There's a warning posted on the door at Middendorf Gallery, and with good reason. Nan Goldin's color photographs, from her Aperture book "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency," are likely to upset just about anyone -- if not for the nudity and invasive bedroom and bathroom scenes, then for the truly obscene waste implicit in the unproductive and seemingly joyless, empty lives they portray.
A collective, intimate look at life and sexuality among Goldin's friends in New York's bohemian East Village, this is, in sum, a bleak diary of a middle-class white subset (most in their twenties and thirties), who appear to be living out their lives on rumpled sheets, drinking, smoking, shooting up or -- most important for Goldin's lens -- making (or at least seeking) love, and suffering in its wake.
Occasionally Goldin's crowd takes in some fresh air at the beach or in the park, or finds rumpled sheets abroad to crash in -- at a cheap hotel in West Berlin, or a seedy skinhead pad in London. En route, they stare disconsolately out of train windows, and sometimes the women (but never the men) weep. Wherever they are, heterosexual lovers in Goldin's world always seem to end up estranged, sitting on the bed in sullen silence, their backs turned to each other.
One 1984 photograph of the bruised Goldin herself, one eye filled with blood after a battering from her lover, testifies to her own unfortunate qualifications as balladeer and chronicler of the emotionally dispossessed. Goldin, now 34, says she was also sexually abused as a child, though in her book, she calls it a "seduction" by an older man -- apparently a family friend. She was 11.
The incident took place during the week of mourning following the death of Goldin's sister, who at age 18 had taken her own life by lying across railroad tracks near the family home in Silver Spring. "It was an act of immense will ... I saw the role that her sexuality and its repression played in her destruction," writes Goldin, who dedicated this book to her sister. "My awareness of the power of sexuality was defined by these two events. Exploring and understanding the permutations of this power motivates my life and my work."
It is important to note that there's not an erotic image in this show -- a fact that underscores both Goldin's seriousness and her haunting, expressive power. To be sure, these are often shocking photographs. But what her work is really about -- what she calls "sexuality" -- is the basic human yearning for connection. And what she makes us see, like it or not, is alienation, even in the most intimate of circumstances.
First presented in the form of an annually updated rock club slide show with music, "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency" became an underground hit in New York and was included in the 1985 Whitney Biennial. The slide show will be performed one time only by Goldin at 8 tonight at Middendorf Gallery, 2009 Columbia Rd. NW. The photographs will continue on view through Oct. 8. Hours at Middendorf are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays.
Creatures of Land and Sea At first glance, Joe Walters' animal sculptures at Gallery 10 look like real specimens, preserved and displayed as if in a natural history museum. Closer up, some look like casts taken from life, especially a group of 20 small animals, all hanging in neat rows on one wall, among them a squirrel, a rat and a rabbit in full leap. It only gradually dawns that many of these animals cannot be real; the scale is off. The panther and moose, for example, are toy-sized.
As it turns out, none of these animals is real; rather, each is a sandy-surfaced plaster cast taken by the artist from another sculpture -- in other words, each of the animals on view is a sculpture of a sculpture. Some of these casts have been taken from unfinished bronzes created earlier by Walters himself; others, one suspects, from existing pieces, such as a rooster-shaped weather vane. In any case, all have been created and recreated by the artist to underscore and elevate his interest in process as the central issue in his art.
Once this sculptural conundrum is decoded, several sepia wash drawings -- or double-image "cartoons" sketching the forms the final casts will take -- suddenly make sense. They also reveal Walters' considerable representational skills.
Also showing at Gallery 10 is Diane Banks of Syracuse, N.Y., who, among other things, is a long-distance swimmer whose bronze sculptures and paintings reflect her preoccupation with underwater symbolic imagery.
Though her paintings are richly colored and highly finished works with textured surfaces of crinkled, dyed rice paper that reinforce a wavy, watery effect, it is the bronze sculptures that stand out here. One, titled "Let Sleeping Fish Lie," looks at first like a life-size, cast-bronze fish set on a grill -- except for the Lilliputian-size ladders leaning against it, which turn it into a giant. Most affecting is "Cymba," a small, canoelike form in bronze that appears to have been cast from bark lashed with leather strips.
It isn't hard to see why Banks was invited to create a sculpture at Artpark in 1985: It is in the realm of sculpture that her work seems to be richest in ideas, yet unrealized.
The work of both Walters and Banks will continue at Gallery 10, 1519 Connecticut Ave. NW, through Sept. 26. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.
A public memorial service for Washington painter and art teacher Leon Berkowitz will be held at 3:30 p.m. Monday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.