The teenage years will always be about awkward transitions — dealing with overbearing parents and scholastic expectations (see J.D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye), being ostracized by peers and your own insecurities (see Janis Ian's song "Seventeen"), and confronting the unattainability of certain desires (see Sofia Coppola's movie The Virgin Suicides). The 21st century and its peculiar kind of social Darwinism (amassing Facebook friends, achieving greatness at ever-younger ages, etc.) has only made it harder for teens. Right? A new exhibit at Catharine Clark Gallery, "Teen Age: You Just Don't Understand," gives no clear answer to that question, although it manages to be illuminating nonetheless.
At its core, "Teen Age" is about collaborations between teens and adults. Every photo, video, or art piece in the group exhibition was done by a teen and an adult working together. In this way, its title is a misnomer.
Parents are more involved these days, which for teens with creative impulses is good news — and good for their art. Consider the hundreds of photos of Leela Cyd Ross, showing her in every kind of outfit imaginable. There's Ross in snazzy high school athletic wear. There's Ross in goth-with-feathers get-up. There's Ross in ready-for-shopping mode with matching pink pants and purse. In every image, she is posed before a similar backdrop, giving the photos — taken between the ages of 14 and 18 — a time-lapse metamorphosis that's a marvel to see.
Her father, Richard Ross, an award-winning photographer (and Guggenheim fellow and professor of art at UC Santa Barbara), collaborated on the project. He took most of the early teenage photos; she took the last 200 when she was a student at New York's School of Visual Arts. The photos may hint at "underlying issues of anorexia and bulimia" (his description, from his own website), but those issues are never articulated at Catharine Clark Gallery, where the happy-go-lucky fashion theme overwhelms whatever other intentions were there. He has even said that the photos were initially an attempt to document the clothing his daughter had made. Ultimately, they suggest she has enjoyed a life of privileges and opportunities.
Still, evidence that teens have it more difficult today is sprinkled throughout the gallery, as in the "Pills for Parents" video installation where one teen says she wants her parents to "chill," another says she wants more trust, and another says she wants her parents to stop checking her Facebook page.
Social media, cellphones, and laptop computers are a constant backdrop, most profoundly in the photo series by Miguel Farias in conjunction with Allison Reilly, the daughter of a friend. Titled "Gh0st L1fe," it uses long exposures to show teenagers inches away from high-tech screens. Their faces are washed out, bathed in the translucent glow from the screens before them. In "Hulu (907)," Reilly sits in bed with her laptop, her skull draped in massive headphones that complete her electronic envelopment. In "Catalyst (920)," her younger brother hunches at a desktop computer, almost eye-to-eye with the information being beamed out.
The exhibit's curators, Catharine Clark and artist-professor Ken Goldberg, wanted to explore themes of "adolescent alienation and disaffectedness" and the role of "new media and high technology in the lives of teens." It dovetails with a major San Jose art event, "01SJ Biennial," which has a high-tech theme. "Teen Age" also connects to Salinger himself: Clark and Goldberg had The Catcher in the Rye in mind when they selected the artists, and the exhibit's opening reception featured stacks of new copies of the classic novel.
Salinger died in January. Were he still alive, the reclusive author might have professed dislike for the new high-tech world that teens have to navigate, and his teenage character, Holden Caulfield, would have undoubtedly called all the social media tools "phony." But that's the difference between the angst of Salinger's teenage days in the 1930s and the angst of today. Many of today's teens seem used to being the center of public attention, to being photographed and videotaped and putting their words (via Twitter and other mechanisms) in the public marketplace.
"Teenagehood is a very social time," says Virgil Taylor, a 17-year-old San Francisco student and photographer, whose images of teens illuminated by cellphone lights are featured at "Teen Age." "With cell phones, the socialness of teenagehood becomes much more immediate. Instead of having to call someone, you can write something to them as you have their picture on the upper-right-hand corner of Facebook. Everything is right there and much faster. And you don't have to wait for your parents to get off the line, because it's your line."
Taylor says he was inspired to take photography seriously three years ago. He and his father visited a village in Tanzania, and Taylor took a photo that was used in a New York Times story on "voluntourism" trips to Africa. His photos at "Teen Age" were done with Kris Lang, an established photographer who (like Farias) is a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute.
The photos are worth seeing, especially knowing the backstory of Taylor's love for photography (and his parents). The show could have easily been called "Teen Age: You Really Get Me, Don't You?" The question mark would have left enough ambiguity to satisfy everyone — teens and adults alike — whose work is on display at Catharine Clark Gallery.