Blue Towel and Remote - 5/29/14

Today's blog post comes from Ja-Mei Or, a Masters student in History of Design at University of Oxford and editor of fashion and culture blog hyperficial.com.
 
 "After all, we were young. . . , scornful of childhood, remote from the world of stern and ludicrous adults. We were bored, we were restless, we longed to be seized by any whim or passion and follow it to the farthest reaches of our natures. We wanted to live – to die – to burst into flame – to be transformed into angels or explosions." - Pultizer prizewinning novelist Steven Millhauser on youth.
 

Wendy Young
Blue Towel and Remote (from the series Teenagers)
17 x 14 1/16 in. Pigment print
Gift of Wendy Young, 2012
 
It is within this spirit that New Mexico Museum of Art presents the recently acquired and currently on view photograph "Blue Towel and Remote" from Wendy Young's Teenagers series. Captured in 1997, this portrait of Young's own preteen daughter recalls the canon of adolescent portrait photography by artists including Rineke Dijkstra and Sally Mann. Coming of age is an infrequent subject in art photography that is gaining momentum in the contemporary scene, adding to the rich exploration of young adulthood in other humanities, especially film and literature. Adolescence is an experience defined by contradiction and uncertainty and, in "Blue Towel and Remote", cannot be defined solely by the subject's undaunted gaze and sophisticated drape of loungewear or by the vestiges of childhood abandon represented in the plush toys in the background. By extension, adolescence can neither be wholly encapsulated by the nonchalant leisure of the preteen in Sally Mann's "#7" in her At Twelve series (Figure 2), nor by the awkward glamour of the subject in Rineke Dijkstra's “Hilton Head Island, S.C., USA, June 24, 1992″ in her Beach Portraits series (Figure 3).
 

                   Sally Mann                                                                Rineke Dijkstra 
           #7 (At Twelve series)                               “Hilton Head Island, S.C., USA, June 24, 1992″
                                                                                             (Beach Portraits series)
 
The spirit of adolescence is a universal experience and ever-more pronounced in an increasingly visual culture that emphasizes self-establishment of identity and public persona, while at the same time reinforcing body image conventions that are increasingly sexualized and unrealistic. Late 20th-century portraits like these - of young adults attempting to establish their stakes in the world - seem even more significant when considering the rise of mass DIY amateur photography and of a culture of self-curating public identity and image via social media platforms. Today, artificial posing has taken over the norm in photography, especially self-photography among adolescents in the Web 2.0 era, and yet these efforts are neither more nor less comprehensive in delineating how and what it means to come of age. (And in "Blue Towel and Remote", the girl's grasping of the television remote seems proleptic to the proclivity of today's youths toward increasingly complex technologies and networks.)
 
We are in a "society of spectacle", able to self-publish our own images and generate our own personas, yet we are no closer to easing the liminality of adolescence. And, yet, this is an age - in all of its angst and awkwardness - that should be celebrated. After all, what is life if we can't reflect kindly on our own youthfully ambivalent awkwardness, confidence, uncertainty, beauty, naivete, and striving to be taken seriously with an undaunted gaze toward the outside world. As Marcel Proust notes, "In later life, we see things with a more practical eye, one we share with the rest of society; but adolescence was the only time when we ever learned anything."

 

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