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Midwestern Masculinity: Larry Clark in Tulsa

By Hailey Maxwell.

Larry Clark, Untitled, 1963, © Larry Clark; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York

For almost half a century, Larry Clark’s obsession with youth has made viewers feel uncomfortable. His body of work a devotes itself to boundary-pushing and often brutal portrayals of teenage experience at the extremes. Clark is frequently accused by adult viewers of wading into a grey space between anthropology and exploitation, with his lingering attention to juvenile bodies exploring themselves and each other. The inclusion of non-simulated sex scenes, ejaculation and auto-erotic asphyxiation performed by non-professional young actors have especially attracted revulsion and contempt.

Regardless of whether you trust his intentions or not, Clark does something important. The audience’s suspicion of Clark is in many ways, as much to do with the inherent moral obscenity of his subject matter as it is about the artist or his actors. It is inherently uncomfortable to witness the subjection of anarchic youth to oppressive power. Clark salts a wound. He arrests that painful, contested space between childhood and adulthood in which power and identity begin to crystallize. In the area of adolescence we witness the growing pains of socially alienated young men, thrashing in violent protest as their bodies become politically co-opted and embedded within the American patriarchy.

Larry Clark, Dead 1970, 1968, © Larry Clark; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York

Clark identifies the moment in which manhood is actively socially afflicted on a person, revealing in his photographs and films, the poignant moments of crisis, angst and vulnerability visible when the mask of masculinity slips. Clark demonstrates the socialisation process through which hegemonic masculine behaviour is instilled, capturing that vulnerable, dangerous metamorphosis of boys as they are taught to become ‘men.’ His oeuvre demonstrates changing concerns and pressures upon the modern male subject within a quickly changing culture; from his first, autobiographical photo series Tulsa (1971) to the lives of real Latino skateboarder boys and hard-faced New York teenagers of 1990s in Wassup Rockers (1996) and Kids (1995) respectively. Resonant of how Pier Paolo Pasolini described the function of sexuality in his 1975 film Saló; as “the metaphor for the commodification of bodies subjected to power,“  these three pieces of Clark’s work form a kind of American trilogy which consider sex, violence, race and class in relation to power. Later photographic series Teenage Lust (1987), The Perfect Childhood (1992) and Punk Picasso (2003) continue to present sharp-edged examinations of the construction of masculinity within the context of adolescent sexuality, the dysfunctional family and the disappointments of the American Dream.

Larry Clark, Untitled, 1963, © Larry Clark; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

America’s sense of masculinity is important It manifests itself through gun violence, institutional racism, reproductive health policy and the military-industrial complex. The most powerful men in American government use their power to behave hateful and violently towards women and minorities without shame. Patriarchal authority is promoted non-officially by the increasingly prominent culture of reactionary neo-fascism, promoted by nativist White supremacists: both the staunch and the recently converted to the alt-right. Sold by platforms like Breitbart, this masculinity – at once jingoistic and cynical – attempts to rehabilitate White American manhood from its perceived castration, or unjust vilification by other races and religions, atheists, women and the LGBTQ+ community. Observed from across the Atlantic, the American alt-right’s insistent self-identification as the protector of European culture is particularly mystifying. However, it is crystal clear that for these angry men, Whiteness and misogyny are demanded of any Crusader defending the ethno-state.  It is easy to see how, in a country so violent and unequal, bloodlines, virility and purity can be sold as snake oil, protecting the white working-class consumer against uncertainty and vulnerability. The Americans who feel alienated from corporate capitalism and crushed by recession are continually sold the idea that their chance to achieve the American Dream has been undermined by multiculturalism, globalism and the undoing of Christian paternalism. And so they steal that hope from others, to preserve that Dream for themselves.

Clark’s photobook Tulsa (1971) documents the artist’s own coming of age in Oklahoma, as the utopian optimism of the sixties declined into malcontent in the markedly less economically optimistic decade that followed. Tulsa was described by Time Magazine in 1957 as “America’s Most Beautiful City” and dubbed by sources too numerous to name as “Oil Capital of the World.” For this sprawling metropolis at the edge of the Great Plains and below the Ozarks, the 20th century had been both a precarious and prosperous one, the economy cycled between the boom and bust as the market value of the city’s liquid gold rose and fell.

Desegregation led to the emergence of important black historians like John Hope Franklin, Mozella Franklin and Ruth Sigler Avery. Documentary photography and publications like Kay M. Teall’s 1971 Black History in Oklahoma helped penetrate the silence around the city’s atrocious race riot of 1921. In the early 20th century Greenwood, Tulsa was home to ‘Black Wall Street’ – the most prosperous African-American community in the country. On May 31st 1921, this prosperity was razed overnight as the white residents committed one of the most devastating massacres in the history of America’s race relations, murdering and displacing hundreds of black citizens. The legal battle for justice and reparations for survivors of the riots, which followed decades later, was described by John Hope Franklin as “Blacks and Native Americans in Oklahoma against White lawyers representing oil barons.”

The seventies saw some of the biggest waves of industrial action in US history, with 2.4 million workers striking in 1970 alone. The decade would be punctuated by riots, wildcat strikes and an escalating war. Clark became a man in Vietnam. He returned home after two years of service aged 20, just as the working man began to fight back against the Establishment, in the voting booth and on the shop floor. “In the 1970s,” trade union leader Gus Tyler declared, “fury comes easily to the white worker. He is ready for battle. But he does not quite know against whom to declare war.” White Conservative resentment was clearly articulated by mounting segregationists and anti-liberal support for George C. Wallace, who stood as an independent in 1968 and as the Democratic candidate in 1972.  In the face of faltering national purpose and morale, President Nixon – as class-aware and shrewd as he was paranoid- was too giving direction to this unchecked rage, appealing to the working man’s sense of whiteness, patriotism and masculinity.

“I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1943,” Clark writes in the book’s introduction. “When I was 16, I started shooting amphetamine. I shot with my friends every day for three years and then left town, but I’ve gone back through the years. Once the needle goes in, it never comes out.” Tulsa is a visionary document of Clark’s own coming of age which both performed the values of manhood and left the demands of American hegemonic masculinity unfulfilled.  Clark and his male friends, desensitized anti-heroes, are documented living in a counter-cultural homosocial bubble – ‘the outlaw life’ – fucking prostitutes, injecting speed and playing with guns. The boys pictured in Tulsa operate in defiance of ideal, capitalist American values. The ideals of masculinity – aggression, excess and sexual voracity – are performed in the context of crime, deprivation and social alienation. Alternative economies, marginal lives, counter-cultures, but still boys becoming men. Weapons, needles – tools of violence and self-destruction enter the photographic frame as signifiers of phallic failure and distance from authority just as much as they represent the anarchic power of young men. Rage and violence is turned against the self as these white boys playfully destroy themselves and reject the outside world.

Larry Clark, Untitled, 1963, © Larry Clark; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Clark understands masculinity as culturally constructed through unstable symbols of patriarchy. The white, naked male bodies in Tulsa wilfully subverts the image of the kouros: the ideal male youth of Classical Greek sculpture. Their skinny, heroin-ravaged bodies are beautiful, in that they are rebellious and refuse to conform to the ideal of the hyper-macho soldier, or the new cult of body-builders that had emerged in 1970s California, led by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger. In one image, the rakish bare chest and blonde hair of Clark’s friend David Roper is aligned with a kitsch framed image of Christ on the mantlepiece. He is as angelic as he is abject.

Clark’s continual focus on youth belies his nostalgia as he revisits the joys and horrors of his own adolescence through the lives of others. He has said:

 “I wanted to present the way kids see things, but without all this baggage…You know…they’re living in the moment not thinking about anything beyond that and that’s what I wanted to catch. And I wanted the viewer to feel like you’re there with them — you can be there fucking, smoking dope, having sex…”

The moments we see in the photographs feel like sacred snapshots of lives lived in defiance of authority, while at the same time Clark and his boys are seamlessly absorbed into the gendered order of things. They objectify women, they hurt themselves, they play together. These images are confessional, and reveal a moral paradox. It is difficult for the audience to accept the possibility that boys can be simultaneously victims and perpetrators, products and consumers, powerful and powerless, tragic and heroic. This paradox is the core of audience discomfort about Clark. The uncertainty about what ethical stance to take with regards to these selfish, playful white boys is far more unsettling than any obscenity contained in the photograph.

Hailey Maxwell
is an Scottish art historian working on radical art and critical thought around the sacred and community.  She is also works as an advocate and educator within a movement dedicated to ending sexual violence. Recently, her work has been featured in Scottish political magazines Cable Magazine and Conter. Twitter: @_acephale

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 27th, 2017.