Thursday, December 3, 2009

The New Necklace: Alix Smith's Portrait Photographs, Part III

(1) As preamble it is necessary to reference two previous entries in this journal, “Reception Theory: The Three Positions for Interaction with Artwork," and “Reception Theory: The Three Positions for Interaction with Artwork Continued." The entries discuss Postmodern Reception Theory, and my own notion that the actual artwork is the toggle switch through which all three currents of reception; artist's intent, viewer and cultural understanding flow. Thus, the artwork itself is more important than the artist, culture, or viewer though it's existence depends on the presence of all three.

(2) Take note of the fact that the title above is linked to Paxton's original image at The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and I have placed the image below as well. *1


As a Postmodern person, Alix Smith has concerns about the cultural construction of the self, and her photographic tableau demonstrate her disdain for the stereotypical cultural construction of gay, and lesbian people. For instance, the image we see of ourselves on the news media most often is the young muscle-dude, or voluptuous-lipstick-20-something-lesbian almost nude and dancing on a truck in Gay Pride Parades. The obvious thought such an image should trigger is that there are at least 20 million gay and lesbian people not on that truck. What instead is that multitude of lesbian women and gay men doing? Alix Smith provides an answer with images of gay and lesbian families at home, and those images provoke more questions.

The States of Union series with which I am most concerned shows gay and lesbian couples in their home environments. The images are formally posed, and as Alix Smith herself states, they are based on classical portraiture. Specifically, in the case of The New Necklace, we have as antecedent, the portrait of the same name by William McGregor Paxton of the Boston School (1869-1941). In that painting a necklace is being passed from one young woman to another. Typically a narrative involving the discarded letter and the necklace in the Paxton painting is constructed around a missing male suitor. Instead, Smith provides us with a Lesbian couple in which the obvious narrative involves the gift of the necklace from one to the other of the two women. * 2 So, I took another look at the Paxton painting, and asked myself, "why can't I change the narrative in that painting as well?" Perhaps the two ladies in question were involved in a “Boston marriage," and the necklace is once again, a gift from one to the
other. * 3 I further read the discarded letter as an apology about some silly transgression. Thus, the art object, “The New Necklace," the photograph is the toggle switch through which all these currents flow - Paxton and Smith, the artists, the culture's heterosexist understanding of the painting and my (viewer's) gay interpretation - both in its original incarnation and in Ms. Smith’s updated version. These currents based on deconstructed and reconstructed narratives connect both artists and the viewer. However, I always keep in mind that it is the artworks themselves that function as a switch through which the currents flow, and Smith has given us a new toggle switch.

I also wanted to take a look at another of Ms. Smiths photographs from the States of Union series, this one #13, of two gay men posed on their antique couch in a setting of antiques and a colonial oil portrait painting. The room is quite elegant in a subdued fashion, though the young man sitting on the couch is in genes and is bare foot, in contradiction to his surroundings. In fact, both men are dressed casually in a formal setting, though by moving the couch away from the wall the photographer allows the viewer to see into an ancillary space filled once again with antiques and another colonial oil portrait. Thus, the setting has been altered - to what effect? The contradiction is perhaps designed to prod the viewer into asking questions, give us a bit of a kick as it were. The narrative I constructed is that these are two young men of good background. Perhaps they collect colonial and eighteenth century art; they inherited it, or both. They, however, are not stiff, and crusty, but a relaxed gay male couple who are at home, happy in the space they have created together.

A thought just occurred to me that this photograph, #13 is opposed to images of gay male couples I have seen in the past. I am picturing a painting, "Bath," by Paul Cadmus and a photograph, "Bath II," by Bill Costa. I include the images here because they demonstrate how LGBT concerns have changed and focused over time. When Cadmus painted “Bath” in 1950 it was a novel idea to consider the possibility of two gay men coupling permanently, in fact we were told by our heterosexist culture that we were incapable of such an arrangement. Cadmus went out on a limb claiming that two ordinary gay men could and should do so. Costa’s, "Bath II," a photographic homage to the earlier painting by Cadmus also shows a young male couple, nude, in a domestic bathroom scene. In both images the tub is of the old fashioned Federal ball and claw footed variety, and the room itself is rather pedestrian with socks hung out to dry and in the Costa photograph the iconic can of Barbosol on a shelf. I include a censored version of both here, to contrast the images with Alix Smith’s more formal and elegant tableau of properly clothed lesbian and gay families.


Cadmus, Costa, and Smith’s images are all confrontational, though Smith’s seem so terribly conventional upon first glance. Never the less, Smith’s may be the more controversial images because they make the claim that well adjusted lesbian and gay couples and families exist throughout our culture, whether or not heterosexists are able to recognize them by granting the right to marriage. At the same time, the images parody the iconic imagery of power, wealth, and position in classic portraiture. This is not to say they make fun of those images so much as to say that we, lesbian and gay couples and families are no different than our straight counterparts, capable of the same self-deceptions, cultural and social constructions, as are our heterosexual brothers and sisters. If I were a heterosexist, would these images change my mind? I'm not sure. However, they do provide solid imagery of states of gay and lesbian union that are undeniable.

Thank you, Alix.


* 1 I believe this image to be in the public domain. If not, one time use is acceptable as part of an informative article about the image. The location of the image at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is established by the title's link above.

* 2 See the previous two entries on this journal for the image of Alix Smith's photograph, "The New Necklace."

• 3 "Boston Marriage" – denotes a 19th to 20th century household in which two women lived in an arrangement similar to marriage. Whether or not the relationship was sexual is debated. More than likely some Boston marriages were sexual and some were not.


Costa, Bill, “Bath II,” HX Magazine (Cover), February 23, 1996.

Greenfield, Beth, “Straight Shots,” Time Out: New York, September 10-16, 2009, p.109.

Holly, Michael Ann, Past Looking: Historical Imagination and the Rhetoric of the Image. Ithaca, Cornell Un iversity Press,1996.

Kirstein, Lincoln. Paul Cadmus. New York: Rizzoli, 1984.

Kleiner, Fred S. and Mamiya, Christin J., Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 12th Ed., Florence, Wadsworth 2005.

Scallywag, “Alix Smith: ‘The Dislocation of Self.’” Scallywag and Vagabond,;05;alixsmith-the-dislocation-of-self/. May 25, 2009. Viewed 9:30 AM, EDT, s=Saturday, November 21 2009.

Smith, Alix, Webisite, Alix Smith, © 1997-2008 Alix Smith. Viewed 9:00 AM, EDT, Saturday, November 21, 2009.

Wheelock Jr., Arthur K., “Johannes Vermeer, The Art of Painting” Brochure, Exhibitions: National Gallery of Art, Website, Viewed 10:30 AM EDT, Wednesday, November 24, 2009.


Will said...

For what it's worth, what I took away from the photograph of the two lovely young men was their connectedness to each other (via the pose that makes one body flow into the other) and alien presence in the rigidly ruled Biedermeier interior. Even the portrait above them is stiff and geometrical =, in line with an interior filled with circles, cones. cylinders rectangles, etc.

I caught on immediately that they were something new and different, strangers in a formally structured world who are comfortable enough in themselves and their relationship with each other to take casual possession, use the furnishings in ways never expected (or even tolerated in the era of their creation) and inhabit the space in their own style.

I like this photograph very much.

Dr. John Bittinger Klomp said...

Hi Will - What a crystal clear view of the various layers in this photograph! Why don't you contact Alix and tell her how much you like it?