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.

An antidote to an overabundance of Ritts lies around the corner in a selection of sumptuously decadent, brooding Andres Serrano pieces. A visceral temple of blood, milk, urine and other organic challenges to marble gods and goddesses, Serrano drags the refined down into the gutter of human lust and biology, or vice versa, redeems blood and bone as art. Works like "Piss Elegance" also provide an ironic put-down to the fatuously highbrow pretense lurking in the beefcake wing.

Some of the best work in the show is contemporary photography. A Nan Goldin assemblage of color photographs ("Thanksgiving") injects an element of humanity and pathos into a show that can often slip into chilly detachment. Thankfully bypassing the ubiquitous drama queen Cindy Sherman, Chorus instead features the creepiness-tinged Minnellian outback melodramas of Tracey Moffatt, nicely accentuated by Gregory Crewdson's Sherman-meets-Jeff Wall-meets-David Lynch suburban nightmares. Conceptual work with an intimate tinge, like Duane Michals' or Masao Yamamoto's democratic hybrids of the art object and the snapshot, supply unexpected and welcome doses of feeling and photographic experimentation to the show.

Chorus is not merely marked by Elton's celebrity, but by the apparent delight of the singer in adorning his walls with a meritocracy's yearbook of other famous names: Marilyn Monroe, Chet Baker, the Beatles, Jessye Norman, James Dean, Salvador Dali and Francis Bacon. John's accumulation of these images of artists, actors and musicians suggest an individual as entranced by and anxious for a hit off the crack pipe of celebrity as any of us, intoxicated by the magical, transporting, seductive aspects of fame. It's tempting to think of John, browsing through his closet, deciding on the day's attire while gazing upon his personal Milky Way of stars, each of them captured, according to the talents of the photographer, wearing his public mask, or in Phil Stern's portrait of Marilyn Monroe, letting the mask fall away for an instant. More often it is the mask of celebrity John seems drawn to -- carefully lit and arranged to project the star "essence" -- undoubtedly because John, too, is engaged in the process of self-preservation and identity construction that are the celebrity's commerce.

The celebrity portrait component of the Chorus show at the High's downtown branch feels more warm and revealing and closer to the intimate side of its collector than caught up in issues of "taste" so evident in the Midtown survey. The streak of appreciation for Americana in its human form also gives this phase of the exhibition a more humble, personal aura.

Though there are more images of John in high-celebrity mode, posing with utmost dignity, having settled into a comfortably bourgeois persona, the most charming, human image of John in the show is of the performer in full rock 'n' roll dandy frockery, sporting an outrageous, striped three-piece suit and wearing a jubilantly goofy grin. Norman Parkinson's rough-around-the-edges portrait of John subverts the composed, cool demeanor the musician's portraiture more often favors. Some of the better works in the show thus echo this notion, replacing the stylized "glamour" of an Annie Leibovitz portrait for something more humble like a cozy shot of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman cooking in their Beverly Hills kitchen. A triptych of Polaroids of Andy Warhol in drag are hilarious -- far more lowborn, honest and "about" this chameleon man than the David Bailey or Irving Penn portraits of Sting or Francis Bacon hanging in close proximity.

The curators of Chorus are onto something in playing up the Elton mystique in conceptualizing this show. While it leads to a certain kitsch appreciation of a celebrity's taste that may alienate more sophisticated audiences, the most advantageous light in which to view the show may be through the lens of John's own perception. Lacking an organizing principle beyond individual taste, what these images say -- about their collector and the degree to which celebrity is an "aura" which photographs propagate -- is worth a thousand words.

Chorus of Light: Photographs From the Sir Elton John Collection runs through Jan. 28, 2001, at the High Museum, 1280 Peachtree St. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Thurs. and Sat., 10 a.m.-9 p.m. on Fri. and noon-5 p.m. on Sun. Celebrity Portraits from the Sir Elton John Collection will run through Jan. 28, 2001, at the High Museum of Art Folk Art and Photography Gallery, 133 Peachtree St. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat. 404-733-HIGH.

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