Everything about the Nan Goldin photography show at the Portland Museum of Art feels different. The museum reconstructed its large first-floor gallery, building small theaters for videos in what used to be open space and darkening the overall mood with spot lighting so the photographs emerge in dramatic pools of light.
And then there are the photos and videos themselves, which tell an intimate and diaristic story of Goldin’s life in the gay communities of Boston, New York and Provincetown, Massachusetts, beginning in the 1970s. Through her photographs, she takes viewers into her kaleidoscopic world of nightclubs, drag bars, hotel rooms and hospitals.
“Nan Goldin” is on view through Dec. 31, and PMA Deputy Director and Chief Curator Jessica May said the museum is prepared for a variety of reactions to the exhibition, which is sexually explicit. “We have to be honest with ourselves. This show will be hugely moving for many people, and for some it won’t be pleasant. We had to get comfortable with that,” she said.
May called Goldin a preeminent artist of the second half of the 20th century “and of this moment now. To be able to open up a new dialogue about work unparalleled in our culture is one of the most important things we can do as an institution.”
May is particularly proud the museum is showing the 45-minute slideshow “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” which The New York Times described as “images of friends, lovers and herself disporting themselves with shameless abandon in the bohemian squalor of the Lower East Side.”
The same reviewer also called it “an emotionally wrenching revelation, and it was almost immediately recognized as a defining achievement of art in the 1980s.”
“The last time it was shown in New England was in 1985 at the (Institute of Contemporary Art) in Boston, and we think this is the first time it’s been shown this far north. We are very proud of that. ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ is one of great works of art of our time,” she said.
Taking its name from Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera,” the slideshow is an autobiographical account of Goldin’s life in the gay and heroin subculture of New York and Boston, mostly in the 1980s. It asks viewers to bear witness to Goldin’s world and the people who inhabited it.
Those people became Goldin’s family – her “chosen family,” May said – and the piece is full of love, as are all the works in this show. The content might challenge the sensibilities of some people, but it’s easy to feel the love that Goldin conveys.
Goldin, 64, grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, and left home in her early teen years after an older sister’s suicide. She began using drugs and also learned to use a camera. The camera gave her life meaning, and her photos allowed her to educate people about her lifestyle and issues associated with it. She had her first show in Boston in 1973, based on the gay and transsexual community of the city.
Some of that early work from Boston, collected in the series “The Other Side,” is in the Portland show. “It’s an incredible and moving portrait of the drag queen community in Boston in the 1970s, and we feel very lucky that we were able to go back into her archive and borrow works for this exhibition,” May said.
Through the photos, viewers confront drug use and AIDS and all that comes with both. There’s a tragic end to most of these stories, May said.
“It’s easy to forget that a lot of the people in the photographs have passed because of AIDS,” May said. “We expect people to have a reaction to the show that is mournful. There are so many people in our community who have lost their own friends and loved ones to the AIDS crisis. And we expect people who have lost loved ones to drug use to potentially have a very strong reaction to the show, and potentially a quite mournful reaction. We are taking the position to be kind and generous.”
As for the criticism, May understands the show isn’t for everybody. But it raises important issues that are topics of conversation in American culture today, she said, and it’s the museum’s job to be a place for that conversation. At the opening last week and during the early days of the exhibition, May listened in on those conversations.
“It feels so good to be in a room where people are going to come to whatever conclusion they come to, but they are taking the issues the exhibition raises seriously and to a very profound place of conversation that has been rich and thoughtful. We are talking about big issues – what it means to be free, what it means to be friends, and what it means to be intimate with someone as a friend and lover.”
WHERE: Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square
WHEN: On view through Dec. 31; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, through Oct. 31; beginning Nov. 1, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday.
HOW MUCH: $15, $13 seniors, $10 students, free 14 and younger; free 4 to 8 p.m. Friday
INFO: 775-6148, portlandmuseum.org