Arts & Culture » Book Feature

Drugstore Cowboys

Larry Clark shoots up and heads out to 'Tulsa.'

by

comment
Tulsa by Larry Clark. Grove Press Books. Paper, $25.

Old junkie artists never die. They just clean up and try to recreate the buzz rush of drugs through art.

When former junkie/photographer Larry Clark released Tulsa, his photo document of the drug-fueled blank generation, in 1971, it sent shockwaves through the art world. Its unblinking, harrowing depiction of American youth gone to pot (or, in this case, speed amphetamines) sliced open the dark side of the peace and love hippie movement, and revealed the personal side of Clark's own drug-spattered past. Long out of print, Tulsa has been newly re-issued in its original format, and the intervening 30 years have not dulled the razor-sharp intensity of its gallery of real-life speed freaks living on the fringes of society in Clark's hometown of Tulsa, Okla.

Divided into three sections, Tulsa etches a devastating triptych of the failed American Dream.

1963--Innocence is Corrupted: Kennedy-era yuppies with buzz cuts and beehives play football in sun-dappled fields and shoot up in dingy tenements.

1968--the End Approaches: Arranged in ominously scratched filmstrips resembling vintage porno loops, bleached-out images of guns, drugs and debauchery induce a queasy sense of impending apocalypse.

1971--Hell on Earth: Strung-out hippies shoot up in front of an American flag. The words "Death is more perfect than life" accompany a dazed young man fondling a gun. An angelically photographed pregnant woman lovingly jabs a filthy needle into her arm. The haunting final images flirt with obscenity by depicting an infant's funeral with icy detachment, the harsh winter sunlight burning guilt and remorse into the faces of the "living" mourners. It's an inevitable and wrenching conclusion to this voyage of the damned.

Through it all, Clark, director of the similarly controversial film Kids, manages to lucidly capture the melancholy desperation of life in decay--a tattered curtain here, a hollow-cheeked smile there, a photo of Jesus on the wall overseeing a sea of needles and hysterical laughter. Bottomless shadows lurk in every corner of this artfully arranged, black-and-white nightmare, hinting at horrors left unseen.

While all of the external elements of exploitation are here (sex, drugs and violence), Clarke's obsessive honesty sidesteps schlock and heads straight for high tragedy. Raw, intense and poignant, Tulsa is appealing and appalling, a visceral experience filtered through the eyes of an insider who somehow managed not only to survive, but to turn his demons into art as well.

Add a comment