The highly publicized Kids Behaving Badly, a new group show at Clampart, features the work of fifteen photographers, all of whom seem immoderately concerned with what American kids are doing on Saturday night. The photographs on display include enough pubic hair, binge drinking and cross-dressing to repulse the most gutter-minded viewer, and while this is no doubt meant to be enjoyed as a celebration of the ‘inimitable and powerful energy of youth,’ KBB raises all sorts of questions about why exactly teens and 20-somethings seem compelled to act in ways that would embarrass even the lowest-functioning adult.
The show is short on answers. This is not necessarily a flaw—in fact, it may be hailed as KBB’s driving force. These photographers seem mainly concerned with preserving a certain moment in time, not with lending that moment significance. And while not all of the photos are throw-aways (David Armstrong’s George in the Water, Provincetown, 1977, is a striking b&w portrait of a water-slicked wag staring sedately past the camera), most of them evince the hip effortlessness of the ‘snapshot aesthetic.’ By nature this aesthetic is one of nodding approval; like anyone over 30, objective criticism is banned from the party.
Unsurprisingly, much of the work thumbs its nose at a whole slew of moral and aesthetic conventions. Larry Clark’s Untitled (A Little Rape), 1974, purports to be a ghastly memo by the artist, who laments the fact that, as a youth, he took part in countless acts of sickening debauchery (‘fucking in the backseat,’ ‘gangbangs,’ ‘rapes’) without so much as documenting one of them on film. Luckily, in Sex on a Blanket, 1975, Clark finally manages to capture such a moment in actu. Of course, we are all immensely happy for him.
Despite the show’s willful insurgence, what’s most striking about KBB is how similar many of the photos seem to be. In case this sounds like an unfair appraisal, here’s some statistical evidence to back it up: Of the fifty-two photographs in the show, twenty-five of them feature rutting sub-adult males who are either shirtless, in briefs, or entirely naked. (By and large, the KBB photographers tend to equate badassness with nudity.) These scamps can be seen pouring beer on themselves and, in a few cases, where inspiration is especially evident, pulling down their underwear and grinning vacantly at the camera. Ryan McGinley’s Vice Magazine Collage, 2007, thus serves as a nice summary of the show: a patchwork of a hundred shirtless (& bottomless) androgynes flexing and preening. This, I submit, is rebellion homogenized. It turns out that when kids behave badly, they all pretty much do it the same way.
The only real children in the show appear in Thatcher Keats’ lovely Cousins Drinking, 1995: they are two droopy-eyed, bowl-cutted boys sharing a chair, abstractly sipping filched liquor. The photo, taken at some adult party, is a wonderful understatement of bad behavior; these kids have been caught in flagrante, and their naughtiness is as unfeigned as their lack of repentance. In fact, in only a handful of photos are the subjects unaware that they’re being photographed, and it’s these few who may be said—with some degree of honesty—to be behaving badly. The rest are simply acting.
Image: David Armstrong, George in the Water, Provincetown, 1977. Courtesy Clampart.