Looking at pictures of children is almost as fun as looking at pictures of animals, especially when they lampoon adult behaviour, like those photos of cats or monkeys dressed up as people, wearing lipstick or smoking cigarettes. The awkwardness and presumed innocence of these animals expose the hidden codes of adult behaviour they mimic. But, as anyone who has ever been through the growing-up process will know, this role playing has much more serious implications where children are involved. Childhood poses and play are an important part of the not-so-innocent process by which identities, dispositions, genders and sexualities are constructed, stunted and solidified. Any monkeys reading this might say the same is also true for them.
Sharon Lockhart's first New York solo show, the inaugural exhibition at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery in its new location, includes a series of six large-scale colour photographs called Auditions (1994). Public school students aged 9-11 were enlisted by Lockhart to perform the climactic scene of François Truffaut's coming-of-age film, Small Change. In a kind of screen test, they duplicate the moment when a young boy and girl meet on a school staircase for their first kiss. Each image is shot from the same position, and photographed with a food stylist's attention to detail (the tiny glitter of a gold stud in Max's ear, the single strand of Amalla's hair crossing the face of her smooth-cheeked partner, Kirk). These rites of passage are inscribed with all the quivering anxiety and wonder of the moment just before a first kiss, and are universalised through their repetition and objective camera view into a kind of kissing-booth answer to the Becher's water towers.
The young would-be actors are on their first studio date, participating in a specifically structured artistic exercise. The Truffaut scene is reconstituted and repeated, using American children of different races, wearing contemporary clothes. One boy appears in two of the photos, underscoring the constructed and choreographed nature of these scenes. So why were the photographs of kissing couples restricted to heterosexual pairings? Would directing girls to kiss girls and boys to kiss boys be more manipulative? Or are these pictures intended as a mediation on the tractability of children's behaviour and desire as it intersects with the institutionalised presence of a compulsory heterosexuality? Clearly, the task of constructing and documenting an intimate encounter between two children, no matter how many layers of conceptual remove are engaged, is far stickier than asking a water tower to stand still.
The second group of Lockhart's pictures, titled Shaun, are actually stills from her film, Khalil, Shaun, A Woman Under the Influence (1994) which is not on view in this show. These small but powerful photographs depict a beautiful boy of ten posing in a pair of white briefs in front of a green backdrop. His gaze is wary of our scrutiny, but his attitude and poise seem indifferent to the legion of horror movie make-up Lesions which cover his body in patches. Their presence places these otherwise sensual pictures into the context of medical photography. With the objective distance of a 19th century sexologist, Lockhart records the progression of Shaun's afflictions as he moves into a kind of punctuated Muybridgey dance. Cast in this light, these pictures recall the false objectivity with which early pseudo-sciences of the mind attempted to document, diagnose, and re-route the permutations of a subject's soul and psyche by charting and identifying the particularities of face and form, skin and skull.
The question is, why is such a strong dose of historically-fortified representational medicine administered to a healthy modern boy with a make-believe malady? Is this unidentified greasepaint disorder supposed to suggest the 'disease as metaphor' poster child, representing the stigmatisation and alienation enforced by a contagion- obsessed culture with 19th century prejudices and paranoias? Perhaps these pictures instead describe a series of symbolic sores transmitted by a latent disease which deforms our own eyes and distorts our view. Reflecting the ugliness and violence of our gaze as it is projected onto Shaun, we could be led to trace his wounds to their root in the mechanisms of representation which allow us to empathise and sentimentalise as we consume and eroticise this image.
Lockhart's photographs seem to be produced within a consciously defined conceptual framework, filtered through multiple references and re-framed with an artifice-aware panache. But exactly what position does the artist take in relation to a photographic history which has manipulated children into complicit and silent subjects, to be acted upon rather than with? The meanings of this work hover in the face of the author's justifiably ambiguous relationship to the construction and commodification of images of children. But the work loses its grip on the meaningful depth of that equivocal realm in favour of the familiar surface terrain of shock-value ploys and sentimental clichés.
Once the initial dose of sexy crafting and assertive scale is swallowed and the maze of internal quotes and references successfully navigated, the impact of these emotionally charged and astutely constructed pictures emerges as a series of superficial abrasions only scratching the surface of the serious issues they engage. Could Lockhart's pictures of Shaun finally be an attempt to chart a landscape of indelible lesions contracted by exposure to the violence of representation itself? Or are these blisters just momentary manifestations of his morbid fear of the cooties, a hallucinatory surrealist condition which keeps young Shaun in the sickroom and out of the kissing-booth?