Art in America
Sarah Valdez 4/2005
From rock stars to presidents, literary figures to actors, not to mention pretty much everyone of consequence in the blue-chip art world, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders has for some three decades now photographed celebrities, in the process institutionalizing himself as one. Ever a fan of the big negative's capacity for crisply rendering minutiae larger than life, Greenfield-Sanders has made a formidable career out of satisfying the public's desire to scrutinize ordinary aspects of extraordinary people, at once acknowledging and confirming their iconic status.
He has captured, for instance, the young David Bowie, transformed with a goatee and feathery earring; Warhol wringing his hands, for once caught unawares by the camera; Hillary Clinton with that impeccable blonde bob; Agnes Martin in an adorable black cardigan, gold buttons done up to the top; Robert Mapplethorpe wide-eyed in his boodle. Like school portraits, set consistently against solid backdrops, Greenfield-Sanders's portraits possess a reassuring sameness, encouraging scientific scrutiny--all the while bestowing on his sitters a cultural legitimacy of which they cannot help but be aware.
His latest exhibition did no less, chronicling celebrities of the adult-film industry. "XXX: 30 Porn Star Portraits" consisted of a series of 30 photographic diptychs showing his muses posed more or less the same way twice, once with street clothes on and then with them off. But the project also included an ambitious number of spinoffs: a catalogue (with essays by 16 well-known figures, among them Gore Vidal, John Waters, Karen Finley, JT LeRoy and Salman Rushdie, as well as bios written by each of the porn stars he photographed), a Greenfield-Sanders-directed and -produced documentary on the making of the porn-star photographs (aired by HBO) and a slick soundtrack for the documentary (including music by the Velvet Underground, Peaches, Felix da Housecat and Rabbit in the Moon, among others).
In the choppy documentary, Greenfield-Sanders appears here and there, but reveals little about his motivation for undertaking "XXX," mostly allowing his models and catalogue essayists to speak, one after another, as if to an omniscient interviewer. All amicably hold forth on porn and sex, plus a little about life in general. We meet a few self-proclaimed born exhibitionists, who explain that they got into the industry with verve and on purpose. Others, of course, found themselves compelled by cash.
Characters become endearing as we gain knowledge of their personal lives. A strapping, square-jawed Russian, for instance, explains that he's proud to have earned enough to bring his whole family to this country. Porn legend Nina Hartley and her husband cheerfully show off the elaborate dungeon in their home. We see some stars on location, driving around or sitting on lawns, explaining that they're actually attending college or pursuing careers as artists or tappers: porn as means to an end. Models unselfconsciously mill about Greenfield-Sanders's studio in the buff and tell life stories while having their makeup done. Somebody's small dog makes a cameo.
Some porn stars confess to having been shunned by parents for their choice of career; one or two describe families proud or at least accepting of their accomplishments. We learn that Greenfield-Sanders got the idea of doing double portraits of the same person, clothed and nude, from Goya, whose La Maja Vestida and La Maja Desnuda offer clear prototypes. But despite this information, and especially given the number of radically solipsistic perspectives that constitute the "XXX" extravaganza, the artist's intent or point of view, if he has one, remains uncertain.
Oddly, this doesn't matter much. And perhaps Greenfield-Sanders's knack for seeming not to be there is exactly what makes him such a compelling photographer. The porn-star portraits themselves, best at their largest--nearly 5 by 4 feet (but also printed smaller and sold in editions of six)--hold more interest than whatever base sensationalism inheres in the concept "porn star" (or, for that matter, in such porn/art hybrids as Andrea Fraser's 2003 video showing her having sex with a collector of her work). First of all, Greenfield-Sanders's images have a powerful impact both close up and far away.
Standing in the middle of the gallery, the viewer had the sensation of being stared down by a small army of defiant, extreme-looking people, half of them naked, most posing with hands on hips or arms crossed in front of chests. Like Max Beckmann's meticulously rendered paintings of naked, surly, midlife malcontents, Greenfield-Sanders's models look directly at viewers. But, rather than being pissed off at also being the subject of the gaze, the porn stars seem unabashedly pleased with what they have to offer. They meet our eyes, while we, naturally, want to look elsewhere. And no denying it, there was some spectacular anatomy on view. Chad Hunt, for instance, stands with arms akimbo, letting what he identifies in his bio as his "eleven-by-seven-inch cut cock" hang loose. Preternaturally large breasts overwhelm the torsos of all but a few of the females. Physiques run the gamut, from the supple, super-sleek, reallife couple Jeremy Jordan and Jason Hawke, pictured together, to the slightly graying Ron Jeremy, who reports having appeared in more than 1,750 films. Jeremy also turned up recently as a character on VHI's farcical "Surreal World" and hasn't a worry about letting us see his substantial paunch. Heather Hunter, African-American porn pioneer, stands on the tips of her toes, arms outstretched, palms out, striking a pose at once classical and confrontational. For porn stars, of course, it's in the nude that business happens.
Accordingly, Greenfield-Sanders saw to it that, in the naked portraits--especially of the women--the stars were done up as on-screen. Flip-flops turn into stilettos; pigtails into coiffed, cascading locks; bare faces get covered with unfortunately garish makeup. Thanks to the size and clarity of the prints, hair follicles, wrinkles, freckles and makeup are visible in each image, lending an air of humanity to these frequently plastic-looking people. Richard Avedon's comparably detailed "In the American West" project comes to mind as a precedent. (Instead of his usual fashion models, for a time he shot detail-driven portraits of miners, drifters, beekeepers, slaughterhouse workers and white-trash teens, offering up for scrutiny these unseen, uncelebrated factions of America's rural poor.)
Greenfield-Sanders's subjects accessorize themselves both clothed and nude, and it's the accoutrements that help us piece together some idea of who these people might be and how they live--a more nuanced endeavor, perhaps, than gawking at genitalia. A number of the women, for example, flash sizable, real-looking diamond rings, pointing up prosperity and perhaps even domestic stability. Dressed, many of both sexes wear comfy sweats, looking rather like people we might run into at the grocery store. Indeed, with their clothes on, several of the stars appear to be soccer morns, girls-next-door or commonplace Chelsea homosexuals. Each truly does blossom, however, in the nude.
Another thing Greenfield-Sanders did for "XXX," aside from physically making the photographs, was to round up a choice range of commentators who muse about everything from their own lives to the nature of sexuality and sometimes even proffer near-nonsense. Wayne Koestenbaum spun his invitation to contribute into an opportunity to have lunch at Chelsea's Food Bar with Michael Lucas, the aforementioned square-jawed Russian, whose credits include a film called Fire Island Cruising; Michael, it turns out, ordered the "Chelsea Boy Special": egg whites with spinach and chicken breast, then doused it all with ketchup. (After all, we need to know these things.)
A.M. Homes offers up a bizarre, bawdy A-to-Z exercise in .alliteration, hitting each letter of the alphabet and vaguely keeping to the topic of porn (i.e., "Jiminy cricket, Jonathan's johnson was like a jelly stick squirting jazzy jizz all over the men's shower at the gym."). Gore Vidal brilliantly and somewhat pedantically relates the history of human sexuality in a page and a half, concluding his catalogue essay by quoting the misogynistic Karl Kraus, who asserts that "Sex with a woman can be as exciting as masturbation, but it requires more imagination." Lou Reed, for his part, channels the Internet: "Hey Lou! These chicks will do anything for a Buck. Horny bored Housewifes [sic] are waiting for you. Watch these Bitches be ANALLY DESTROYED." Maybe the best part of "XXX," at least for me, was the series of short autobiographies printed at the back of the catalogue. Here, we get a solid explanation for the "AIM Health Care" T-shirt Sharon Mitchell, Ph.D., wears in her clothed portrait. Having hit bottom with drug addiction and survived being brutally raped by a demented fan, she got sober, earned a master's degree in public health and a doctorate in human sexuality, then founded Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation, an organization dedicated to keeping sex workers HIV-free. (Plus, you have to love that Dr. Mitchell got into porn because she "loved the way [her] pussy looked sixteen feet high on the silver screen.") Jenna Jameson, easily the biggest star on the "XXX" roster, points out that she works not just as a porn star, but as CEO of ClubJenna, Inc., her Internet management, production and licensing company, thereby maintaining complete control over her film career and image marketing. (If you want more information on Jenna's life, she suggests you buy her current bestseller, How to Make Love Like a Porn Star.)
We learn that the gorgeous, extremely young-looking Briand Banks ran away from a crappy single-mother home at 14. "Four years and thirteen moves and three foster homes later," she got custody of a younger sister, "lived on a lot of Top Ramen noodles," and fell into porn to keep from losing what she had of a family. She stays in the business to maintain "a sense of comfort and calm" she'd never had before. Who knows what Greenfield-Sanders meant by giving us all this? Maybe he simply has a heightened awareness of what people want to look at and has a savvy way of capitalizing on it. And it might be that Chloe, an anomaly of a porn star with her red hair, punkish demeanor and relatively flat chest, is onto something when she writes, "A word of advice to those who may not understand: Don't bother.... It is what it is, nothing more, nothing less." But intentionally or otherwise, "XXX" sheds at least a little light on what actual intimacy might be like, versus the theatrical variety in which these genuinely likable individuals traffic.
"XXX: 30 Porn Star Portraits" appeared at Mary Boone Gallery, New York [Oct. 30-Dec. 18, 2004] and at John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco [Jan. 12-Feb. 12, 2005]. Accompanying the exhibition was a 144-page catalogue published by Bulfinch Press, a soundtrack distributed by Emperor Norton (Ryko) and a documentary on the making of the photographs aired by HBO [Oct. 22, 2004-Feb. 22, 2005]. Author: Sarah Valdez is a freelance writer living in New York. COPYRIGHT 2005 Brant Publications, Inc.â€¨ COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group