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Here's the Thing

Twinned Photography Exhibits Reconsider Objects' Thingness

WE CAN DO IT: Deborah O'Grady's "Plain Jane"

By Deborah McLeod | Posted 10/11/2006

Fourth Annual Curators' Incubator

At Maryland Art Place through Oct. 21

Poetry is plump and ample with the sort of phenomena portrayed in the two photography shows of Maryland Art Place's Fourth Annual Curators' Incubator program--a strong recommendation on its behalf. Both of these exhibitions find a bearing that is mostly situated apart from irony and toward intricacy, sincerity, and human grace, using similar conditions to unveil our round, bittersweet world of simultaneity.

Co-curators Jefreen M. Hayes and Bennie F. Johnson use the entrance gallery to focus solely on one artist in Conversations Most Intimate: The Lens of Myra Green. This quiet exhibition offers Green's dusk-private photographs of her own body, part by part, to command most of the emotional space of the installation. Placed next to a small series of manipulated handprints, "Healing Hand," and across from a romanticized set of Whitfield Lovell-esque formal sepia portraits that gaze at the viewer across time called "The Beautiful Ones," "Self Portraits" is the series that conveys the most potency and singularity. Through these self-revelations, shoulders, thighs, and waist are defined in near darkness. Green's method of imaging is almost as indiscernible as an ultrasound of a life yet to be met. Her provisional shapes in the dark might be your own, anyone's, but Green is a black woman who the curators explain is seeking to determine her naked identity outside of historically imposed sexual innuendo and misconduct. The weight of this exercise most specifically springs from the terrible story of Sara Baartman. (She was toured around the country in the 19th century and promoted as a freak from the Dark Continent because of her voluptuous womanly attributes, and following her death her features were cut off to preserve in glass jars for further scrutiny.) It's an awful thing to have floating in the back of the mind as you consider Green's exquisite photographs of inscrutable anatomy. But this is a museum of simultaneity--the shocking, the mundane, and the splendid whisper their confessions side by side so that all or one may receive your blessing.

The Photograph as Representation and Reflection of Cultural Objects is Fabian Goncalves Borrega's anthropological group show in MAP's remaining two galleries. Ten artists plot Borrega's titular thesis from a variety of orientations. The net result is not as much about objects as subjects--instead the object becomes the photograph itself.

Every implicated object in the show's array is a thing that has fingerprints all over it. If it is a chair--as in Sharon Wickham's softly vignetted inventory of "street-found" items--it has the sprung seat of a sitter's weight, which lends the chair its historic merit and provenance.

How do items come to gain the physical and psychic cachet not provided by mass manufacture? For a bottle of pickled eggs it is Susannah Hays' empowering visual compression of the subject, rather more than the banal cultural object it might otherwise seem. Borrega's artists make the point that every mass-produced thing must undergo a second generation of exhaustive use, disturbance, analogy, and documentary portrayal before it may qualify as a modern cultural treasure. Unlike the sublime throne or amphora in the ultimate archaeology collection, we are going for penultimate so that there is some extra room for reallocation.

An archetype is only as effective as the breadth of its arch and its argument. Removing some of an object's original or academic meaning through chipping, peeling, layering, cloaking, and juxtaposition interestingly turns the photographer into the sculptor-artisan while shape-shifting the article. Javier Manrique proposes a wrinkle in this idea as he melts an effigy plastic camera with a heat gun. It is staged in a heavenly white plane of the documentary photograph, and for some perverse reason it recalls Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel God famously reaching out to touch life into Adam's hand with an opposite, or maybe fast-forwarded, result.

This show's curatorial demonstration reaches much further than thingness, though. Nudging the definition of cultural objects to include the roles in human theater, ballerinas, saints, and soldiers are also given a spot under the same vitrine. By the same token, that push moves all the inanimate objects even nearer to life by association. Mary Daniel Hobson and Katia Fuentes respectively superimpose maps and holy icons over naked figures, wrapping or scarifying them in a chameleon skin of worldly and divine guidance. They feel agonizing and ecstatic.

In studios behind the velvet curtains and darkened stage, Lucy Gray, a Degas for our time, discloses the daily fluorescent normalcy of ballerinas, those earthling representatives of anti-gravitational fantasy. As they stretch and practice, their children play underfoot and wall clocks monitor passing days, aging muscles, replacements waiting their chance. The world of cultural objectification that Gray doesn't train her lens on continues its tradition of crisp white organza- and tiara-clad princesses; the crystal goddess, part flesh, part light, and part music pirouetting on stoic bound toes for perfumed audiences--however, Gray's, too, is a simultaneous world.

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