San Francisco

What else can I be but what I am?: Mutables at Eli Ridgway Gallery

Imagine if we never had to define ourselves. Imagine if we could exist suspended in a sort of identity probability cloud in which we were only more or less likely to be one thing than another. Or better yet if we could be in two conflicting states at once. We may never know the luxury of being both particle and wave, but we can certainly challenge preconceived notions of self and other. In the current exhibition at Eli Ridgway Gallery, Mutables, curated by director Ashley Stull, the artists take various archetypes of identity, joyously smash them to bits, and build their own specific narratives.

Adi Nes, Christ, 2009. Image courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, NY.

There is a long tradition of photographs representing the world as it is—a history of “truth”. Photographs continue to carry assumption of veracity, making it an ideal medium of deception. From late 19th century images of ghosts and fairies, to the digitally manipulated images today, our culture wants to believe that what a photograph depicts is true. This concept is uncovered dramatically through Adi Nes’s Christ. The simple titling of Adi Nes’s large-scale portrait imbues the image with so much power and history that I found myself wondering things I know aren’t true. Still, I couldn’t help but give into the illusion. The photograph instills deep familiarity—the scale and shallow depth of field brings you intimately close to a man who embodies many of our culture’s preconceived notions of what Jesus Christ looked like. Drawing on the model’s physical characteristics and dramatic body language, Nes calls on 2000 years of Christ’s likeness in art history  to deeply question the truth and intent of our historical heritage embedded in image.

Gillian Wearing, Lily Cole, 2009.

Unlike Nes’s deeply deceptive image, Gillian Wearing’s portrait of Lily Cole shines a dark and psychological light on the act of portraying oneself. Lily Cole, a particularly doll-faced model, with wide-set eyes, porcelain skin and a small, delicate mouth is already unique and compelling. Despite this, or maybe because of this, Wearing chose to photograph her in a mask of herself. The sophistication of the mask successfully complicates the image—as your eyes wander over the mask, you are confronted with dramatically alternating moments of believability and fiction. The nose, the lips, and the redness of the cheeks all seem like they could be real, except that one cheek is cracked like a broken shell, violently seaming together two archetypes: the model and the doll. In her portrait of Lily Cole, Wearing emphasizes the artificiality and fragility of such an identity, one in which the person may very well be hiding behind his or her own face.

SuttonBeresCuller, Sears Portraits, Ongoing.

In Mutables, the exploration of identity can also be fantastically funny, as demonstrated by the artist group SuttonBeresCuller in their project Sears-Portraits. The framed images sit on a mantle-like platform as if a proud grandparent arranged them, except on closer inspection, one realizes they’re not typical studio portraits. Instead, the trio of artists dress themselves in just about everything you wouldn’t want to have in a “good” studio portrait. Some of the themes include: aged cowboys, each artist with their faces bloodied and beaten, posing with bags of differently flavored Dorritos, and of course with brown paper bags on their heads. The images shouldn’t be expected to convince the viewer of any truths, they function as a playful look into the absurdity of tacky mall studio portraiture and how those mall-goers choose to represent themselves—a perspective on portraiture deeply connected with one’s own self-view.

The success of Mutables is that it reminds the viewer that identity is not a finite state; we are malleable. Whether it’s disguising something other people can’t know, dressing up as an alter ego, or simply being ourselves, the photographic portrait creates a platform upon which the possibilities are endless.