The Cheerful Transgressive

Photo: Susanna Howe

Larry Clark, the 62-year-old photographer and director known for his obsessive chronicling of desperate teenage lives, was at the gym, sweating on the stationary bicycle and staring at the television. Suddenly, the screen cut to an exterior shot of Locke High School, located in South Central Los Angeles—a shot identical to the opening of Wassup Rockers, the film Clark’s currently editing about a crew of straight-edge Latino skaters (played by actual Locke students) who find themselves objects of fascination by rich white girls from Beverly Hills. “So I turn up the volume,” Clark says, launching into one of his digression-prone soliloquies, “and it turns out there was a shooting at the school. A poor 15-year-old girl shot in the head. Some innocent girl! Anyway, it happened yesterday, right? Well, I was with a kid who goes to that school yesterday—he’s in the movie. So I’m talking to him for hours, because I’m trying to help him with school—he needs 180 credits to graduate—and he doesn’t even mention that someone got shot at his school that day. Not a word! Can you believe it? It just blew my fucking mind, man, and I had to call someone. Figured I’d call you … ”

That Larry Clark still has the ability to be shocked by the detached nihilism of teenage boys takes a moment to process; it is, after all, the terrain he’s been exploring—exploiting, many have argued—for more than 30 years in beautiful, brutal work that’s influenced photographers like Terry Richardson and Ryan McGinley. “Larry Clark,” the first American retrospective of Clark’s work, currently on display at the International Center of Photography, demonstrates the richness with which he’s mined this single subject. Ever since 1971, when Clark published Tulsa, an austere series chronicling his meth-shooting pals in sixties Oklahoma, Clark has made it his mission to document teenagers at their most deviant, their most vulnerable, their most sexually unhinged. In 1983, Clark published Teenage Lust, portraits of Times Square hustlers refracted through his own emotional experience—he included family photos and shots of younger Tulsa junkies—and eventually moved into the (comparable) mainstream with the 1995 film Kids. That movie, about a crew of aggressively malicious and morally bent skaters, including an HIV-positive Lothario who preys on virgins, became a national symbol of the directionless, self-destructive nineties youth generation.

At its rawest and best, Clark’s work reveals a Lord of the Flies vision of being young in America—parentless kids fending for themselves, doing what they can to deny their own existences—one that’s often a few steps ahead of the news cycle. Nothing seems to make Clark prouder. “I don’t want to toot my own horn, because that’s stupid, but I’m just saying that I got there early,” he says. “When I did Tulsa, people thought that drugs couldn’t be happening with crew-cut kids in Oklahoma. Look now! Meth is the scourge of the Southwest! And when Kids came out, they said it was all about Larry, that it was the fantasies of an old man. Then suddenly the news was filled with school shootings, sex, AIDS—all the headlines were what you saw in the movie!” Then, without pause: “Wait a second. Why am I even talking about this? How’d you find me? I fucking hate talking about my work.”

Clark’s work may still shock, but it looks different today, in our kid-fetishizing, exhibitionist age, when the squeaky-clean likes of Katie Couric devote specials to semi-anonymous 13-year-olds talking about blow jobs. Ironically, the increasingly titillating coverage of youth culture in the media, which, Clark says, “makes me just fucking cringe,” is what he’s been criticized most for doing as an artist—pawning off panty shots as profound art. His last film, the narratively challenged Ken Park, still hasn’t been released in America, “because of a music-clearance issue,” says Clark, though he acknowledges that the actual sex scenes, culminating in an extended threesome, are “hard for a lot of people to watch.” Ken Park came on the heels of Bully, a jarringly empathetic portrait of Florida teens derailed by a gratuitous sequence featuring a buck-naked Bijou Phillips pouring candle wax on her drugged-up boy toy. Clark’s the kind of artist one might expect to revel in his own moral ambiguity, but perhaps because he’s been criticized as pervy his entire career—inevitably more so the older he gets—Clark’s eager to defuse such thinking.

“If it’s titillating? Well, sometimes I’m dealing with good-looking people having sex, sure, but that’s not the point. It’s the consequences.”

“I never do anything just to shock, to get attention, to titillate,” Clark swears, though it’s a hard claim to take at face value. Clark may fit the mold of the transgressive artist, but he’s disconcertingly eager to argue that he’s not aiming at self-expression at all—his goal is more wholesome that that: “social commentary.” Tell him this—that his line of defense sounds naïve—and he recalibrates: “Yeah, you’re right. It’s like, I call myself a moralist and my friends fall down laughing. But it’s true! Look at the work—everyone always comments on the photo in Tulsa of a pregnant girl shooting up, like it’s exploitative. Look at the next photo! It’s a funeral. Of a dead baby. I’m always trying to get at the consequences of actions. And if it’s titillating? Well, sometimes I’m dealing with good-looking people having sex, sure, but that’s not the point. The point is the consequences.”

Talking to Clark can feel like talking to a 20-year-old: He’s cocksure, combative without being provoked, funny, generous, and obtuse within the same sentence. You get the sense that he is both immensely proud and totally pissed off at being misunderstood. He’ll tell you how he didn’t even want the retrospective—“I got a lot of pressure from friends, from my gallery, from ICP”—but a few minutes later, he makes clear how much being accepted means to him. “Like at the Whitney, when [former director] David Ross was there, for years every time I’d see him he’d say he wanted to do a retrospective,” says Clark. “But he was always too chickenshit. And I like David, I do. Good guy. But ten fucking years! The bottom line was, he was too chickenshit to do the show, so they did Nan Goldin’s show. But come on! That’s safe as fucking milk!” (“A classic Larry comment,” responds Ross with a laugh. “I remember how hurt he was and have always regretted that we didn’t do the show. But, for the record, I don’t think Goldin’s work is any less safe than Larry’s.”)

In another artist, such bravado might be exhausting. But Clark’s charm is that he seems impervious to this debate even as he engages in it; for all his self-consciousness about the morality of his work, he’s happy to bat around any theory—having too much fun staying in the swim of it to fret about his legacy. There was a telling moment during the opening when a group of lanky teens, skateboards tucked under their arms, wound through a crowd featuring Lou Reed and Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, eventually approaching two adults in their thirties to bum a cigarette. “Thanks,” one of the kids said, lighting up and taking a drag before adding, “And, yo, you guys should come to our party later. We’re trying to bring back the cool New York, the real New York, the New York of Kids.” That the New York of Kids is a place where a predatory skater deflowers virgins was a minor detail. Kids was gritty, and gritty is eternally cool.

“If kids think my work is cool, that’s good,” says Clark, taking the comment, and all its misguided enthusiasm, as the ultimate vindication of his work. “It means I don’t bullshit, you know? Yeah, whatever, being cool is fine with me.”

The Cheerful Transgressive