4.3 / Review


By Lia Wilson October 22, 2012

Image: Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Untitled, 1968; gelatin silver print, 11.5 x 9.63 in. Courtesy of Eli Ridgway Gallery, San Francisco.

Artists have been utilizing portraiture to examine issues of representation and recognition since the Renaissance. Though the field has been significantly re-imagined through the photographic medium, identity and identification remain dominant themes. Cindy Sherman, for example, has built her entire career on the basis of photographing herself in different guises, exploring the construction of female tropes and trappings in visual culture. Sherman gets serious airtime in contemporary art history for her iconic body of work, much of which was recently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). But the Bay Area has been host to numerous exhibitions of late that contribute individual stances to the conversation. Mutables, the current show at Eli Ridgway Gallery, surveys a range of artists who are invested in a conscious exploitation of portraiture’s ruses—be they disguise, misrepresentation, performance, or concealment. While Sherman’s work is represented by a small Lucille Ball-like image in the upper gallery, curator Ashley Stull’s decision for this modest inclusion felt fitting in a show striving for more latitude.

A dominant thread in Mutables, triggered first by Gillian Wearing’s haunting portrait, Lily Cole (2009), is the concept of masks. Cole, a British actress with particularly doll-like features, wears a porcelainesque mask resembling her own face. One high cheekbone of the mask is cracked and
damaged, revealing only an artifice of Cole’s appearance. The image vacillates between doll and woman, unable to cohere fully as either artificial cover-up or authentic exposure. Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s untitled print from 1968 raises a similar tension. Meatyard, who often photographed his family and friends wearing masks, depicts two children sitting perched around a piano; one wears a mask while the other has pulled hers off and set it beside her on a bench. The ambivalence between revealing and concealing within both of these works complicates any simplistic or stubborn associations of portraiture as straightforward representation. Each image documents a self-conscious playfulness with transformation.

Gillian Wearing. Lily Cole, 2009; C-print, 24 x 19 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.
Carrie Schneider. Untitled (Grocery), 2007; C-print, 36 x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artist and moniquemeloche, Chicago.

Stull’s thoughtful inclusion of two anonymous amateur photographs from the 1950s, both featuring individuals in homemade masks and costumes, reminds viewers that this impulse for disguise is a widespread one. Experimentation with escaping one's identifying visual markers and inhabiting someone else’s can be a lesson on the fluidity of identity and a societally sanctioned part of identity formation. As Mutables demonstrates, recording such experimentation has been an instinct for a range of people with access to photography and not just those who consider themselves artists.

Carrie Schneider’s work deals directly with a building block of identity formation: family dynamics. Untitled (Grocery) (2007) depicts Schneider dressed identically to her older brother, pressed up against him, and mimicking his exact gesture as he reaches for an item on a grocery aisle shelf. In following the footsteps of her older sibling, the artist calls up the performance of familial imitation and impersonation that often occurs during the transition towards adulthood and independence. Schneider portrays the role her brother played in solidifying her own sense of self. This is a navigational portrait, one documenting a moment on the artist’s trajectory towards operating in the world as an individual.

Mutables is a successful reminder that there will always be more to mine in the field of portraiture. With its ability to record the specifics of individuals and also engage larger, more universal conversations about the construction of identity, photographic portraiture includes a range of voices engaged in a dialogue around the practice, many of which deserve a closer listen.


Mutables is on view at Eli Ridgway Gallery, in San Francisco, through October 27, 2012.

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