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Guise and dolls 

Chorus of Light a revealing look at Elton John's fascination with celebrity

A show that is almost impossible to view without considering the personality of its patron, the High Museum's Chorus of Light: Photographs From the Sir Elton John Collection roams hither and yon through photography's past and present (to an often overwhelming degree) but presents a very clear, terse exegesis of the man, Elton John, who has made these images his roommates.

The High Museum seems to have recognized the value of "spin" in imprinting Chorus at every turn with the Elton touch. The show ends with a celebrity Big Bang -- a small room dominated by an enormous Chuck Close portrait of the collector/musician, a trio of Lucas Samaras Polaroids of John, and around the corner, the show's "money shot." Like a natural history diorama, the curators have assembled a sliver of John's own native habitat for viewers' perusal, complete with Versace throw pillows, a rug made of rose petals you wish the gift shop was offering as a knock-off and bookshelves filled with photography books to attest to the collector's "passion." This mock room, like Mount Vernon or Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' Florida cabin, is a parcel of personal history served up as celebrity aura, accented by large color photographs of John's Atlanta digs, not so much to put this collection in context, but to further wow us with the celebrity opulence the curators perhaps hope will rub off on the show.

Such kitschy attempts to play the celebrity card may, however, work in Chorus' favor. Perhaps reluctant to look at photography as "high art," the hypothetical mainstream audience is more apt to be enticed by the glitter of fame and money that's settled on these objets d'Elton. As a marketing ploy, the "sell the celebrity -- sell the show" tack is probably a good one. But it is the kind of gimmick that distinguishes an "Atlanta" show from one in a more cosmopolitan city -- the curators either know the limitations of their audience or share them.

For mainstream audiences, the Elton show will undoubtedly be a valuable immersion in some of the nooks and crannies of photographic history, with enough famous faces and varied approaches to the medium to hold interest. Though the arrangement of the show is an often sketchy attempt to create a narrative of taste (Elton's interest in fashion photography, the male nude, etc.), there are definite pleasures in store that exceed the awkward organization. Instead, some of the more thoughtful, thematic arrangements of work occur in the exhibition catalog, as in a succession of images focusing on the notion of the mask (a provocative subject for a celebrity collector), from Man Ray's image of a pale woman holding an ebony African mask "Noire et Blanche," to Edward Steichen's seductive image of silent film actress Gloria Swanson viewed through a vampish black veil. Such juxtapositions of work, regardless of historical constraints, with shared themes in mind tend to work better than the largely historical procession of work in the gallery component of Chorus.

The High exhibition's first room, dominated by iconic fashiony black-and-white images by Horst P. Horst, Irving Penn, Norman Parkinson, William Klein and Richard Avedon, has the instant appeal of a fast-acting drug. These polished, elegant images offer an amusing essay on the lusciousness of the (clothed) woman complemented by a room later in the show devoted to the lusciousness of the (nude) male. Both men and women in Chorus tend to be viewed as beautiful objects, as composed and perfect as the decked-out David Levinthal Barbies also in the show.

Accessing a notion of glamour that has all but disappeared from the culture -- even in the realm of fantasy -- the room is like having dessert before dinner. It also establishes a tone, that will repeat throughout Chorus, of the collector's interest in the human form as an abstraction, an interest in shape and form that often feels quite aloof, at times even studied and clinical. As John tells Ingrid Sischy in an interview for the accompanying catalog, "I really grew up thinking more about inanimate objects than about human beings. I was pristine about everything I collected," a notion certainly played out in his aesthetic choices.

A case in point is the gorgeously phallic stand-in for all of Mapplethorpe's veiny members: his beautiful "Jack-in-the-Pulpit," which supplants an icon of human desire with floral abstraction. John's predilection for surrealist photography by Man Ray (like the famous "Glass Tears," where even sentiment is artificial), his collection of floral still lifes, Hiro's "Apollo Spaceflight Training Suits" minus the astronauts and nudes often captured with their heads and features cropped out all emphasize an eye focused on careful, arranged form, with little of the humanist documentarian impulse that has also characterized photography's evolution.

The interest in the body as a form and object finds its apotheosis in a room given over to male nudes -- a veritable cheesecake grotto that looks like Leni Riefenstahl's wet dream -- of beefy male bodies poised on a tightrope, coated in sand, wet with sea spray. The images often show the amusingly high-low identity crisis of photographic history -- anxious to establish itself as a valid art form by deferring to "classical" poses and the timeless nude, but just as often using a fig leaf of "culture" to cloak a hot-and-bothered Muscle Culture interest in all that brawn and sinew. Such work often suggests a class element inherent in photography and some of its collectors, of grappling with high art themes through the more accessible format of photography. But the room could have benefited from having some of its cheesier elements, such as Herb Ritts' work, purged. Ritts' forced, manufactured sexiness -- in images of a hunk of beefcake encased in a soap bubble, or of a sexy young stud with two Goodyears tucked under his arms a la Lewis Hine -- give a tacky Poster Hut feel to the proceedings.

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