Marcopoulos Brings Action, Immersion to BAM

Photo: Ordinary people. Andy Warhol taught a young Marcopoulos that anything is photo worthy. 1986's 'Fat Boys' is one of the many images that focuses on seemingly ordinary situations.
Berkeley Art Museum/Courtesy
Ordinary people. Andy Warhol taught a young Marcopoulos that anything is photo worthy. 1986's 'Fat Boys' is one of the many images that focuses on seemingly ordinary situations.

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Ari Marcopoulos Exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum
Sara Hayden discusses some of Marcopoulos’ w...

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Photo: Mirror image. Visual artist Ari Marcopoulos poses for a self portrait, part of the Within Arm's Reach exhibition. It will be on display at the Berkeley Art Museum until Feb. 7, 2010.   

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A man clad in a spiffy powder blue polyester three-piece suit zipping at breakneck speed down winding mountain roads on a skateboard dead on into traffic is not something you expect to witness every day. Furthermore, you would not expect to see this man being featured in the realms of high art. But because Ari Marcopoulos has a penchant for finding such insane activities and documenting them with a seasoned hand, we can.

This scene is now playing on loop at the Berkeley Art Museum's Within Arm's Reach exhibition, on display through Feb. 7, 2010. Though he covers a broad range of subjects, from extreme sports to taking a bath, his ability to capture humanity and establish a relationship between the viewer and the subjects of his work at any given moment is astonishing.

Even though he lives in Sonoma, CA, the exhibit is Marcopoulos' first independent show on the West Coast. Marcopoulos, born in the Netherlands in 1957, got his art start printing photos for Andy Warhol in 1979 in New York. Warhol taught him that any subject is photo worthy and thus art worthy, a notion that has crossed over into all Marcopoulos' crafts, from photographic Xerox prints, which feature portraits of his son Cairo, to video projects, as with our friend in the powder blue suit.

Immersing the viewer directly into the scene, Marcopoulos proves that the experience of ordinary people is extraordinary. Marcopoulos takes you on a thrill ride, and not just through the daredevil's perspective. He invites you to experience your own kicks and giggles by filming from a first-person point of view. You become the adrenaline junkie on a skateboard as he bellows the initial, "let's go!" to the climatic "whooooo!" and races past cars in the mountains and on into suburbia on his skateboard. Marcopoulos effectively achieves this by manipulating camera angles. At first, you enter this scene as a mere onlooker, watching two men surveying a road before hopping on their dubious planks on wheels. As soon as they start shredding asphalt, the angle switches, and you find yourself looking through the eyes of one of the skateboarders. Suddenly, instead of guffawing at a couple of Darwin Award recipients in the making, you take a vested interest in their experience and may even applaud their efforts as being somewhat brilliant.

Cozying up to risk and challenge seems to be a common thread in many of Marcopoulos' pieces. Some of the racy subjects that Marcopoulos touches on are snowboarders slicing down nearly vertical mountain faces, surfers battling whitecaps, a woman scaling a graffitied brick wall with her bare hands, mysterious, twisted green leaves in a box, and a Lego handgun on a bed.

In addition to these gritty themes, Marcopoulos introduces something quietly narrative and poignant in other pieces. He makes especially pithy work in photographing people. In the 1982 color photograph titled "Tony White, New York" he features an old black man and an old white woman sharing a table in a diner. Their orderly class speaks of old glamor, contrasting the mundane setting of a breakfast joint. Though they sit on the same side of a table, the man gazes out the window toward a bustling street and the woman delicately observes her plate. They are physically together but appear quite unrelated to each other. Its distant mood recalls Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks," calling into connection why physically close people are experiencing such profound emotional disconnect.

The 1993 gelatin silver print "Rachel Williams" captures a moment that inspires a particular hush. A woman stands against a cityscape. The soft underside of her wrists is exposed as she raises her arms, as though discreetly surrendering. The flesh is scratched and cut. Dark eyes, rimmed by inky lashes on a bare face, stare directly into the camera. On first glance, she appears defeated, but you quickly second guess your assessment of her as the intensity in her face suggests she is stronger, having grown out of her mistakes.

"I say that I photograph things at arm's length, whatever is within reach of my arm," Marcopoulos said of his work in a 2008 interview. "Not literally, but things that I have access to." Drawing the viewer into Marcopoulos' varied and colorful experiences, the BAM's Within Arm's Reach exhibition certainly captures this.

Sara Hayden is the lead visual arts critic. Contact her at [email protected]

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