“Performative Self-Portraits”: BODY/OBJECTS at the Carl Solway Gallery

By Laura A. Partridge

BODY/OBJECTS is one of three FOTOFOCUS exhibitions currently on view at the Carl Solway Gallery. It features the work of 10 photographers, including: Cindy Sherman, Anita Douthat, Sarah Charlesworth, John Coplans, Ann Hamilton, Suzy Lake, Laurel Nakadate, Amanda Means, Cynthia Greg and Hannah Wilke. Some of the work in the exhibition relates to the theme of the exhibition— body as object—more directly than others. Gallery Director Michael Solway recalls the phrase “performative self-portrait” when thinking about the show. He says Hannah Wilke used this phrase to describe her work, and I feel it provides a deeper context in which to view the exhibition. The idea of “performance” is evident in all of the photographs in different ways—whether it’s a more literal performance, Wilke’s So Help Me Hannah (1978), or a more controlled staging, as in Sarah Charlesworth’s photographs, Crystal Ball (2011) or Magical Room (2011).

Solway says that artists like Cindy Sherman and Hannah Wilke owe a lot to Suzy Lake, whose photographs Choreographed Puppet #5 and #11 (1976-77) are included in the show. Lake’s large- scale photography examines the politics of feminism. She treats the body as both a vehicle for meaning, often ironic, but also as the subject of her work. In the Choreographed Puppet photographs, a figure (Lake herself) is suspended from wooden scaffolding by straps connected to her wrists and ankles. Solway says that she would invite friends over to participate in the photographs. They would climb on top of the scaffolding to act as puppeteers. In the photos displayed you see two male puppeteers, lifting the arms and legs of the suspended female hanging beneath them. The photographs themselves are beautiful—the movements of the woman languid, and graceful—but they beg a number of questions. Is the female figure seeking to stabilize herself? Or is this more of a surrender? As the puppeteers make choices about how she moves, is she reacting against them? These questions speak to the dynamics of power that persist in society as much today as they did in the 70s when the pieces were created.

Cindy Sherman’s work in the exhibition, Untitled (Lucille Ball) (1975), features Sherman dressed as comic icon Lucille Ball. The portrait is a classic 1940’s-style head shot. Sherman has often said that while she is “in” her photographs, she does not create self-portraits. In an April 2005 review of an exhibition of her work for Art in America, Daniel Elasco refers to Sherman’s “performative self- portraits,” connecting her to Wilke, but also to this idea of performance. Traditionally, images of Ball show her with eyes wide, brandishing a bright smile or cheeky grin. In keeping with Sherman’s approach to female identity and its relationship to images of women in the media, Sherman portrays Ball cradling her face, looking out at the camera with a sad, somewhat disconnected expression. She flips the traditional characterization, perhaps revealing—if not a more authentic way—another way of looking at Ball.

While the majority of the photographs in BODY/OBJECTS use people as subjects, some do not. Sarah Charlesworth’s images, pulled from a series titled Available Light, feature a number of objects from her studio. Crystal Ball shows the view out the window of Charlesworth’s studio through a large crystal ball. The space around the ball is a stark white, while the colors of the grass and sky captured within it provide stark contrast with their vivid blues and greens. Magical Room is almost an inverse of Crystal Ball in that the crystal ball and the image captured through it are featured in the photograph almost like props. The crystal ball sits on top of a glass on a desk, two proof images are pinned up on the wall. Other items, like a magnifying glass and roll of masking tape, also sit on the desk. What’s interesting about this photograph is that the viewer is given the impression that all the choices about where to place the objects were made very deliberately. While the highly staged nature of the image is reminiscent of a Dutch still-life, for me, there is also a narrative component, a performative one. It’s as if Charlesworth is letting us into her process, giving us insight into how she works. She is letting these objects tell us a story, albeit one that the viewer largely completes. As American artist Mel Bochner said, “Objects are emotions.”

BODY/OBJECTS is a beautiful exhibition. While small, it features some of the most celebrated photographers in the world, and captures so well the essence of what FOTOFOCUS aims to capture and celebrate about the art of photography. It will be on view at the Carl Solway Gallery through December 22, 2012.

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