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The Pretenders

Artists Play Hide and Seek With Identity, Storytelling, and Natural World in Group Video Show

Is you is or is you ain't uses the work of (from top) Z?e Charlton, Karen Yasinsky, Laura Parnes, Kalup Linzy, Hank W Illis Thomas, Simone Montemurno, and ANC to explore identity, and shedding/mutating it in an artistic format.

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 10/1/2008

In Is You Is or Is You Ain't, a seven-artist video exhibit at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson, piece after piece demonstrates that the artist has something to hide--and can hide it well. Plastic figures playact a crime scene, a woman dons a shark fin and swims in a pool, and an African-American woman mimics the poses of white nudes in classic paintings.

"It is all about artists who are pretending to be something they aren't, or speaking through a cipher," says Jed Dodds, artistic director at the Creative Alliance and one of the show's three curators. "It's a layer between the artist's voice and the audience. It liberates the artist to speak more freely. It's a protective mechanism in a way."

The show is small, and it includes local and nonlocal artists, both established and early-career artists. Hank Willis Thomas's 2006 "Winter in America," which was made with Kambui Olujimi, opens the show by depicting plastic, G.I. Joe-like figurines that become involved in a confrontation that concludes with a shooting. "Winter in America" mimics the look of Todd Haynes' classic short "Superstar," but uses it to narrate street violence rather than Karen Carpenter's anorexia.

Using an animated drawing instead of figurines, Karen Yasinsky's "Oh, Juliette," captures a small moment on a city street whose significance is suggested by repetition. The squiggly line animation makes the piece ring with sentiment, even if it never lets in on its secret.

Yasinsky says that the image reproduces a still from Jean Vigo's 1934 film L'Atalante. "I redrew every frame, so there's 12 drawings every second," she says. "In a formal way, the line is moving a little. I did add some movement to suggest something might happen, but it never does. It's just an ambiguous movement."

The idea for the show germinated several years ago, when Dodds met Mari Spirito, of New York's 303 Gallery, and they started talking about putting on a show featuring artists from Baltimore and elsewhere. In March of this year, Dodds, Spirito, Kristen Anchor, the director of Creative Alliance MovieMakers, and Christopher West of the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, gathered in Baltimore for what Dodds calls a "video summit" and put together the show over a weekend.

"We wanted to have a range of work," Dodds says. "The challenge was to come up with work at first glance that existed as far apart from each other as possible, but to find this funny through-line that connects all of them."

In fact, the show operates as a series of diptychs, with all but one piece paired to another in order to explore and amplify common themes. This strategy is most striking in the middle diptych, which matches Laura Parnes two-monitor "Untitled" with Simone Montemurno's "Fin." In "Untitled," one monitor displays a serene family picnic while the other displays wild animals in extreme, and implicitly threatened, environments. The piece suggests alternate models of the environment, one inhabited and calm, the other uninhabited and dangerous, but the stock-warehouse quality of the footage suggests that both worlds only exist on television. In contrast, Montemurno's "Fin" features the artist swimming in a pool donning a fin on her head, turning into a human/shark hybrid that is at turns whimsical and threatening.

Like several other pieces in the show, "Fin" is silent, which Dodds believes blocks ready interpretations of the piece. "It's right on the edge of being kind of funny, kind of erotic, kind of scary," he says. "It would be difficult to come up with a soundtrack that would push the interpretation to one end or the other."

Anchor reports that while the works were not chosen with sound in mind, the installation of the show allowed the curators to consider the sonic relationships between the pieces, only one of which employs headphones. "We definitely wanted to activate the room with sound, which is one reason to not have the pieces with headphones," she says. "It's nice to have that relationship soundwise, when making the decisions about where to put things."

The final diptych in the show pairs two works that address race and gender identity, also in very different ways. Kalup Linzy's "KKQueens Survey" plays like a Saturday Night Live sketch held hostage by art students, with a transgendered African-American artist answering questions about her love life, art career, and work habits. The piece bounces between reproducing art-school anxieties and mocking them.

In sharp contrast, Zoë Charlton's "Dead White Men" takes a more reverential approach to art history, but the African-American Charlton interrogates this history by re-enacting the poses of white female nudes in canonical paintings. These poses are ones that viewers will recognize even if they cannot place the paintings they're from.

"Those poses are from particular paintings I studied as an undergrad," Charlton says. "The piece stems from my interest in those paintings, and reproducing the black body, and the black female body in those positions."

Although the piece was inspired by still paintings, Charlton, like Yasinsky, animates them by remaining in each pose for several seconds, reproducing the average amount of time a museumgoer might spend looking at a painting. The video is projected on a white wall, making it the approximate size of most classical paintings.

The exhibit closes on an odd note, with a short film by the Indianapolis collective AnC titled "Mustache2." Emerging from the same psychic landscape defined by Mike Judge's Office Space and Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men, "Mustache2" lampoons cabinet-selling and office life in a piece that lurches between the languid pacing associated with art film and parody. The gallery setting and the conceptual nature of the other work in the show makes "Mustache2" a poor fit for this exhibition's themes.

But the true significance of Is You Is or Is You Ain't is not the show itself as much as its intentions. The first traveling exhibition to be curated by Creative Alliance staff, the show has already exhibited at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, and Dodds says there are plans for the show to move to New York after it closes in Baltimore in October. "Our mission from the beginning has been to support the local art scene," he says. "One of the best ways we can do that is to connect artists who are working locally with artists around the country. Baltimore has a way of being introspective, which is one of its strengths. This is an opportunity we jumped on to do a high-profile show."

And Dodds says that works from the artists exhibited in this show may be included in future Creative Alliance exhibits, and that future traveling exhibitions are in the arts group's future, too. "The goal is to always be looking first at Baltimore, but [also] to have an eye on what's going in the bigger picture nationally and internationally," he says.

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