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"Nan Goldin: Stories Retold"

Work reflects the horrors, pleasures and ravages of time

Nan Goldin's intimate snapshots pack one hell of an emotional wallop. Like Larry Clark at his most legendary, Goldin doesn't flinch — not even when a man's fist is aimed at her eye. To know Goldin intimately is to play a subject in the documentary of her life, which, in turn, becomes our life: a mirror reflecting the horrors, the pleasures and the ravages of time.

Known primarily for her epic ode to the '80s, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Goldin recently received photography's highest honor, Sweden's Hasselblad Award, firmly planting her among the world's most important photographers. The honor is a testament to Goldin's singular vision. After all, she takes color snapshots. It's proof that consumer technology hasn't leveled the playing field when it comes to art.

In Nan and Brian in Bed, the photographer wears an expression of quiet desperation.
Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
In Nan and Brian in Bed, the photographer wears an expression of quiet desperation.

The span of Goldin's career (her life) is on display in "Nan Goldin: Stories Retold" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It includes a recently reedited version of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency slideshow and Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls, a three-screen, slide-and-video projection that tells the story of Goldin's sister Barbara, who committed suicide in 1965, and the toll it took on Goldin. Also featured are a series of photo grids and individual images.

Ballad, a 45-minute slideshow containing 622 images, screens every hour on the hour, and it's the must-see portion of the show. In fact, two visits are required to fully experience the power of this exhibition. Beginning with Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's song of the same name from The Threepenny Opera, Ballad sets us up for a very Weimar-esque vision of 1980s New York. There are photographs of young women waking up (probably in the late afternoon) and slowly, languidly dressing for a night out, looking into mirrors — scenes vividly underscored by the Velvet Underground's "I'll Be Your ­Mirror."

Shockingly, soon we're confronted with the aftermath of violence. Goldin indifferently displays the bruises and black eyes she sustained at the hands of her lover. There's a scar on a woman's abdomen, bruised breasts and a slit wrist. These echo another Threepenny song, the Ballad of Immoral Earnings, in which Jenny sings, "He was so sweet he bashed me where it hurt," and later, "I had the bruises off and on for years."

The confrontational nature of these photographs asserts itself further in a revenge fantasy. Goldin's female subjects wield firearms, flex muscles and handle pitbulls, as if to say, "We'll deal with this on our own terms." The act ends in a series of bathing photos, washing away the pain. Before long, we're back at the club celebrating among the strippers and working girls.

Like Brecht, Goldin doesn't judge this environment. Even though many would point toward the drinking and drugging and sexual promiscuity as conduits for painful consequences, Goldin simply presents her world, at a time when youth compensated for the sore outcome. Her subjects are exuberant and comfortable — very comfortable — in these intimate scenarios.

The wedding of actress Cookie Mueller, who appeared in some early John Waters films, kicks off a major transition in Ballad. Goldin takes the opportunity to explore gender and sexuality. Following a series of photos of children, males dominate Goldin's narrative. If Ballad's first half is about women, its second is about men. James Brown's "This Is a Man's World" makes that blatantly clear. Goldin's subjects are more than happy to showboat for her camera; one man even demonstrates that most legendary of autoerotic stunts — successfully.

The character of Brian, with whom Goldin shared a turbulent, sometimes violent, relationship, begins to appear during these sequences. There are many photos of him, including perhaps the series's most recognized shot, Nan and Brian in Bed. Sheila Hylton's mesmerizing reggae cover of the Police's "The Bed's Too Big Without You" sound-tracks this moment: Goldin in bed watching Brian smoke a cigarette. Her expression is of quiet desperation, frozen in codependence. On the wall is another photo Goldin took of Brian. It speaks volumes about the nature of abusive relationships without a scrap of trivial judgment. Sometimes being alone is scarier than not.

A series of downtown NYC party scenes, complete with Petula Clark's "Downtown," leads into some very intimate photos of sexual acts and drug use. It's interesting to imagine the slideshow presented in the '80s at some of New York's alternative art spaces, with many of Goldin's subjects in the audience. Were they embarrassed? Not likely.

There are the celebrity appearances: John Waters, the ubiquitous Warhol, Keith Haring, Lydia Lunch and Jim Jarmusch.

Ultimately, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a meditation on time and its ­relation to intimacy. As it speeds toward its conclusion in death, it celebrates the moments when we're most naked, innocently, physically, emotionally, and that cameras exist to record those moments forever.

Worthy of its own visit, Goldin's 2004 presentation Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls presents a more harrowing vision of her life and uncovers wounds much deeper than the bruises of Ballad.

Innovatively projected on three screens and mixing video with still imagery, the piece begins with the story of Saint Barbara, who was locked away in youth and later beheaded for rebelliously converting to Christianity. The story segues into the life of Goldin's troubled older sister ­Barbara, who was institutionalized as a child for her "self-destructive tendencies" and "sexually provocative behavior." Goldin narrates in a very straightforward style as she describes how Barbara committed suicide by throwing herself under a train. She was 18 years old.

There's a beautiful scene of footage captured at Barbara's gravesite. The center panel is a photo of Goldin's parents walking from the grave. The two side panels are moving video, creating an amazing effect on the still picture in the center, like it's actually moving forward in space or floating.

Goldin left home at 14, and as she describes, "Drugs set me free; later they became my prison." Her teenage years and twenties are represented by images also seen in Ballad, and it's clear she shares Barbara's self-destructive streak. A clean-and-sober period is followed by relapse, and Goldin lands in detox. Nick Cave's "Hallelujah" emphasizes Goldin's dejected state and struggles. What follows are the most horrifying images in "Stories Retold" — ugly scenes of self-mutilation set to Johnny Cash's haunting cover of Trent Reznor's "Hurt."

Of course, Goldin pulled through, and the redemptive final moment at her sister's grave site speaks to the power of confronting loss. "Seems So Long Ago, Nancy," by Leonard Cohen perfectly underlines the elegant closing imagery.

Goldin's photo grids on display offer wonderful support to the two main presentations. Positive Grid and The Plague, two grids of 17 silver dye bleach photographs, document the friends Goldin lost to AIDS, a palpable theme of Ballad.

The grids demonstrate the cumulative power of Goldin's snapshots, especially Tokyo Spring Fever, a massive compilation of images Goldin captured in the '90s of Tokyo club kids partying, hanging out and having sex. Singularly viewed, they might seem repetitive and unedited, but presented as a 129-photo onslaught, they're powerful. One can almost smell the sweat, cigarettes, booze and sex.

Of all the grids, though, My Milky might encapsulate the big themes on display in "Stories Retold" — the objective, celebratory observance of time. The grid is a tribute to Goldin's cat Milky, a big black-and-white feline that was buried in Paris. Milky's tombstone reads "27/5/72 – 12/6/86 YOU NEVER DID ANYTHING WRONG."

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