Rineke Dijkstra at the Marian Goodman - Review

The Marian Goodman gallery feels clean. The space is open and the light is bright. It matches Dijkstra’s work well, and feels startlingly different than it did for the Nan Goldin show that was up before quarantine, in which it felt dim and hazy. I am surprised at the atmospheric adaptability of the plain space, but I guess its blank-ness allows it to be a cushion canvas for any artists that roll through its glass doors. The work on show this time is several series of portraits. Dijkstra’s work somehow manages to feel simultaneously intimate, voyeuristic, and clinical. All the portraits are clearly posed, not candid, and their subjects watch you intently as you watch them. The family portraits in the first room have been printed very large, in absolutely crisp high definition, and set against walls so white they almost glow. Viewing them feels a bit like a confrontation. The atmosphere they capture, of children in their homes, recalls what the painters of royal portraits in the Renaissance might have faced as they worked. The children in the photos look clean, well kept and their houses look the same.

Image courtesy of author.

Someone visiting the gallery at the same time as me comments to her friend that post quarantine, it feels strange to be given such a stark view into people at home. A very interesting dichotomy comes into play between the open intimacy of the portraits, that in our current state feels so foreign, and the absolute cleanliness and open nature of the Goodman gallery’s architecture. It’s strange to press this intimacy and ‘clinicism' against one another. It works because of the very particular intimacy Dijkstra achieves. It’s a real feat to present a tender subject against a stark scene, and to have that subject retain its softness.

I head upstairs, and find hung along the walls a series of triptychs, basking in the blanched light of the bare room. The images are portraits of three sisters, shot over the course of four years. Again, despite the photographs having been taken against a white background and hung in a white room, we really are able to establish a very sensitive understanding of their subjects. It starts to seem as though this is Dijkstra’s tactic, to use abrasive cleanliness to highlight the fragility of flesh and expression.

Image courtesy of Marian Goodman's website. Dijkstra - 'Parque de la Ciudadela, Barcelona, June 4, 2005': https://www.mariangoodman.com/artists/40-rineke-dijkstra/works/37747/

As soon as I think this, I enter the second room at the back of the gallery downstairs. Here, a series sticks out for the fact that the images feel less staged. My eye hits a wall of green and it makes me smile. These photos have been taken in a park, and though their subjects are the same, posed children, they have a kind of nonchalance that those taken at home lack. It’s interesting to consider the power of an active versus static environment. It’s even more interesting to consider that there is something in Dijkstra’s shooting style that allows the subjects of the outdoor series to have the same sort of gravitas as their indoor counterparts. This seriousness contrasted with the scenery, a pink plastic scooter and a solemn face, makes them feel lighter, more candid. I find out from the exhibition guide each photo is taken in a park from a different part of the world. One is taken in Barcelona, the other in Liverpool, another in Xiamen. The gallery has chosen not to have captions next to the images, it's a nice choice as it establishes a consistency. You could easily think all the photos had been taken in just one or two cities if not for the descriptions on the gallery’s flyer.

On the way out of the gallery I watch the film that’s showing. Night Watching plays in a dark room, with soft, black carpet that blankets sound. It feels like a nice rest for my eyes. Inside, three large screens show a rolling series of groups of people being filmed discussing Rembrandt’s Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum. It’s amazing to watch the differences, and more so, similarities, between what the groups notice. From Japanese businessmen to Dutch students, they all pick out the drums, the darkness, the dog. They comment on the characters, “That girl looks like she’s stolen something…”, “She looks like a Monique…”, “Why don’t we dig up Rembrandt and ask him?”. Across all the commentaries, though immensely varied, we find humour as a common thread. It’s refreshing to watch people candidly interacting, especially in a post-COVID society. It’s somehow novel, even though it’s really the most ordinary thing. There’s also something to be said about the meta-ness of watching people react to a gallery while in a different gallery.

Image courtesy of author.

Overall, the show is surprisingly socially relevant, despite the fact that it went up before the quarantine. It reaches at a kind of universality, although the portraits on show are only representative of a narrow slice of society. I think it feels quite honest. Dijkstra doesn’t try to hide anything with her photography, nor does she try to add something that isn’t there. It is humans celebrated and recorded as they are, if just a bit scrubbed up and put into fresh clothes.

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