Visual Culture
A New Novel Asks, What If Your Artwork Exploits Someone Else’s Pain?

A photographer painstakingly sets up her shot in a ramshackle loft in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn, circa the early 1990s. The building itself is derelict, only semi-legal; her neighbors are painters, sculptors, other artists doing their best to thrive in the New York rat race. The photographer, Lu Rile, has been taking an extensive series of self-portraits. She’s on her 400th image in the series. When she’s satisfied with the day’s technical set-up, she stands in front of her lens, framed by the loft’s huge windows; she leaps into the air, and clicks the camera’s timer.  

Meanwhile, a different sort of drama is occurring on the building’s roof: A tenant’s nine-year old son, Max, has tripped and plunged to his death.

When Rile later develops the photograph she took that afternoon, she spots something seemingly impossible, a particularly cruel instance of the ‘decisive moment’: Max’s falling body, clearly visible behind her.

This is how Rachel Lyon’s Self-Portrait With Boy begins. The novel is a rarity—a fully believable, fictional treatment of the art world, ready to share shelf space with the likes of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Siri Husvedt’s The Blazing World, Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York, and a few select others.

Installation view of “Sarah Charlesworth: Doubleworld,” 2015. Photo by Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio.

Installation view of “Sarah Charlesworth: Doubleworld,” 2015. Photo by Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio.

The tension in Self-Portrait With Boy revolves around whether or not Riles will exhibit Self-Portrait #400. In one of her brattier moments, Riles schools her father—who has gifted her a volume of idyllic nature photos—on what her life’s mission is. “This is a bullshit consumer product,” she says of the anodyne images. “This sort of photography is created to numb the mind. The sort of work I do, and I want to tell you this so that you know, it’s the opposite. It’s meant to unsettle the mind.” Rile is broke, fame-hungry, and well aware that her tragic self-portrait is the kind of image that could shock her career into existence.  

Throughout the novel, Lyon dances around that uncomfortable question: How far should one be willing to go for their art? And what happens if other people get hurt along the way?

Lyon herself spent a good portion of her childhood living in a loft in Dumbo (since converted, like much of the neighborhood, into a luxury building). Her mother, Debra Pearlman, is an artist who has shown regularly since the early ’80s, and has work in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Walker Art Center, among other institutions. Her father is an art writer and runs Lyon Artbooks, a publishing imprint.

While writing the book, Lyon reached out to former neighbors, a teacher who had worked at galleries in the ’90s, and to Duggal Visual Solutions (a Chelsea institution where, in the novel, Rile has a large-scale print of her photograph made). Her research took her to some strange places; Lyon regularly blogged about the mix of topics she was Googling, from “Saint John the Divine peacocks” to “Diane Arbus TLR Rolleiflex” and “Kids in the Hall VHS tapes.”

Without directly basing her character on any one individual, she did borrow elements from artists who photographed themselves, or their close friends, in sometimes uncomfortable ways—from Francesca Woodman to Nan Goldin. Lyon was also inspired by Diane Arbus and street photographer Garry Winogrand. One more recent touchstone, she says, was Arne Svenson and his controversial series “The Neighbors,” which involved him shooting photographs of his neighbors without their permission or consent—“the art of peeping,” as the Guardian described it. (Some of Svenson’s subjects later sued him, unsuccessfully.) “There’s precedence for this kind of problem,” Lyon told Artsy. “I guess I can understand how one would feel violated by that kind of work.”

Rile’s central quandary—whether she has the right to make someone else’s tragedy a part of her own art—also resonates with more recent instances. Examples include Sarah Charlesworth’s appropriated images of people falling from the Twin Towers on 9/11; Laurel Nakadate’s video of herself on her apartment’s roof wearing a Girl Scout uniform, the smokey wreckage of the same destroyed buildings visible behind her; and Larry Clark’s photo collages of the child star Brad Renfro, who later died of a heroin overdose, which include images of him injecting drugs. In some ways, Self-Portrait With Boy is also perfectly aligned with the interminable arguments surrounding Dana Schutz’s Open Casket.

“I don’t think art can be inherently moral or immoral,” Lyon says. “Art is just art. It exists in the world; you can’t just delete it. It’s what Lu Rile does with the photograph that’s moral or immoral. She’s young and awkward, she’s making mistakes—she’s desperate and ambitious. I don’t think she’s blameless, at all. But it’s really for the reader to decide.”

Scott Indrisek is Artsy’s Deputy Editor.