p r o b l e m youth
Pick up any newspaper and you'll find stories about adolescent crime or drug abuse. Turn on the evening news and you'll see another report on runaways or street gangs. As standardized test scores continue to plummet, teenage births seem to keep on rising. Clearly something is terribly wrong with the adolescents of the 1990s, or so the story goes. Contemporary mass media bombard the public with endless movies and television programs depicting teenage laziness, promiscuity, and outright criminality. At the same time the advertising industry idealizes adolescent bodies to sell clothing, cosmetics, and exercise equipment. This dyad of fear and desire does double damage as it shapes public perceptions of young people and distorts the way teens view themselves.
The current youth obsession is hardly a novel occurrence, even in recent history. From James Dean to Eazy-E, adolescence has made good editorial copy to inflame the anxieties of the middle-aged and the middle class. Like most emergent generations, today's demon youth are a fictional construct, comprised partially in fact and partially in fantasy. This fictionalized image is developed through various forms of media titillation, authoritarian demagoguery, crusades for "family values," and the current legislative backlash against children and the poor.
At the same time, adolescents live in an age when popular culture has become the primary means though which they are socialized and educated. As this electronically mediated form of education degrades the very generation it attracts, it certainly favors some groups over others. Here race figures prominently. In recent movies like American Me, Boyz 'N the Hood, Dangerous Minds, Menace II Society, and Pulp Fiction, violence becomes the exclusive purview of communities of color, and white society is excused from culpability. Although damaging to "minority" populations, this racist discourse also hurts whites by discouraging self-scrutiny and minimizing efforts toward progressive social change.
The concept of "youth" may be a product of discourse, but it is also a referent with very real political consequences, manifest both in the realm of policy and in the way young people behave. In a postcold war era lacking superpower conflicts, the United States has created what one recent writer has termed a "scapegoat generation" upon which to blame social problems.1 From this perspective, the representational abuse of young people in movies and advertising is inseparable from the "institutional child abuse"problematic relationship of representation to reality, especially regarding youth and people of color. In the 1970s sociologists and educators began to question then-common perceptions of dropouts and gang members as social deviants, theorizing that for certain adolescents "resistance" may be a rational response to overpowering institutions like school or the law. The resulting "cultural studies" movement sou ght to empower youth by giving voice to adolescent groups. During this period essayist Susan Sontproblematic relationship of representation to reality, especially regarding youth and people of color. In the 1970s sociologists and educators began to question then-common perceptions of dropouts and gang members as social deviants, theorizing that for certain adolescents "resistance" may be a rational response to overpowering institutions like school or the law. The resulting "cultural studies" movement sought to empower youth by giving voice to adolescent groups. During this period essayist Susan Sontag took issue with how art photographers create stereotypes of the poor and the disabled, writing that "to photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have."5
Informed by such critiques, postmodern artists in the 1980s created works addressing the deceptive and often arbitrary ways that visual media make meaning. Artists like Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman, and Richard Prince examined how the language of images influences how we come to know what we know. In later years this concern over signification got more specific, focusing on the importance of context in the generation of meaning. From this emerged a set of related questions (Who made the picture? Under what circumstances? Why? For whom?) which artists began addressing. No longer was it enough to simply photograph a population. Equally important were the reception of the images and the effect of the project on those photographed.
The recent work of Los Angeles artist Daniel J. Martinez pursues issues of identity and representation in just such a contextual fashion. With "The Killer in Me Is the Killer in You," Martinez has photographed Santa Monica teenagers in a solemn, frontal style. The sitters gaze directly into the lens, giving the images the ritualized quality of mug shots or ID pictures, but the size, color, and luminosity of the work render this familiar format unfamiliar, an effect heightened by the theatrical red backdrop curtain. The out-of-scale faces of these white youth--pierced, scarred, and drained of emotion--become iconic totems of adolescent identity made all the more unsettling by the realization that one rarely sees a face, or these faces, so directly and so still.
Itžs been said that all portraits depict actors rather than actual people, that the "real" individual resides in the guise, role, or fiction. This performative aspect of portraiture becomes all the more poignant in the context of adolescents, with whom so much is at stake in personal appearance. Like everyone, adolescents literally "put on" an identity through their choices of clothing, hairstyle, and body adornment. However, particular to adolescence is the extent to which appearances locate the subject inside or outside a group, class, or generation while also obfuscating that location. "Youth culture craves recognition but does not necessarily want to be understood by adults," writer Andrew Ross has stated. "Indeed, all of the evidence suggests that it thrives upon being misunderstood."6 As a consequence, individuals stand out, fit in, or disappear while conveying or denying personalities as punks, slackers, wiggers, baseheads, riot grrrls, queers, gangbangers, or hip-hop nationalists.
On the surface, Martinezžs images bear similarity to the large-scale photographic portraits of Richard Avedon, such as those in Avedonžs In the AmericanWest.7 Like Martinez, Avedon explored the physiognomy of his subjects in excruciating detail to produce what he asserted to be a collective portrait of the working class in the United States. As with Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Roland Freedman, and numerous other photographers of the "American scene," Avedon combined images of disparate and unrelated subjects into an imaginary "family" of his own construction. Those photographed played no active role in this fabrication, nor, following Sontag, did they "see themselves" as the artist presented them.
Martinez has photographed a family as well, but of a different kind and in a markedly different way. The sitters are habitues of Santa Monicažs Third Street Promenade, a trendy commercial district where Santa Monica youth rub elbows with shoppers, panhandlers, and occasional celebrities. Here Banana Republic and Pottery Barn are sandwiched between restaurants with names like Lago, Remi, and Matisse. The Promenade is part of the broader development of Santa Monica by the entertainment and tourist industries into a desirable address, a clean and seemingly crime-free municipality just outside the city limits (and tax structure) of postindustrial Los Angeles. The Third Street Promenadežs cartoonlike Main Street ambiance provides a perfect hangout for adolescent renegades, who assert themselves by both occupying the space and refusing to purchase its goods. In the politically liberal atmosphere of Santa Monica, the Promenade becomes a place where these youth can be both tolerated and protected as they act out their rituals of resistance.
That this seemingly safe environment has a dark side was tragically brought home in the violent murder in March 1998 of fourteen-year-old Shevawn Geoghegan by a pair of twentysomething drifters. Like San Franciscožs Haight-Ashbury and other enclaves of alternative culture, Santa Monicažs moderate climate and generous social services create an atmosphere where adult itinerants mingle with adolescent homeless and suburban youth like Geoghegan who go home each night to their parentžs homes. The dress and grooming of the combined populations make it difficult to distinguish easily between a teenager who loves animals and a sociopath who tortures them. In short, no one looks like a murderer.
In "The Killer in Me Is the Killer in You," Martinez examines this problem of misrecognition through renderings of its enabling artifice. In these portraits Martinez represents the public personas adopted by the Santa Monica teenagers who considered Geoghegan a member of their street "family." The participants look into a camera in an act of memory and testimony over the loss of one of their own. At the same time they present a facade. They were Goeheghanžs friends. They are the artistžs subject matter.
One of the functions of this essay is to make that fact of self-representation known, to elucidate the mechanisms of artistic production which so often remain unexplained or hidden. You are viewing a process-oriented artwork that itself is part of a larger memorial for Shevawn Geoghegan. Indeed, Martinez asserts that the pictures constitute only the most tangible by-products of his encounters with these adolescents. Of greater importance are the relationships generated through the collaboration that portraiture enables. Such details live outside the images. Or do they?
"The Killer in Me Is the Killer in You" is a reminder of just how deceptive appearances can be. Through this work Martinez argues that the artifice of representation is more than a theoretical construct for well-heeled gallerygoers to contemplate. Through images we develop our understanding of the world around us and the people in it. Believing uncritically in what we see and hear can lead to prejudice, alienation, and even death. We need to look for more.
SITE: Santa Monica