Santa Fe Reporter
A portrait show meanders through the mysteries of identity
Smoke and Mirrors
— Marin Sardy
Eighty-five years after Gatsby attempted to create himself purely from one pre-existing idea and a whole lot of money, the character feels as real and as heartbreaking as ever. We can still relate to his failure of self-invention; we all construct ourselves largely from the external stuff of our environments, and absorb the perceptions of the people who love us and the influences of the places we inhabit. Yet the more we live fragmented lives in a fragmented world, trying to assemble complete selves from these scraps becomes increasingly fraught with problems.
In the inaugural show at Charlotte Jackson Fine Art’s new Railyard space—a group exhibition that opened July 9—each artist lays bare some aspect of the process of building and navigating one’s own social and personal identities. Alex Katz’ minimal portraits reveal the elegance imparted by the trappings of a certain social class. Kiki Smith’s series of woodcuts hints at the ways events shape a body. Ellen Harvey’s row of self-portraits painted from ID-card photos touches on the implications of being bureaucratically marked and measured. Hendrik Kerstens’ slyly satirical photographs play up the significance of the mundane roles and unnoticed daily materials that inform our day-to-day selves. And Sandra Scolnik’s surreally multiplied female figures, all with the same face, pull the idea of having many contextual identities into a single maddening frame of reference.
Few, however, fully address the implications of these connections. Coke Wisdom O’Neal handles the issues most deftly by combining character and context into totem-like sculptures or else removing identifying environments altogether in photos of his parents and son in a giant wooden box. The image of his parents is a stunner—compositionally gorgeous, with a sunbeam shaping the box’s interior space. The couple stands in black evening wear, holding hands and the leash of a yellow Lab, greeting the camera with a look that seems to say, “Here we are, darling, doing this for you.” It is as if the absence of context thrusts that love to the foreground.
But the most challenging piece might be Monika Bravo’s “Timepiece: Be Here Now,” a trio of computer screens encased behind one-way mirrors. Seen dimly through the glass, faint lines appear on the screens like ruler markings, pulsing in sync with an electronic ding that counts the passing seconds. These dissolve into Jenny Holzer-esque adages—“Time is the motion of the mind”—fading in and then out. Eventually, looking past these, I see the portrait: A woman with her brow wrinkled in concentration glares out at me.
Her impatience is visible in her pursed lips. In the way her hair falls, sloppy around her face, I read her harried day. I read her hopes and fancies in her huge silver hoops and apple-green purse. I see her effort, her earnest ambition, in the crease of her forehead. I notice that her T-shirt is starting to look ratty. The longer I stare, the deeper I sink into the morass of her world. I want to critique the piece, but can’t—I am hijacked. I can’t escape her, nor her existence through time, with the seconds dinging in my ears while across her face the words come faintly: “This is not the same instant as before.”
I am angry at the piece, for a moment, for showing her life to me by simply holding up a mirror. Because that’s all it is—a mirror, in which I see myself through my own critic’s eye. And here is its force. “Timepiece” traps me into scrutinizing my own reflection the way I would examine a piece of art. I realize I have never done that before. Maybe it isn’t healthy, I think, to observe oneself with such a discerning gaze.
It is a relief to step away and look at portraits of others, to whom I owe nothing. But they no longer carry the same potency. None can touch the power of the simple act of staring myself in the face.