Magazine article Artforum International

No Place like Home

Magazine article Artforum International

No Place like Home

Article excerpt

Once every year or two - and lately less frequently than that - I receive a sort of visitation of art, a visual experience altogether unlike any other. It is, quite literally, what I live my critical life for: an object or an image never before seen, at once entirely strange and perfectly familiar and right. So it was that during a trip to Los Angeles a few months ago someone happened to show me some photographs by a man named Richard Billingham, and I felt the aesthetic equivalent of love at first sight.

The artist is twenty-five or so - just a kid with a camera, and that's pretty much all I know about him. The few half-hearted attempts I made to find out more yielded very little, and while I don't ordinarily count myself a member of the Know-Nothing school of formalist aesthetics, I have to admit that I didn't try too hard, because it was clear that everything about the artist that could conceivably be relevant was in the pictures themselves, particularly as they appear in a volume he published last year called Ray's a Laugh.

The book is a collection of photographs of the apartment in a lower-middle-class British housing project where his parents live. His primary subject is his father, Ray, an everyday alcoholic who rarely leaves the house; instead he stays in and drinks home brew, puttering around while wearing a series of drunkard's expressions: delighted, dazed, about six inches short of dead. Aside from Ray there's a behemoth mother, a brother who comes and goes peripherally, a dog, and a cat. Two or three main characters, then, along with a few extras, and four or five rooms: Ray's a Laugh is a parlor drama of sorts, as tightly composed as a Pinter play, and considerably more grueling.

Billingham's home seems, at first glance, to be an almost comically horrible place to be, with its airless rooms stuffed full of broken-down furniture, its violence and abjection, and hopelessness, and mess. It's the kind of place that usually exists in domestic semidarkness, not because it's private, but because it's too tawdry to photograph: until Billingham, I would have thought such things literally would not show up on film, as if Kodak's chemicals would refuse to capture them. One extended sequence, for example, shows his mother and father right after they've had a fistfight; she's several times his size, and appears to have won; the old man is bloodied, and wears an expression of utter bewilderment and exhaustion. Another one, startling for quite different reasons, shows his mother feeding a tiny, newborn kitten with a syringe, her massive torso filling the frame. A third, in some way the most visceral of them all, is of a white lace curtain hanging down over a window. Gruesome things: still, there's a certain wild humor to it all - someone, for example, has sketched a hairy cock and balls in icing on a birthday cake, and there is the family cat, hissing at a nonplussed Ray from its spot on the shelf of a credenza.

In a blurb on the back of Ray's a Laugh, Robert Frank claims "reality and no pretence" for the work. But it would be too bad if that were true: the reality of Billingham's surroundings is fascinating, but it's the artifice he brings to bear on it that makes it worth a second look. That said, I should point out that, on some very basic level, Billingham's may well be the worst photographs I've ever seen professionally published, and never mind for now that they're also some of the best. Almost every rule of photography is badly broken: pictures are out of focus, over-exposed, printed with a grain so visible that the image beneath is almost completely obscured. Half of them are absurdly framed; in one, for example, a dog and Billingham mere's feet float up in one corner of the picture plane, the rest of which is occupied by a linoleum floor. I assume Billingham uses one of those autofocus and autoexposure pocket cameras; in many cases it looks as if he was none too sober himself when he pressed the shutter button. …

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