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Points of View – “I AM: Assuming Positions”

Posted November 11, 2014 in Events

Written by MFA student Aj Cooke, Points of View explores local gallery exhibitions in order to spark an open and accessible exchange of ideas and nurture collective intelligence about the art being created and displayed in our community.

I AM: Assuming Positions
The Fed Galleries
October 23, 2014 – January 31, 2015

After a fruitful ArtPrize 2014 show, considering the conversations surrounding multiple works as well as the success of Sonya Clark’s “The Hair Craft Project,” The Fed Galleries at KCAD (17 Pearl St. NW) continue to ask pertinent sociological questions in the next installment of its three-part “I AM” series, “I AM: Assuming Positions.”

Although smaller in quantity of artwork and exhibiting artists when compared to its predecessor, “I AM: Money Matters,” “I AM: Assuming Positions” confronts important topics of body image, gender, and sexuality in our current culture. The participating artists – Dutes Miller & Stan Shellabarger, Heather Cassils, and Stafford Smith – all create work that questions perception and identity through a variety of media.

In one area of the gallery, a series of photographs document “Becoming an Image,” a performance piece Cassils originally conceived in Los Angeles in which she repeatedly pummeled a 2000-pound block of clay with every part of her body. Also on display is a cast of the block itself. Together, the cast and photographs relive a powerful performance of transgender as a state of flux, emphasizing the issue of labeling people feminine or masculine based on a binary system of social standards.

still image from Heather Cassils' "Becoming an Image"Video still from Cassils' "Becoming an Image"

Heather Cassils' work inside The Fed GalleriesCassils' space inside The Fed Galleries includes video stills, a video projection, and a cast of the block of clay used in her original performance piece

Miller & Shellabarger – a duo in both art and life – showcase a variety of paper cut silhouettes and domestic items such as embroidered handkerchiefs that look at the way in which a relationship between two same-sex individuals is often marginalized by definitions of otherness instead of being celebrated as the connection of two people.

handkerchief by Miller and ShellabargerOne of Miller's & Shellabarger's embroidered handkerchiefs

Miller and Shellabarger's exhibition space inside The Fed GalleriesThe Miller & Shellabarger exhibition space also showcases a variety of paper cut silhouettes and domestic items

These aspects of the exhibition are not only visually impactful; they also prompt a variety of questions relating to the exhibition’s theme, and are worth a visit to the gallery all on their own. Yet the work that stood out the most to this viewer is tucked in the back room of the gallery space, awaiting a participant.

Stafford Smith’s “P.O.V.” is a set of six large light boxes, each standing on end and illuminating an individual nude male figure. The perspective is full frontal and the subject does not seem the least bit hesitant in the poses. To really see the effect of the translucent photographs, the viewer needs to walk within the room and be surrounded by the images of the naked males. At that point, the figures reflect upon one another and the six men turn into a crowd of men all pointing a flashing camera at the viewer.

image from Stafford Smith's piece, "POV"Image from one of the lightboxes in Smith's "P.O.V."

There might be a quick moment where you don’t know where to look; the figures are almost life-size, naked, and seem to invade your personal space with the flash of the bulb. On second thought, with the reflections and the inward positions, they appear to be looking at each other. No wait, they’re photographing themselves in the mirror. What exactly is going on here? Smith explains in his artist statement:

“Photography is about the privilege of looking… In the realm of photography made for public consumption that point of view has largely been male; males looking at females. ‘P.O.V.’ addresses this invisible presence and turns the male gaze back on itself. Who is being looked at here, surveyed and gazed upon?”

image from Stafford Smith's piece "POV"Image from another one of the lightboxes in Smith's "P.O.V."

So we have multiple representations of men in the nude photographing (looking at) themselves, each other, and the viewer(s). However, we are staring at them, looking up and down, analyzing, relating, and comparing their bodies and motives. It seems that there is a lot of considering going back and forth, with both sides criticizing the other.

Still, I wonder if the male gaze really has been flipped in this piece. Granted, we are assessing male bodies, but it could be argued that they are subjects and not objects, especially when regarding our culture’s long history of sexualizing females so much more than males, which continues to this day. Furthermore, the viewer’s stare could be seen as null and void when we reflect on who is holding the cameras. The masculine gaze is still in control.

What do you think?

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