The oldest photograph in David Muskin’s black and white photography collection, Variable Truth, is titled “Hollywood Backdrop.” In it, a woman hangs from a rooftop railing by only her legs, high above Los Angeles. Another piece features the macabre image of a woman in her wedding dress, blindfolded. Before her is a rope tied in knots; she holds a butcher knife. It’s titled “Prenuptial.”
“What’s behind this show is my life,” says Muskin. “It’s my diary.”
If that’s true, Muskin’s life would scare the hell out of me. Variable Truth, on display at ICON Fine Art & Photography until Dec. 16, is a peek into the mysterious world of biker culture. Muskin co-owns Davidson’s Distillery, the motorcycle-themed bar on East Fourth Street where his art had been hanging until local artist and ICON owner Dianna Sion-Callender wandered in.
“I was mesmerized by the work immediately,” she says. “They were images of a foreign culture, and they moved me. I felt a spiritual moment when I looked at them.” Sion-Callender had only seen six pieces but approached Muskin about showing his work. She was delighted to find a treasure trove of 25-to-30 beautiful silver gelatins spanning 30 years of Muskin’s life, which now comprise Variable Truth.
Muskin looks like what you might imagine from a biker: black Harley-Davidson T-shirt; long, unkempt hair in a ponytail; and a scruffy beard. He’s also a graduate of California State University, Northridge, where he received degree in fine art in 1974. He is articulate and careful when describing the people and images in his work.
“I take shots that hopefully will trigger the viewer’s reference point to some degree and create communication, whether it’s with me or somebody else,” he says. “If the work does that, it’s successful. But this is just a fragment of the work I’ve done over 30 years.”
Something about black and white in these photos is haunting and stark, yet there’s plenty of humor in them, as well. The Davidson’s Distillery postcard features one of the back of a woman wearing ass-less jeans, sitting on a bike. On each cheek is a “DD” logo. “Got Milk?” features an overweight man in an “I beat Anorexia” T-shirt. The same woman from “Hollywood Backdrop” appears in another photo, standing next to a “Drink ’til She’s Cute” sticker.
But not all images are funny. “Just Say No” is disturbing. It features a man snorting methamphetamine while sticking his head under a rotary saw. I’m sure it’s contrived, but Muskin assures me it’s not. “This is not a set-up. This was the man’s daily habit before starting work at a construction site,” he says. “I took [the photo] in a way that his identity could be protected, and I don’t see that man anymore, but I’m happy I got the photograph. In terms of people allowing me to take these pictures, it’s about trust. That trust is sacred.”
In Muskin’s biker world, trust is everything. It’s a world that can be dangerous if you’re not respectful of it. “People need to know that biker culture is about freedom, independence and people standing up for their rights. The majority of people within it are friendly. Basically, if you treat me good, I’ll treat you better. If you treat me bad, I’ll treat you worse.” He nods definitively. “There you go.”