This week, an opportunity arose to visit the Portland Art Museum to tour “The Ride” – an exhibition of archived photography and video by Paige Powell – led by the woman herself. Normally, I pass on things that cut into the work day, but something in my gut told me to just go.
Side note: one of my non-resolutions this year was to say “yes” more often.
I walked over with a friend of mine and we met up with a larger group and Paige. After introductions and (not-so) secretly Snapchatting her outfit, we headed over to the building where the exhibit is housed.
The entrance to “The Ride” is very unassuming; a large black wall with plain white text and a photo of Andy Warhol beside it. Around that wall, however, is a hallway plastered on both sides with floor-to-ceiling stills from the Factory. Very immersive and impressive. Through that hallway, Paige led us to the main exhibit where, in an alcove, hundreds of printed photos covered surface. The floor, ceiling, and three walls were papered with her memories and stories of friends, contemporaries, and people she met. Warhol, Basquiat, Keith Haring, Madonna, Grace Jones, the drag queens of the NY ballroom scene, the Fab Five. The contrast between how we see those same people and how she saw them was stark.
“Did you realize you were taking such iconic photos?”
“Not at all – we were just hanging out.”
She graciously answered our questions and recounted the places and people in the pictures we pointed out. She spoke about the residents of Harlem in the 80’s and how much the neighborhoods have changed; how much New York has changed. I could hear the disappointment in her voice as she talked about places she’d documented that no longer exist. At that moment, I realized that I was standing with a direct link to a past that I romanticize. The more she spoke, the more common and everyday everyone seemed. As revered as Basquiat and Warhol are, to see them hanging out and having fun, not as artists but as Jean-Michel and Andy doing cool things with their friends, was relieving in an odd sense. At that moment, I saw all of these iconic people as just people.
On a wall outside of the photo room are three videos that play within a large projection of Jean-Michel watching television in the back of a limousine. One is of Andy Warhol, one of Keith Haring painting the massive papier-mâché elephant, and one of a group of people hanging out at the Factory. I didn’t catch much of these videos, but plan to go back to view them.
I wonder if the weight of maintaining a persona ever became too much for the artists that recur in the exhibit. Then I wonder the same thing about all of us. There isn’t much of a difference between what Paige did then and what we do now, save for technology, immediacy, and the breadth of distribution over social media…I wonder how much we consciously put on our “Warhol suits” in order to maintain the narrative of who others think we are (or what we want them to think we are) and how that affects us. Is anyone really real or is this all performance art?
It’s late and this all feels very meta.