Great pretenders

Photographic self-examination at the Bell Gallery
By GREG COOK  |  June 10, 2008
PLUCKY: Lovera’s Together we wrote 237 letters to the CEO from Girl & Bird Detective Co.

“Self and Others” at Brown University’s David Winton Bell Gallery, 64 College St, Providence, Through July 8 
“Self and Others,” the new group show at Brown University’s Bell Gallery, reminds  me of a definition I recently read: growing up is learning how to pretend to be normal. Take for example the work of Bostonian Sage Sohier. Her aging mom was a model in her youth and in Sohier’s shots of her now she plays the model woman.

“Mum” adopts statuesque poses as she stands at the rail of a cruise ship at sunrise, floats naked in her pool, puts on makeup at her bedroom vanity, and sits covered with suds in her tub. In one photo, mom and daughter sit next to each other in bathrobes on the edge of mum’s bed. Sohier is casual in a dumpy terrycloth robe, while mom — as always — is poised and put together in a quilted turquoise robe, with matching ring and earring. You sense a changing definition of womanhood. Mum is a swan defined by her beauty, while Sohier is a schlub defined by her work – but she feels more real. Mum is a mystery, always behind a facade of idealized femininity. She has become the character she pretends to be, but who knows who that really is?

“Self and Others” is this year’s version of the Bell Gallery’s annual regional survey. These photos are about pretending as a route to understanding and questioning what’s usually taken for normal. The beauty and conceptual meatiness of the six photographers’ work — mostly portraits of people performing in one way or another — is a testament to the quality of Bell director Jo-Ann Conklin’s eye as well as of the art being made hereabouts.

THEN AND NOW: Tibbs’s Millee talking to Daddy WPB 3/78, 2007.
In Millee Tibbs’s 2006-’07 series This Is a Picture of Me, the Providence artist pairs childhood photos with her reenactments of them as a grown woman, using costumes and digital effects to place herself back in time. It’s a brilliant and funny idea, but also one with bite. There’s a bright goofiness when she pairs then-and-now shots of her making faces or talking on the telephone. Things get, uh, interesting when Tibbs reenacts that classic kid photo of herself naked in a sudsy tub. What seemed simply playful then has womanly sexiness now. But what also comes through is the transformation from the young sprite who is the (sometimes irritated) subject of the original photos to the woman now in control. And it makes you wonder about Tibbs’s knowingness and control then and now.

Annu Palakunnatha Matthew of Providence adopts a similar tactic in her An Indian from India series, which pairs 19th- and early 20th-century photos of Native Americans with sepia-toned shots of herself reenacting the scenes. Matthew says the project was inspired by frequently needing to clarify that that she’s an Indian from India, not a Native Ameri-can, and how “all this confusion started because Christopher Columbus thought he had found the Indies and called the native people of America Indians.” In her photos, she mimics the old poses, dress, expressions, and titles of what read as (insulting) ethnographic specimens (“Red Indian” becomes “Brown Indian”) to investigate with acid humor how white Americans have viewed their neighbors of color.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Brown University, Pippi Longstocking, Christopher Columbus,  More more >
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