish credible altars in which homage to what contemporary culture believes can find icons and rituals of its reality, not that of art.
If so, then Hedi Slimane is one of the Indigo children for that new truth, serving as an apostolic messenger bearing both word and image, most recently at the exhibit California Song, hosted at LA MoCA’s Pacific Design Center. Two floors frame the unusual structure of this show, which focuses on the polymath’s photography based in the Golden State after 2007, and his show at another major venue for photography — FOAM Amsterdam. In the first floor of the current exhibit, Slimane’s large format photographs are set in wood armatures that insinuate (without entirely resembling) something between shelving units and crate boxes opened vertically, their shape providing lattices for the artist’s meter-high photographs, and their material, unfinished wood, suggests that the images might have arrived in time for their exhibition in a public art venue.
But – and the exhibition is all about reflectivity – these images are co-arranged in their wooden niches with occasional and savvily positioned mirrors, so that what viewers are seeing transcends the visual and concerns the question of the subject itself – whether this points to the subject of the images or to the subject captured in the mirror squares and reflected back is left as an implied question. Passing beyond the preamble of this small room, the birch-like whitness of the first floor’s lighting and palette finds its chromatic inverse inthe second floor of the exhibit, which opens onto the full gallery space, walls receding back to the void of flat black as the center of the space is claimed by three fourths of a ponderous projection cube, nearly twenty feet on each side – as deployed in Berlin and elsewhere – and each facet presents a slow photo-procession of portraits, each image lingering in fixity yet seeming to self-modify with each second of inspection.
Against each of two walls in the larger space is an asymmetrical latticework of pipefittings that hold almost twenty speakers each, pumping the cosmic rock sounds of No Age and other bands, creating quasi-psychedelic ambience of such sensitivity that the viewer feels almost lifted off the ground.
Slimane’s images are unusually thought-provoking, so paradoxical is their aura, the locations of the shots are emblematic California – somewhere back stage, a studio, a surfer’s shore, a hilly backdrop – and these balance presence and mystery, recognizability and secrecy, historical moments and timelessness of being. And with these is a defiant sense of autonomy (and often vulnerability) that frames the expression – and the identity – of its subjects, both young and old. Here we see recent portraits of an elderly but staunch Gore Vidal; of Ed Ruscha as an older artist, smiling wisely but owning the viewer with discerning eyebrows; or of a post-adolescent boy nearly identical to a young John Cusack with guitar, eyes both squinty small and yet defining the entire expression of his face and person. And in all these faces, what is the name of that expression? It is presence, not merely as the here-and-now of a body whose force translates to vision with inexplicable but felt intimacy; it is also that of the temporal present whose stamp is so overwhelming and defining that the future is not anywhere in the cards, in the subjects’ expressions, or in the context of the images. Everything about the photographs is ad hoc, often capturing the blurry movement of something, always in a location which is not important as such but rather in an emotional place. Images of arms with tattoos, or of youthful beauty sitting, captured in the sleep-deprived expressionless stare that skirts some extreme edge of life to which we are not privy. But image after image, the consistency of these presences, so often full of feeling but devoid of passion, provide the cognitive allure that draws the viewer into a participatory wish – a wish to have been there, to have lived all that was taking place, to have forged some of the experience being shared but not narrated by these expressions, and to fit together the pieces that puzzle the viewer with seductive interrogation, an interpretive depth that fills the space between the quizzical detachment of the subjects in the photographs and the ambient sympathy of those staring directly at them.
But in their adjacency, we also realize the implied conversation between them, a harmony of sentiment that transcends the visual as it underscores the cultural unity of their mood. Images with textual provocations, where a “WHO” sign could be seen to question the neighborhood shown in a perpendicular image.
Or the taciturn expression of one portrait (Ruscha’s) being met by another in the next panel, but dissolving into the caricaturic photo of a toy monkey.
Images of the monkey, which appear in several forms, are almost a commentary on the sequence of representations, either humane, as in the overlay with the face of musician Christopher Owens
or potentially profane, as in their uncomfortable proximity to any of several variants of crosses or other biblical references.
But less Dadaistic associations emerge more frequently, often giving one pause to appreciate the formal aspects of similarity and lucid statement of line that have been so crucial to Slimane’s revolution in fashion design. This self-similarity shines best when it appears to prompt the viewer with the uncommon sentiment shared by two faces. Perhaps it is a kind of wonder.
Perhaps it is less energetically what follows it.
And the linearity of apparent comparison muses over the iconic geometry of objects from two different, often archaic, worlds, such as an abandoned business sign and a musician’s drum set — each claiming the flatness of a circle as what Roland Barthes might call the image’s punctum.
To grasp these and so many other captured moments, the viewer need not understand the centerpiece of Slimane’s career, anchored as it is in the splendorous perfection that accompanies art direction in the top Paris fashion houses, because the show’s works are from the alternative parsec of his creative galaxy, one involved in eschewing synthetic and posed gorgeousness for the capture of splendor for magazine publication in exchange for the force of natural impulse in creative work. These images are figurative visas on the passport to life in California that every dreamer keeps in a proverbial pocket. The exhibit’s visitors, many of whom could be in these photographs themselves, stood transfixed by the images, whose expressions at once languid and mute convey a stamp of inscrutable transition – perhaps from one phase of life to the next – or as in the shots of Ruscha, Van Sant, and Vidal, of comfort and authoritative success, as figures of the cultural moment. In this, they reflect the subtlest gift of Slimane himself: a unique ability to operate as a cultural barometer, which of course is where art and fashion share a defining agenda.