Anthony in Wonderland

from Anthony Goicolea’s artist catalogue 2003

If we asked Scotty to beam us up from the world of Anthony Goicolea’s photographs, what would we say when that brogue cut through the static and asked, “What planet are you on, mate?”

Not the easiest thing to answer.

In Goicolea’s uncanny geography, we walk through the depths of a Brothers Grimm fairy-tale forest. We stand on the water’s edge of what could be a plane-wreck island out of “The Lord of the Flies,” with tribes of prep school boys running amok, both cannibals and sissies. And we trek through jagged mountains and glaciers past more naked kids, curled up asleep in the snow looking as if they too were dropped in a plane crash.

It’s a world we seem to know: from television, storybooks, our memories, and even other photographs—but here it seems to spin at just enough more tilt and to breathe with just enough more weirdness that we really don’t recognize it that well at all. Strewn through the pictures are suitcases piled at the entrance of a cornfield, toilet paper strung in trees like confetti from an abandoned party, huts and woodpiles out of Hansel and Gretel, strange stairways to nowhere and giant mushrooms out of Alice’s wonderland. And lots of animals – doves, dancing rabbits, dead deer, giant butterflies, serene black geese laying eggs, the occasional cat or dog and a few ducks, all curiously off and inanimate, more like props or toys than creatures any of the kids who populate this world might fear or care about.

Goicolea’s photographs document a fantasy world of mild, pre-pubescent anarchy: children running around everywhere, in some unsupervised state of nature, as if their parents never came back from dinner. The kids are mostly boys, but there are some boy-girls too, who could easily have come from a place quite like outsider artist Henry Darger’s strange land of youthful androgyny with its opposing armies of girl-boys.

If this weren’t enough to confuse the crew back on the Enterprise, we could tell Scotty what we’ve also seen of Goicolea’s anatomical wonders in local houses and backyards: bizarre characters like two young aristocratic Siamese twins looking as inbred and cross-eyed as the 18th Century Spanish royal family next door to ordinary suburbanites, bored and flirty in their underwear and school uniforms, having food fights and real fights, pissing their beds, groping each other, watching porn (at their age!), signing casts on broken bones, drooling, chewing their nails, daydreaming. Nothing all that surprising about this – except that we’re obviously invisible trespassers in most of these scenes. When we catch them with their pants down, these kids don’t seem to care or notice. They wear the looks of no shame – both its in its bliss and dull distraction.

No adults anywhere? Well, almost none. Goicolea put some men in a few of his earliest pictures; more recently, he has simply left occasional clues to adult presence. In “Warriors,” for example, we can barely make out a shirtless man with his chiseled back to us inside a white clapboard building in the background of the photograph. In “Blizzard” a huge man is in the foreground, but we can’t see his eyes; he actually looks like a fearless statue in a coat, doing nothing for the boy who clings to him in the snow or other boys who seem to be running for their lives. In “Before Dawn” a boy is walking almost out of the picture, looking at us wide-eyed, as if he’s been caught, surprised that adults could have stumbled upon him and his naked friends in their blond wigs. Then there are the sly references as in “Whet” where an adult foot barely juts into the scene from the bottom left corner.

Goicolea does not put frames around his photographs, and for exhibitions he prints them very, very large to encourage us to feel like voyeurs in our own or someone else’s childhood, as if we could step inside his pictures and invade someone’s memories. Just as frequently, Goicolea foreshortens the images so that we feel as if we’re already in the middle of a scene; everything and everyone are in motion. It’s the illusion of war photography, candid camera shots of dreams and memory, images stolen on the run.

And yet despite the adrenaline, when we look at these photographs we get a little uncomfortable, the mixed emotions parents feel rummaging through the lives of their kids, looking under their mattresses for pot or porn. It’s Goicolea’s shrewd way of implicating us in emotions of adolescence. He makes it impossible for us not to spy, but he makes sure we’re caught spying: it’s actually our foot stepping into the scene, representing adult trespass into a world where children rule. We end up frustrated, though. Not only do we feel a voyeur’s remorse, we feel cheated, left out. No matter how good the illusion of a photograph, we can’t actually step inside it. We’re trapped watching the kids have all the fun.

In The Uses of Enchantment, his famous psychoanalytic study of children and fairytales, Bruno Betthelheim writes “The question for the child is not ‘Do I want to be good?’ but ‘Who do I want to be like?’ It’s a question of ever-changing identifications and new heroes. Being enchanted means not quite knowing why we love what we do; it means eventually becoming disenchanted and then enchanting ourselves again. Goicolea gives us an unflinching look at some sexually ambiguous possibilities of youthful enchantment.

Adults can go to therapy and try to uncover their unconscious minds in order to understand themselves. What children do naturally – what artists do with intention – is make their conscious worlds mirror their unconscious ones. Shaping the world into something coherent, creating emotional order out of the people and experiences we encounter – this is the search for meaning children undertake, helped along the way by fantasy, Teletubbies, Pee Wee Herman, Dungeons and Dragons, J.D. Salinger and traditional fairy tale. It is the Freudian notion of life as a problem to solve. So what do we do? We go out on our quests seeking answers. We learn to confront our Oedipal feelings and sibling rivalries, we learn to deal with the ruptures in our narcissistic desires. We learn that we can’t have everything. We become nostalgic.

T.S. Eliot said art puts order in reality to convey the order of reality.

Goicolea has the visual equivalent of perfect pitch in capturing the bewildering nature of childhood, its turmoil of feeling. And, yet, he is very careful in the digital arrangement of his tableaus and group portraits to give this turmoil order and meaning. Goicolea’s photographs are as compositionally proper as the schoolboy uniforms many of his characters wear; they are careful, contained and consciously narrative images. And their illusion is important. We’re definitely not meant to look behind the curtain to see how these images are made.

But where do they come from? Hovering in the background of Goicolea’s work is that young mother to all narrative photography artists in their twenties and thirties, Cindy Sherman. But there’s a charged difference with Goicolea: a young man dressing up sets off different alarms and trips on different wires of judgment and attention. Basically: it’s queer. That strong emotional presence puts Goicolea refreshingly apart from the cold, cathode-ray distance in the set-up fantasies of Gregory Crewdson or Anna Gaskell.

Goicolea clearly has influences as disparate as Lewis Carroll and the Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue fantasies of perfection. He’s obviously studied everything from Jeff Wall’s tableaus and Tina Barney’s portraits of her wealthy family to Hitchcock’s staginess in “The Birds” and Charles Ray’s notoriety in the auto-erotic sculpture “Oh Charlie, Charlie, Charlie,” where several anatomically-correct nude manikins of Ray link themselves in a sexual daisy chain. Goicolea’s outsized, often panoramic prints even echo the tradition of vast mural narratives stretching from the paintings of 16th century Venetian masters to the dramatic walls of political history by Diego Rivera. There is even a twisted iconography of Waspy Anglophilia infected with ethnic Catholicism – not just in the double reading of props like school uniforms, but in the atmosphere of lustiness, the heavenward gaze, that look Goicolea’s characters can have of otherworldliness mixed with come-hither beauty, a look typical of saints.

A surprisingly interesting way to examine Goicolea’s work is to see it side by side with photographs as seemingly different as the nude self-portraits of John Coplans. Goicolea, obviously, plays up being beautiful, young, smooth and androgynous. Coplans makes no bones about being fat, old, hairy, calloused and wrinkled. But on this scale of a half-century difference in age and beauty, both artists balance self-display with careful photographic composition. Both have occasionally been accused of obsessive narcissism. But shame is really the greater question they’re after: by what conventions, what veils, what indirection, can an artist reveal himself? The shames of youth have different weapons from those of old age. But spectators can be slain by both.

How will it end, this American youth-fantasy tale of Goicolea’s – the boy who doesn’t grow old, who got his wish to have a twin, to be one of triplets, even to brag of a dozen brothers just like him? Stories like this rarely seem to end well, they’re usually cases of “careful what you wish for.”

But Goicolea seems to have internalized the warning lessons of fable and fairytale. One of his recent photographs shows a dark black and white stand of poplars. Not so easy to make out is a phalanx of hooded figures in silhouette – they could be pygmies, boys or Snow White’s seven dwarves – marching through the woods, possibly carrying something – is it a body? – on a long pole supported by their shoulders. It’s an elegiac picture, definitely the end of some story. And it contains a powerful metaphor about art’s ability to help us manage growing up and growing older.

Like dreams, art gives the dignity of representation to our obsessions and unconscious desires. But obsessions change over time – those of both spectator and artist. In “Poplars,” with its diminutive actors making a solemn procession off stage left, it’s as if Goicolea signals a coming change in his work, as if the great concerns of childhood memory have had their time and some new subjects will come into our field of vision.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in Goicolea’s latest series of photographs, human figures are absent entirely. We stare at strange empty landscapes. Scotty has beamed everybody up. Where now will Goicolea boldly go?

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