Family portraits usually isolate a clear moment in the lifespan of a tribe: it’s a study in exclusion.
I often visit a Web page called Awkward Family Photos. Antlers are popular ornaments in holiday snapshots: antlers for the whole family. A stand-up comic once said: There is no such thing as “fun for the whole family.”
I go to a gallery in Chelsea that promises more of these studies in exclusion, the awkwardness and micromanagement of the staged, but I get the dates wrong. I find oil paintings in a railroad room, I find family portraits but they are better and darker than the Americana of awkwardness, they are all I want.
In Sara Conklin’s painting Family Portrait, a trio of figures stands before the woods. They look like they’re about to go in. Their faces are hazy. Smog features, smudge and contour.
Nothing mentioned of how they came here—these children, before the woods.
In another Conklin painting: more blurred features, the father almost faceless, the daughters looking at you with the faces of rocks: only certain disturbances of form in their faces. Only the mother’s is the most clearly developed face. Inhabitants of an early time, this quartet: the girls’ sky-blue skirts flare but the stiff pose of these children and their parents makes them archaic. The artist has represented these people as ghosts. They stand on ground that looks like volcanic rock. Mists snake around them. What I see in in Sara Conklin’s Family Portrait is an insight into how family pictures transform the family into a set of ghosts. A good family picture practices the art of exclusion.
* * *
The Highline is a greenhouse whose roofs and walls have blown away. I’m walking with many people among these plants, along these covered-up tracks, but we can see the buildings around us, effaced company-names and The Manhattan Mini Storage ad that says on the building: Love Means Never Having to Say I’m Sorry My Kickball Trophy Fell on the Baby Again. A man with a sculpted plastic head on top of his head—like an Easter-Island head—walks. These are the things I hear as I walk by. Everyone has a camera. Is a camera, a Sally Bowles, perhaps, delirious in the moment before the party’s shattered.
–“I was homeless myself,” she laughs. “Just for one weekend. I didn’t have to be, of course–it was just, I don’t know, a phase, like when I took up photography and I won that competition for taking pictures of vegetables in erotic positions. I’ve always liked studying things. I think you’ll be a fascinating allegory in my movie.”
–I love all these—[pointing to the stalks that look like barley]—“I don’t know why”
–Something in Japanese: “Watashi wa korera no shokubutsu wa minikui to omou”
–Something in German: “Als ich sie küsste, es war wie Verkostung ein Aschenbecher”
–“I felt that way about Love in the Time of a Cholera. What I wanted to read it for was a good story, but it just seemed like a bunch of run-on sentences”
—Two women on the Highline. One is the boss of the conversation.
The boss says to the non-boss, “Is he older? You were always dating older guys, if I remember right.”
After the question’s confirmed, the boss says, “I’m not on a career path, I don’t want to be strapped to a desk, I’d just be happy working in a bakery, eating cupcakes every day. I guess I could start a food blog, but everyone and their mother has a food blog these days…”
[Then, later in the conversation:] “I went to HG’s [movie star’s] apartment. She lives right on 13th and University. Her boyfriend was practically naked when I came over. He’s really ripped. Her? She’s not as nice as you’d expect. She’s not too clean, either. She didn’t even really need my services. Most people who think they have mold don’t even have mold, they just have a little water damage.” [THE BOSS’S PHONE RINGS]
“Bye, Charlotte. Pinky-swear we’re going to hang out in the next—[a moment of calculation, upper teeth pressing into lower lip]—three weeks.”
–“Crazy Lola! Crazy Lola!”
–“Oh look a track it’s sad you know that your mother won’t come back here”
–“Prior to 1980, this was a junk area but lots of good memories”
–“My parents are saying I’m stupid, I’m wasting their money, I’d better get my shit together—
–I know I can have my macaroni and cheese but why can’t Mommy have my macaroni and cheese?”
—”My shrink always me asks about my birds. I don’t have the heart to tell her I no longer have them.”
* * *
Live in the moment they say, meaning in the present moment, but very few of us do. Some of us live in the long moment before—certain recurring frames of our history—but I think I’m in the group that belongs to the moment after. If I live in the future, it’s only in the most limited way and I know it. I live in the moment after the present, because even as I’m examining what I have right now I’m also facing its inevitable disappearance.
And I’m a witness to how pictures transform the family—in this case the city—into a set of ghosts. We practice the art of exclusion. We are the students, lanyards with our names around our necks, names with lanyards around our necks.
* * *
—A riddle for you, my goose-egg: what’s the scar we’re all born with, whose loss we dread and fear?