Eileen Myles’s “poems”

Alan Gilbert

December 20, 2018
Bridget Donahue, New York
November 11, 2018–January 13, 2019

It’s so easy to ignore what’s directly in front of you when it seems more sullied than that which is imagined to be just beyond a particular moment or place. Digital technologies seek to eradicate this gap by making a better or more convenient life, via an image or purchase, only a click away. In the process, desire is replaced by need as online streams of ads and information, many of which are targeted to sell some sort of aspirational product or lifestyle, arrive with greater speed and density—not for nothing are these streams called feeds. At the same time, social media has created spaces for alternative communities, identities, and politics that refuse the increasingly tenuous status quo. And while their cooptation can happen quickly, and their tracking—the consumer-friendly word for surveillance—is ubiquitous, these spaces are also seedbeds for a different world.

The most striking visual aspect of the photographs from the writer Eileen Myles’s Instagram account (@eileen.myles) currently on display as enlarged (ca. 24 x 18 inches) digital prints at Bridget Donahue is how oriented they are on the image’s frequently messy foreground. In the selection of 20 photographs (out of more than 6000 on Myles’s Instagram), this foreground includes dirty floors, damaged tabletops, weeds, and stained sidewalks. It is also the usually ignored dimension of experience over which we might seem to have the most control and yet frequently encounter randomly outside of work and domestic spaces. In fact, only the image of irish baby (2018) has a traditional perspective, and is one of the few humans in these photographs who meet the viewer’s—and photographer’s—gaze. The child smiles back from a large photographic portrait hung between two gray metal doors and above a speckled tile floor; the unknowing subject has already been secured within some anonymous institution.

Myles’s photographs don’t bother too much with conventional compositional framing, and 14 of them literally don’t have a frame, but are instead tacked to three gallery walls (the remaining six are framed and resting in a box on the floor for the visitor to flip through like a record or picture bin). This is in keeping with Myles’s interest in the immediate and ephemeral, including the captions accompanying the images on Instagram, which here serve as titles. one good leg (2017) features the front of a gray, canvas high-top sneaker touching the bottom of an old wooden table’s leg. Both the moment and the photograph feel almost accidental, except for the question of longevity and physical decay that the title slyly signals. After all, which of the two legs in the photograph is the good one? Otherwise, the photograph is nearly all lines, contours, and various shades of brown, with its human presence barely poking into the foreground, as it also does in sex (2017) and Consternation about Mimm’s (2018).

Myles is best known for their poetry and fiction, but this is the third exhibition of their Instagram photos, and the first in New York City. These are not the more classically composed one-a-day photographs found in Stephen Shore’s Instagram feed, although an untitled image from 2018 comes close with its geometric blue-and-white color pattern and overlapping grids. Neither are they the selfie-swollen indulgence for which social media can be notorious. Instead, Myles’s images are produced in their author’s inimitably granular “voice”—forthright yet offhand; immediate yet idiosyncratic; ragged around the edges yet exact in attention. If anything, Myles’s work might be located in a tradition of street photography as well as in an offshoot of conceptual photography that disregards technical perfection and embraces the act of photography for itself, including skewed perspectives and a loose approach to focus. In puppy (2016) there doesn’t seem to be much worry over wavy pixelation, and we’re going to Monte Alban & we’re looking for Mr. Churro (2016) is a blurry shot from the back seat of a car, making it a bit reminiscent of the restless and sometimes haphazard photographs Garry Winogrand took through the window while being driven around Los Angeles later in his life.

This is also about technology helping determine the aesthetics, as Myles is letting the smartphone’s camera make some of the decisions, specifically around framing and depth of field. In an early poem entitled “Whax ’n Wayne,” Myles writes: “Television is what the night eats.” Is Instagram what the day eats? Collapsing figure and ground along with time and space, social media makes what’s in front of us on our screens not what’s in front of us. Behind all the categories of a self is an intimacy, which Myles’s writing and these photographs capture so precisely. They seek to return us to a present that will always be meditated by images, while nevertheless reminding us that we can still choose what to pay careful attention to.

Social Media, Everyday Life

Alan Gilbert is a poet and art writer whose most recent book of poems is The Everyday Life of Design.

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Bridget Donahue
December 20, 2018

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