Paris, Apr. 2009 - Artslant's Georgia Fee met up with Alice O'Malley at Place d'Alma in Paris. Alice was in town for the group exhibition, 6 eyes, at galerie du jour-agnès b., which included a number of her photographs. The exhibition was curated by Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons). Georgia and Alice walked from Bert's Cafe up to the Trocadero and over to the Passy Cemetery where Natalie Barney is buried. Along the way, Alice talked about her work, her influences and Natalie Barney. The following exchange resulted from that afternoon.
Natalie Barney's grave, Paris, 2009; Courtesy of Alice O'Malley
Georgia Fee: In talking about your work, you spoke about the desire to “document…” I am wondering – do you see yourself as some kind of witness? What are you witnessing? How do your photographs reflect the basic idea of documentation as evidence?
Alice O'Malley: The work we showed in Paris is from a collection called "Community of Elsewheres", which is a series of portraits of New York artists taken over the last decade in the lower east side. It's a document of those who crossed my path. Sometimes I see the pictures as individuals, and other times they mark relationships. The night before the opening in NYC last year, Antony and I looked around the gallery and said, "Wait this one can't hang next to that one, so-and-so needs to be next to her, there's bad blood between those two, etc." So we moved frames around trying to make the pictures happy. Meanwhile, some of my models are no longer on the planet.
The Paris show was less complicated. The edit is roughly a circle of people Antony and I are connected to, most of them close friends. Far from home, the collection becomes a family album. One of my favorite images in the Paris 6 eyes show is Barbara Cummard's band of gypsies by the side of the road in 1970's Ireland. I love the photograph on its own merit, and the subjects remind me of the merry band I have assembled in my own work.
Alice O'Malley, Kembra, silver gelatin print; Courtesy of Alice O'Malley.
GF: Your work has roots in NY club culture – now you are placing your models in empty rooms, warehouses and the sort...very quiet. How did you move from one to the other? How does the environment inform the work?
AOM: I started this series with performers I knew from the clubs because I thought they would be great models, and they were. I chose people who were skilled at creating artifice which was something I thought I was interested in, but then when I saw them in natural light I wanted to strip them down. After that I invited the painters and the writers and they immediately took to the blank slate.
GF: You have discussed your interest in that space when “male” and “female” cross or blend. Is this a political, psychological or spiritual discussion? Is trannie culture the brave new world?
AOM: Transgender people exist throughout history and across cultures but are now just starting to see each other publicly. My photographs are part of that witnessing.
GF: You've brought up Peter Hujar many times...
AOM: Because Hujar is it. His pictures are so severe in content and at once so beautiful. He looked at death as he photographed life. It's not Weegee's tabloid death. Somehow it's okay.
Peter Hujar, Divine, 1975, silver gelatin print.
GF: How about our visit to Natalie Barney’s grave in Cimetière de Passy – thoughts?
AOM: I loved going on that pilgrimage to Barney's grave with you... to that cemetery with no dirt or grass, to that parking lot full of tombstones! It's strange to think that she and Romaine Brooks were together for 50 years and in the end, Natalie was buried with her sister. The institution of family is so strong. I just found out that Renée Vivien, another one of Natalie's great loves, is in a mausoleum a few feet away in Passy. Now we have to go back.
GF: What is your attraction to her (Natalie)?
AOM: My friend Joey Gabriel insisted I read about Natalie Barney and her scene in early 1900's ex-pat Paris and so I did. I was carrying her biography that day we went to Passy. Barney was more of a sexual outlaw than anyone I can think of today... out as a lesbian of course, but what's really outrageous was her commitment to non-monogamy and that she pulled it off with glamour. People say "Oh she was a millionaire so of course she could do whatever she wanted," and that's true, but rich people protect their privacy. Barney published her first book of love poems using drawings her mother did of her girlfriends, but her mother didn't know they were Natalie's lovers. That's one way to come out to the family in Bar Harbor.
I went to the National Gallery at the Smithsonian this year to see Romaine Brooks' paintings and practically had to climb a ladder to find them. Of course it was worth it. I saw her self-portrait with the top hat and Ida Rubinstein as La France Croisée, both incredible. All those grays. I've since learned Brooks supported Mussolini during the war. She became more paranoid and reactionary as she got older.
GF: Although she was a prolific writer, Barney is probably best known as a collector of people, especially women, and as a muse to other artists. Do you relate to her in some way? Are you a collector as well?
AOM: Natalie created an environment to bring people together. I do that one-on-one and then they meet on paper. I like the idea of a salon but I'm not a natural host.
GF: Natalie Barney had her Fridays; Gertrude Stein had her Saturdays. What would be your day?
AOM: I don't know. Let's say full moons and any eclipse.
NY Loves Me street art on rue Quincampoix across from galerie du jour, Paris; Courtesy of Artslant
GF: In discussing salon culture in Paris, you mentioned that there was some aspect of the “salon” in your current circumstances, perhaps even in regards to the current exhibition, 6 Eyes.
AOM: You described the exhibition in Paris as a constellation and I think that works. Antony and I had our first cup of tea together in 1994 in a cafe that was (coincidentally) down the block from Kiki Smith's studio on Ludlow Street. Our conversation revolved around photographers – specifically Peter Hujar, who was one of the moons we both had been orbiting, and Antony's mother, Barbara Cummard, was photographing drag kings at the time as I was. And now 15 years later, the five of us are here in Paris, hanging together at galerie du jour.
Artslant would like to thank Alice O'Malley for her assistance in making this interview possible.