Photography has often functioned as a kind of theft: taking possession of someone’s likeness for purposes beyond their desire or control. Women, historically, have frequently been the object of such thievery, employed for the glory of a male artist whose vision becomes the primary subject. In such cases, portrayal becomes a form of betrayal. What, then, might it mean to approach photographic portraiture not as a tool of the objectifying male gaze, but as the tending of a garden, a nurturing of subjectivity coming into bloom? Image Gardeners, curated by Sara Wessen Chang, and an accompanying two-part film program – seen only, heard only through someone else’s description, curated by Gina Basso – attempt to reimagine portraiture as an active, organic cultivation of self and other through photography, film, and video.
Combining selected photographs from the McEvoy family collection with newly commissioned works by three artists, Image Gardeners challenges expectations about representing female and genderqueer bodies and identities. The first part of the exhibition consists of self-portraits, many of which employ mirrors to reveal, distort or obscure the artist’s body. The emphasis on the artist’s hands adjusting the camera in Alma Lavenson’s Self Portrait (1932); the refracted repetitions of Vivian Maier’s face in Self-portrait, Chicago area (1956); the impulsive gesture of self-acknowledgment in Ming Smith’s Untitled (Self-Portrait with Camera), New York, NY (1989); the distorted blur of Mona Kuhn’s reclining nude body in Reflecting (2006); the use of two mirrors in Janice Guy’s Untitled (1980, printed 2019) to transform the artist’s body into an elongated, alien form; and Talia Chetrit’s Mirror Self-portrait (2016), which beckons pornographically only to thwart our view with a foot placed in our sightline — all point to how mirrors and cameras may offer mediated glimpses of selves while denying our desire for unimpeded access.
While some of the images refuse our vision, others demand it, transforming the portrait form through the emphatic presence of bodies rarely seen in possession of power. Diane Arbus’s Self-portrait, pregnant, N.Y.C. 1945, for instance, asserts the artist’s right to examine her mostly naked, pregnant body as a mysterious site of self-contemplation. Stephanie Syjuco’s Cargo Cults: Head Bundle (2016) shows the artist garbed in “tribal” black-and-white patterns, with the presence of a price tag and Syjuco’s returned gaze at the camera mocking the implied Orientalist fantasy. Zanele Muholi’s self-portraits (Somnyama I, Paris, France, 2014 and Somnyama IV, Oslo, 2015) glance back toward Cindy Sherman in their use of the artist’s body as a cipher upon which to inscribe different possible identities. However, in contrast to Sherman’s revelation of “white woman” as a trope, Muholi’s very dark skin, emphasized by nudity and intense gaze back at the camera, enact a clear confrontation with the history of representation of nonwhite and genderqueer bodies. These self-portraits stare back and dare you to try to objectify or dehumanize them. Meanwhile, trans artist Marcel Pardo Ariza’s self-portraits with a partner lying naked, wrapped in saffron-and-yellow sheets, explore the texture of skin and its relationship to fabric, with visible scars of gender confirmation surgery pointing to the miraculous ways bodies can now be “restitched” into new “garments,” better suited to those who inhabit them.
The many meanings of the face form a sub-theme of the show. From the myth of Narcissus to indigenous tattooing practices to rhinoplasty and selfies, the face has long been the site of our hopes, dreams and doubts about ourselves. Several portraits on view explicitly undermine the oft-unquestioned correlation between face and self. Some do so by ignoring or suppressing the face. Carina Brandes’ Untitled (2012) offers, instead, a series of posteriors. Carolee Bénitah’s Photo identité, femme, 2018) shows an ID card in which all identifying features are redacted; and Katrien De Blauwer’s Dark scenes 37 (2015) is an old snapshot with all but a swath of hair obscured by collage. Annagret Soltau’s Selbst 2 [Self 2], and Selbst 6 [Self 6], (both 1975), reflect the ways in which human beings have long sought to alter their faces. Soltau does so by stitching her self-portraits with thread.
Yet, the show also explores aspects of identity inextricable from place and history. Chanell Stone’s self-portraits of herself within a seemingly idyllic landscape invoke a haunting. Documenting a visit to rural Mississippi where her ancestors were enslaved, they summon the painful past buried in this unmarked space. Carolyn Drake’s uncanny series of photographs taken between 2017 and 2020 derives from a collaboration with an enigmatic group of women in the American South who call themselves “Knit Club.” These images are characterized by incongruity, obfuscation and a luminosity that renders them theatrical and transcendent. In one, we see a tree trunk wrapped by a red shoe and the tail of a yellow snake; together, they conjure the fright of Southern Gothic literature from which the artist takes inspiration.
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Unlike still photography, moving images allow us to witness subjectivity in time. Sometimes We Stand Alone, the first of the two film programs, emphasizes individual female faces. Several of the films consider family resemblance, particularly between sisters. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Permutations (1976) is a structuralist film in which images of the artist’s sister, seen from front and back and with eyes open and closed, alternate with black-and-white frames, like the repeating but unpredictable patterns of genetic codes that determine biological similarity and difference. Paige Taul’s 10:28, 30 (2019) explores the uncanny experience of sharing a face with a twin sibling. Other films ask what it means to witness another person’s experience from what’s “written” on their face. Aurora (2019) by Everlane Moraes presents women from three generations, each of whose mysterious expressions renders their thoughts palpable but ultimately unknowable.
Lucy Kerr’s Sensible Ecstasy (2018) shows a sustained shot of the filmmaker’s face as she rides a roller coaster, her ecstatic bodily sensations vividly apparent in the microexpressions made visible through extreme slow motion. In Oh My Homeland (2019) by Stephanie Barber, we observe a nearly 4-minute shot of soprano Leontyne Price’s face as she received applause for her farewell performance of Verdi’s Aida in 1985. In her emotional visage, we see what it might feel like to accept kudos for doing something truly extraordinary for the last time. In the same program, Brenda Contreras’ La Lucha Sigue: Marichuy in Mexico City (2018) presents an earnest homage to Marichuy, the first indigenous woman to run for the presidency of Mexico; the humorous misuse of a copy machine in Marie Losier’s Lunch Break on the Xerox Machine (2003) results in an animation that veers between silly, abstract, and grotesque; and Tina Takemoto’s Wayward Emulsions (2018) performs a tactile engagement with found images. In each, the filmmaker creates, preserves and/or revivifies traces of female agency within patriarchal structures.
A second program, Drawing Energy, opening March 5, traces lines of tradition and history to show how the past remains present in our identities. Ilene Segalove’s Mom in Famous Women (1978) features the filmmaker’s mother reading from a minuscule book titled Encyclopedia of Famous Women while offering skeptical commentary. Watching her fingers turn the pages of this hilariously tiny tome underscores the sad fact that these “famous women” are documented in such a miniaturized format. More confrontationally, in me and my army (2017), sair goetz responds to the scenes of sexual assault in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange by “becoming” actress Adrienne Corri, rewriting the scene in which her character is raped. Deborah Stratman’s Vever (For Barbara) (2019) recovers silent film images filmmaker Barbara Hammer made in Guatemala in the mid-1970s but then abandoned, self-reflexively exploring the challenges of making art while remaining true to absent subjects. Onyeka Igwe’s Her Name in My Mouth is even more explicitly archival, drawing on records and footage of the 1929 Aba Women’s War, the first anti-colonial uprising in Nigeria, which women led. Rather than simply narrating these events, Igwe demonstrates the labor involved in trying to tell these women’s stories through their colonial traces.
In a related gesture, Madeleine Hunt-Erlich’s Spit on the Broom (2019) excavates the history of the United Order of the Tents, a 150-year-old clandestine society of African American women, offering hints about its history while withholding its secrets. Finally, Lily Jue Sheng and Rita Ferrando’s Ikebana (2020) poetically explore the traditional Japanese art of arranging flowers, passed down through generations, as an archive of women’s gestures. In each of these films, the artist locates herself in relation to the past to recover, embrace, reject or pay homage to its influence.
In Recollections of My Nonexistence, Rebecca Solnit writes, “Works of art that had an impact in their time sometimes look dated or obvious because what was fresh and even insurrectionary about them has become the ordinary way things are.” Image Gardeners and the two film series document and continue the insurrection surrounding what it means to be female or genderqueer in our society. May their vision become unremarkable, the ordinary way things are.
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“Image Gardeners” through April 30, 2022. “seen only, heard only through someone else’s description,” a video series, contains two parts: “Sometimes We Stand Alone” through March 4 and “Drawing Energy” through April 30, 2022. All at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts.
About the author:
Jaimie Baron is a professor of media studies at the University of Alberta and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. She is the author of The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History and Reuse, Misuse, Abuse: The Ethics of Audiovisual Appropriation in the Digital Era. She is the director of the Festival of (In)appropriation and co-editor of Docalogue.