There are certain subjects like photos of gruesome death or cute puppies or disembodied vulvas where criticism struggles to keep up with the awesome force of the pictures.
But I'll blunder ahead by saying that Jessica Thurber's lineup of black-and-white photographic close-ups of disembodied vulvas — no legs, no bellies, no rest of the body — might make you feel weird (the way a bunch of disembodied penises might also make you feel weird).
The Wakefield artist's images on view at AS220's Main Gallery (115 Empire St, Providence, through March 30) are voyeuristic but clinically detached. She centers the ladies' private wiggly bits — what she describes as "a beautiful and elegant object filled with formal elements of folds and shapes" — at the tops of sheets of white paper. They emerge cool and ghost-like from the white.
"It's not only describing the unique identity that each woman has," Thurber writes, "but also captures the fragility and strength that one human can possess."
Faintly registering are words embossed beneath each image: "Pussy," "Cunt," "Twat." I read this as wiseass reclaiming of demeaning slang, the way "queer" has been turned from an insult into a name of radical pride. Thurber's goal seems to be a straightforward cataloging of "how our Eurocentric culture has historically demeaned the female body."
Her images are the sights a lover or a doctor or a porn photographer might get, but deadpan and grayed out. She turns vulvas into specimens, which doesn't totally align with her stated humanism. But in this objectification, she removes distractions to allow us to begin to see and think and feel perhaps a bit more clearly.
Paired with Thurber in the Main Gallery is Providence artist Sarah Beck's (un)seen series. Beck photographs men and women topless, getting them to reveal their torsos but leaving their faces hidden. Her idea is to preserve their privacy while allowing us to stare without the discomfort of the naked people staring back.
If you've seen her other work, it's clear that Beck is a talented photographer. But here it feels like she's not sure where to direct her attention. Her compositions snap into focus when she portrays tattooed folks. One guy's chest features a vulture sitting on crossbones and a lighthouse in a lightning storm framed by crossed harpoons. And there's a woman with a skull and crossbones tattooed between her breasts and a lady, devil, anchor, and "666" running down her arm. Amazing ink.
In contrast to Thurber getting right up in there, Beck photographs people off-center, as if she or they are leaning away. This begins to convey a sense of being uneasy about being this physically intimate. It's interestingly furtive.
At AS220 Project Space (93 Mathewson St, Providence, through March 30), Thomas Morrissey of Lincoln fills the gallery with "Approximately 7,642 Pounds of Art, Stacked and Somewhat Arranged." Love that title.
A Vietnam vet, Morrissey is best known for photographing people's encounters with the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC. Here he fills a room with stacked-up cardboard boxes labeled "Contents: Art," weighing 75 or 250 pounds, and valued between $600 and $2000. A bunch of framed things lean against a wall, hiding any images. It's all locked behind a chainlink fence. A security camera above the gate scans the lobby.