Martin Luther King Bullet Wound Boulevard by Dutch photographer Monica Nouwens opened in late January at Annie Wharton Los Angeles in the Pacific Design Center. Nouwens' work occupies a space in-between landscape and portraiture, capturing Los Angeles — the city and its denizens — through a subcultural lens. In her nocturnal wanderings, she's infiltrated a group of young counter culturalists — "angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night," to cite Alan Gingsberg's Howl. Nouwens bathes her subjects' withdrawal from mainstream culture in a light worthy of Caravaggio. Bodies glisten and pale faces take on a heavenly glow. The ephemeral architectures of desert debaucheries and communal squats creep into the edges of each composition, offering a dark alternative to the sun drenched Southern Californian metropolis. At Annie Wharton's gallery, framed images are hung against mirrored walls, an installation that conspires to bring casual viewer into Nouwens' noir narrative.
Nouwens' has been featured in Volume, Blueprint and Icon, among others, and exhibited internationally. In a 2009 essay, Renske Janssen, former curator at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, described Nouwens as "someone who shifts easily between different roles, between different identities, interiors and exteriors, like a nomad claiming no space at all." Domus spoke with the artist about her influences and process.
Mimi Zeiger: Your father is an architect; did an upbringing around design and architecture shape your photographic eye?
Monica Nouwens: Growing up around architecture definitely shaped me, more than only my photographic eye. At age 3, I was dragged around Europe to see all the major museums and works of architecture. Being exposed to Bauhaus and 17th century painting formed me.
When did you first begin taking photographs?
I started photographing when I was 15.
What compels you to shoot?
People's energy and individuality compels me. I've always been interested in the 'free' or countercultural movements of the Western world and their juxtaposition with degrading capitalist societal systems. In all my works I contemplate America's social fabric. It seems to encapsulate a mistaken promise of liberation that has long turned into a nightmare. And I am an involved participant in another way of life—one that's attractive, experimental, sensual, and alternative.
You've described your process for shooting this recent series of urban portraits and landscapes as a kind of a drift or open-ended exploration into unseen parts of the city. You started out finding parties or going along for rides into the desert…
It is open ended. I go out with a concept, a phenomenon that compels me, a movement that asks my attention. The project grows though meeting people, their temporary activities that make a change in our society.
Who are these subjects: the people, the spaces they inhabit?
They are a group of DIY bohemians. They live in an underground subculture removed to "normal" society. Many grew up with little to no money or formal education and have never had a regular job. Their attitude is counter to the comforts of middle class. It's a parallel world that lives almost parasitically on the excesses of society: They squat in empty buildings and dumpster dive for food, or grow their own. I find them at night, when they come together for parties and music—change gatherings.
Shooting subcultures, do you find yourself identifying with the people you shoot? How close are you?
I get involved with them. I met Trenton, a stand-up comedian and artist, at an event called the Mudd Duck on Crenshaw where people gather, play noise music, stand-up, he is my boyfriend now…. So, I get pretty close.
The kind of light that you get in these images is unique, almost like a Caravaggio glow, do you take inspiration from the old masters?
Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and de Stijl are all part of my cultural baggage.
Do these photographs tell a story about the future of cities? Of Los Angeles?
Yes. I'm currently collaborating with Los Angeles-based author Claire Phillips. Our project, which will be presented at the Photography Museum Amsterdam (FOAM, 2013), Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam (SMBA) and gallery Ron Mandos Amsterdam, is described as "ficto-historical photo essay of post-boom America, a parallax of Hollywood driven cyborg fantasy with the poetic Do-It-Yourself underground movement of Los Angeles bohemia." My work pairs with Phillips' sci-fi novel The Story of Dora. Pairing my with a work of science fiction pushes my work from the contemporary, every day reality and towards the future as I see it happening in LA.