Allan Gardner - INDIFFERENT STARS
September 7th – October 23rd, 2022
Opening reception September 7th, 6 - 9 pm
No Gallery - 105 Henry Street Store #4 NYC NY 10002
Meth and the Maiden...
By Maggie Dunlap
This show isn’t about meth. Or drugs at all, for that matter. Indifferent Stars is about how we reify our identities through the images we produce and the images we consume that prove we existed. How we remind others and ourselves that we lived lives, we hurt, and it felt good. If you look long enough at these paintings maybe you’ll see your own need for belonging, certainty, community. The work in this show is born of Allan Gardner’s devotional practice. The source images are mined from the Girls and Meth Tumblr page, but that is ancillary to the real content, of young women’s longing to be seen and witnessed. In the past, I’ve written about humanity’s seemingly insatiable appetite for stories of terrible things happening to beautiful people. But in writing about this show I realize perhaps it is just as necessary to have an audience to your suffering in the first place. After all, if no one saw your wound, did you even bleed?
Susan Sontag describes all photographs as being Memento Mori. “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” Though the faces in these watercolors are melting, relentlessly, the picture won’t scab over or lose any teeth. There are no intra-arterial infections from injection drug use, no septic shock, no smell of death. The girls are preserved forever in amber on #tweakernation and in Allan Gardner’s paintings, never growing old, never dying nor recovering, forever young, beautiful, and high.
Diseases and behaviors that tranquilize and sedate are more often documented and mythologized: tuberculosis, anorexia, heroin addiction. They pull their victims down towards the low middle of life, not quite alive but not yet dead. Amphetamines make for a much harder target on which to pin ideas of tragic beauty. Meth smokers are drawn upwards, filled with endless ideas and energy. Violent paranoia, talking, screaming, laughing. No one is in repose, nodded out in ecstasy like Saint Teresa with stigmata on their arms and between their toes. You don’t step over them and feel mildly guilty, you cross the street to avoid them because you are scared. It is total destruction, it is active, it is outward, it is bubbling over. “Meth has no Lou Reed,” Allan Gardner said to me, “It’s like being a leper.” This is true, but the sentiment stands, that beauty is brought into sharper relief when punctuated by pain. Agony is always holding hands with ecstasy, the sacred with the profane. Dasha Nekrasova said muses get bruises. André Breton said beauty will be convulsive or it will not be. What is methamphetamine if not convulsive?
But this show isn’t about meth.
For tragedy to become romance it must have the promise that a better world could have been. Without beauty, tragedy is meaningless. Our collective heart breaks for the girl burning the bulb of a glass pipe who looks like someone who, if they had been born a few states north, in a higher tax bracket, would probably be an it-girl in Dimes square. Maybe she would have gotten an MFA from a prestigious art school, maybe she’d have modeled for Balenciaga. Maybe she’d have a solo show at No Gallery.
Although unfashionable to invoke a binary, there is something intrinsically feminine about the desire to document and disseminate evidence of your anguish, whether emotional or physical. All over the internet girls starve, they cut, they get high, they get nosebleeds, they get bruised. The Girls and Meth Tumblr page is not the only place one can find photos of young attractive women in some state of ruination. It is what writer Leslie Jamison refers to as the urge to “render angst articulate” in her Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.
It is unmistakably and without fail the female image that is forced into another unhelpful binary: exploitative or empowering?
A beautiful woman made tragic by circumstance or by choice cannot help being elevated to high priestess of pain. To be a woman who hurts, loudly and for all to see, is simply following in the tradition of women who are both death and the maiden. Female saints were made so through their mortified flesh. It was their ability to starve themselves, to lash themselves with spiked whips and chains, to pluck out their eyes and cut off their breasts that elevated them to divinity. Famous bruised muse Lizzie Siddal caught tuberculosis from floating in a cold bathtub, modeling for Sir John Everett Millais’ “Ophelia,” resulting in a laudanum addiction before finally pinning a note to her nightgown that read “I can’t stand it any longer” and died “accidentally, casually, and by misfortune” as determined by the coroner’s inquest. In movies, when a female lead has reached a point of unbearable sadness, she’ll draw a bath. It is imperative that she is nude in her emotional torment. She slowly slides under the surface of the water, eyes open, bubbles escaping from her nose and mouth like smoke clouds.
In much of Gardner’s other work, he builds up surfaces through collage, image transfer, and coats of paint. The form is as complex and multi-layered as the content. Watercolor is the inverse. You basically have one shot to get it right. Small pools of water swimming with pigment and equal parts technique and luck. The faces of these modern-day Ophelias emerge with minimal mark-making. Unlike every other type of painting, the more you revisit and work a spot in watercolor, the thinner it gets. Return to the same area too many times and you’ve worn a hole in the paper—a sore spot, a bruise, a wound where the light gets in.
The only piece in Indifferent Stars which doesn’t draw directly from the self-published Tumblr archive is “Going Out for Cigarettes,” painted from a photograph in Larry Clark’s book Tulsa. This work predates the lyrical watercolors by two years, and is unique in being the only large-scale ink and acrylic painting in the show. Gardner’s hand is confident in all mediums it touches, unintimidated by subject matter or scale. Clark’s eye as a photographer edits and refines in a way that is absent from the frequently Snapchat-filtered selfies of the meth-smoking girls. In the eponymously titled video, we watch each girl act as self-voyeuer, eyes flitting between her reflection in her phone screen, her pipe, and seemingly meeting our gaze when she looks directly into the lens. One could argue this is the true inescapable plight of girlhood, to constantly self-surveil.
Anything about drug addicts or women runs the risk of courting a certain amount of contempt. There is no doubt something unsettling in dragging that which thrives in the shadows of back alleys and trap houses into the light. I think a state of unsettledness can be beautiful and honest. Some may see the filters used in these photos, the makeup applied, the self-awareness, and cringe at yet another instance of women trying to render their angst articulate. They may dismiss it as a “cry for help” as if performing your pain makes it less painful. As if crying for help isn’t a symptom of a deeper ache for connection, an urgent need for understanding. To be seen and witnessed. Sometimes you need to hear there is something wrong with you. Sometimes you need to hear there is nothing wrong with you.
*Exhibition text by Maggie Dunlap