“You could argue there are always outsiders in every culture,” says Jim Shedden, co-curator of a new photography and film exhibition opening tomorrow at the Art Gallery of Ontario. “In the case of the US I’d say that almost from the beginning culture has had a deep need for outsiders. First there’s Huck Finn, there’s Catcher in the Rye and Moby Dick and later, the Beatniks,” he explains.
The Beatniks find their way into Outsiders at the AGO – a show looking at American photography and film between the 1950s and 1980s – in Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s short film Pull My Daisy, adapted from Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation. Also exhibited are works by Nan Goldin, Diane Arbus, Gordon Parks and Danny Lyon, Marie Menken and Kenneth Anger, a filmmaker and occultist who was openly gay in 1947.
“What all these artists have in common is that they were Americans looking at their own country feeling like they were not necessarily a part of the mainstream,” explains Jim. From motorcycle gangs to “freaks”, and touching on drug use, gender and sexuality, youth culture, and racial minorities, Outsiders appears sweeping and somewhat uncompromising.
Asked how the show treats the term outsider, whether positive, negative, or neutral, Jim explained it was more complicated than that, and Outsiders frames multiple perspectives at once. “The show ends with Nan Goldin, with junkies. There’s no way to be entirely positive about that or images of a woman with a black eye. The show is really unsentimental in that way,” he says.
With many of the photographs and films dating from he same period, the exhibition is curated by artist and divided into ten solo shows, but there is still a concern for building narrative.
“We bring the show up to 1989, and that was the fall of Soviet Bloc and it was Salman Rushdie and it was the height of the Aids epidemic. It was the year that Tim Berners-Lee wrote the code for the world wide web. No one knew that in the period we’re looking at, but there’s something about looking at this work knowing everything is about to change rapidly.”
The last films are Sadie Benning’s, shot when she was 15 on her Fischer Price Pixelvision camera. “She anticipated what everyone does now with access to a camera,” says Jim. “Talk to it, film themselves, their friends, and share it with the entire world.”
Outsiders: American Photography and Film, 1950s – 1980s is on at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto from 12 March – 29 May.