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How we see one another depends on our point of view, and there are tons of those. Images of ourselves and others come at us fast and furious, twenty-four hours a day. How does watching and being watched affect our observations? For a thought-provoking selection of divergent viewpoints on the sticky issue of subjectivity and objectivity, go see “Observance: As I See You, You See Me”, an exhibit curated by Leonie Bradbury featuring the portraits of Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Caleb Cole, Ervin A. Johnson, Juan Jose Barboza-Gubo & Andrew Mroczek, and DEAD ART STAR at the Montserrat School of Art Gallery in Beverly, Massachusetts through April 8th, 2017.
The first thing I noticed as I entered the gallery is the enormous span in the size of prints on display, a clue to the range of viewpoints represented by these five artists. I was drawn immediately to the massive close-up portraits from the series #InHonor by Ervin A. Johnson (see feature image). His Chuck Close-like gigantic heads of individual African-American men (one a self-portrait) are digitally de-saturated and brutally transformed with solvents and paints in a gorgeous, symbolic treatise on how perilous it is to be judged by the darkness of one’s skin. Calm, steadfast eyes stare from each visage layered with a spectrum of swirling and iridescent pigments that obscure and redefine the subject’s skin while preserving the resolute spirit beneath. By representing the beauty and burden of Black skin in honor those who have lost their lives, Johnson makes a powerful plea for respect and justice.
The photographic team of Juan Jose Barboza-Gubo and Andrew Mroczek likewise venerate Peruvian transgender women in their series Virgenes de la Puerta. Colorful, predominantly environmental portraits celebrate the perseverance and dignity of these women in reverent, formal compositions alluding to traditional Colonial paintings. Replete with religious icons and intricate handmade props by native artisans, Barboza-Gubo and Mroczek’s women – often haloed or clothed in virginal white – symbolically express their martyrdom and strength within a rich Peruvian heritage that has historically rejected them.
Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons explores cultural alienation in her vibrant and metaphoric self-portraits. Exiled from Cuba many decades ago, Campos-Pons utilizes costumes, body paint and the symbolism of elements like birds, birdcages and flowers to evoke an immigrants’ struggle for freedom and identity. But I think it is the inventive ways in which Campos-Pons obscures her face that most eloquently express the excruciating uncertainty that immigrants feel when seeking escape and searching for a sense of belonging and home. Campos-Pons’ portraits provoke deep empathy through her lyrical embodiment of a piercingly personal and yet universal immigrant experience.
Caleb Cole invites both projection and voyeuristic curiosity in an exploration of cultural assumptions in his series Other People’s Clothes. Coordinating detailed wardrobes and constructing elaborate sets, Cole impersonates imaginary characters in evocative scenarios of white America. And as with Campos-Pons, it is his facial expressions that mesmerize me. Cole’s enigmatic manifestations, at once poignant and humorous, realistic and mock, allow us to empathize with characters who often seem somewhat bewildered and lost. In vivid scenes laden with potent adornments and knick-knacks, Cole embodies the lives of others with a keen sense of wonder, nostalgia and ambivalence toward popular culture.
The diminutive instant camera pictures by DEAD ART STAR serve as an intriguing foil to the other work in the show. An obvious homage to Warhol, these simulated spontaneous shots elevate voyeurism and idolize celebrity culture. With subjects in poses that mime the deadpan ennui of being closely followed and copiously photographed, these individual and series of vignettes elaborate a cast of caricatures. The effect is magnified through utilization of hard flash, contrasts in positive and negative space and a plethora of media-savvy references to create a self-conscious mirror of the selfie generation. They are watching us watching them.
Caleb Cole will be giving an Artist Talk on Tuesday, March 7th, 2017 at 11:30am in the Hardie Building, Room 201, 23 Essex Street, Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, Massachusetts.
For directions, hours and more information about this exhibit, go to: http://www.montserrat.edu/portfolio-item/observance-as-i-see-you-you-see-mejanuary-17-april-8-2017/
Feature Image: “Ervin, 2015” (Detail) photo based mixed media from the series #InHonor by Ervin A. Johnson (courtesy of the artist and Arnika Dawkins Gallery, Atlanta).