In “Mind, Self and Society,” American philosopher, sociologist, and psychologist George Mead said, “We are one thing for one man and another for another… There are all kinds of different selves that respond to all kinds of different social reactions. So, he concluded, “Multiple personality is, in some sense, normal.”
It’s a theme explored in “Double Trouble,” curated by exhibitions director Julie Poitras Santos at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the (recently renamed) Maine College of Art & Design. The show has been up for a while and runs until September 17. It’s only being seen again now because Portland’s summer art scene is on fire. But well worth a trip. The five artists here – Bianca Beck, Joiri Minaya, Lucy Kim, Sascha Braunig and Sonia Almeida – lead a fascinating conversation that invites us to reflect on deep assumptions about identity and to contemplate the nature of who and what people really are. things.
It reveals multiple dimensions well beyond the dual nature of the title. The origin of the concept was the “body double” and its cultural implications: our inner Jekyll and Hyde, our lookalikes, who society expects of us and who we really are. There can be joy and mischief in this mysterious other self and also deep apprehensions about the “possibility that we are not masters of ourselves”, as Poitras Santos writes in the brochure of the emission.
Bianca Beck is starting things off with a bang. Her “Untitled” sculpture in the first gallery is like the avatar we all dream of becoming, living the unfettered life we deserve but rarely achieve. This figure is clearly feminine, with hands on hips, chest pushed out, breasts pointing up. He lives large in space, fully embodied, powerful and joyful. The colors, just that garish side, are unabashed, the stance uncompromising.
Its monumental proportion references Plato’s “Symposium”, in which Aristophanes postulated that original humans were dual beings with two sets of genitalia determining which sex they belonged to: heterosexual (one of each), lesbian (two vaginas) or homosexual (two phalluses). Zeus divided these beings, sending them forever on a quest for their opposite-sex or same-sex other.
‘Untitled’, along with another sculpture in the back gallery exuding an equally commanding presence, celebrates femininity and fluid sexuality, blithely flouting the negative stereotypes imposed by both culture and society. The second work appears as a reclining figure with open legs and a raised knee. He is fully aware of his powers and flirts cheekily, as if asking the viewer, “Do you have a problem with that?”
Minaya’s large-scale photography is visually and formally impressive. Yet we can detect an ominous undercurrent to their lush splendor. The breathtaking settings – jungles and verdant gardens, seashores – are deceptively beautiful. The artist’s own presence in them, clad in overalls that mimic the surroundings while squeezing into uncomfortable fixed poses, confronts the constructed, mostly colonial-minded tropical cliches we idealize (not to mention the objectified sexuality of women in these “torrid” cultures).
We assume that these “paradises” are more pristine and unspoiled, their inhabitants purer and closer to a primal force of nature, in harmonious connection with their environment. This, of course, negates many realities: a history of colonial repression and slavery, the plunder of natural resources for Anglo-European consumption, some of the world’s poorest economies and corrupt governments.
Minaya is from the Dominican Republic and knows these tragic stories well. One need only consider the exploitation of Dominicans in the coffee and sugar cane plantations, or the ravaged state of Haiti, for that matter, to find decidedly unidyllic counterpoints to our imposed platitudes about “easy island living.” .
Lucy Kim’s “self-synthetic” works form a series of identical flattened casts of her body suspended in metal frames. Right from the start, they have a sense of violence and deformity about them. The more we explore this feeling, the clearer it becomes that the deformity is related to their refusal to conform to conventional visual perceptions. Is it a painting or a sculpture? Both? Neither? The violence comes from the feeling of a three-dimensional Kim being crushed and flattened to fit a two-dimensional picture plane.
This, of course, implies two identities. But the series explores many more and records Kim’s ever-changing self-image. She can be ignited with fury or passion (“Flames”) or incinerated by these emotions (“Conceptual Smoke”). We may be witnessing the collapse of an identity or the exhaustion of carrying an old identity in “Cracked and Caked”. Two works of wooden birds superimposed on Kim’s body could indicate a decoy identity presented to the world for protection.
Sascha Braunig’s paintings have always challenged the expectations imposed on women, mainly by ill-fitting, even painfully fitting clothes, in which they have to squeeze their bodies. “Medusa” features a satin green fabric in the shape of a dress with an incredibly restrictive cinched waist and breasts artificially pushed into fullness by the dress. Yet the figure that wears it voluptuously overflows from the top with its broad shoulders and fleshy arms.
Conversely, “The Fitting” presents the female eidolon of women as soft and supple by presenting the fitted one as a skeletal line drawing covered in sharp, pointy beards. The garment she is supposed to wear resembles an S&M garment imagined by Jean-Paul Gaultier for Peter Greenaway’s often revolting 1990 crime scandal “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.”
Finally, there are Almeida’s paintings, which interrogate monolithic identities of all kinds and introduce the truer multiplicity and duality of everything – at least on a human level. Some are riffs on Andy Warhol’s 1962 “Dance Diagram” works, considered by some critics to be commentaries on “correct” ways to enter society. In these paintings, as in Almeida’s, they could be metaphors for our highly choreographed personalities. At Warhol, they also recalled ballroom dancing lessons which were considered essential to polishing a polished and balanced sense of decorum.
Almeida’s dance diagrams and musical staves also invite movement to certain music, making us contemplate various dichotomies. Is this a visual arts or dance class? Is the gallery experience meant to be one of passive observation and stillness, or could it invite us to interact by attempting our own movements? Is it a kind of synaesthesia, where you experience something auditory and physical (music and dance) through something visual?
In terms of material properties, is it abstract expressionism (as non-figurative strokes floating on the surface of “Dancing Score” might be intimate) or something more figurative, geometric and rational (as indicated by the dance steps and a step-like shape in the upper left)?
The most important caveat in all the work, of course, is that we cannot take anything at face value. Everything has its double – or triple or quintuple – meaning and construction. Ignoring this will always get us into trouble.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]
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