Through the Body

Through the Body

Frederick R. Weisman Museum

           THROUGH THE BODY is a type of exhibition Minneapolis art institutions have ignored for years--one that ferrets out a pervasive trend in the local artistic community. The show is composed of works by 11 photographers, all of whom, according to the exhibition's curators, Patricia Briggs and Diane Mullin, explore the role that the human body and its representation play in the development of identity.

           Briggs and Mullin deserve kudos for bringing this show to the Weisman. However, while they reveal that an intense interest in the human body and identity is indeed widespread among Twin Cities artists, the works presented here illustrate that where there's smoke, there's not always fire. Yes, technical mastery of the photographic medium abounds--but when it comes to examining the content of individual works, originality and quality prove to be rare commodities.

           Anchoring the exhibition is Dorit Cypis, who, in her mid-40s, is the show's senior artist. Her wealth of experience is evident in seven of her photo-based works from The Body in the Picture series. Created over a five-year period, Cypis's complex photographs sandwich her live subjects between enlarged photographs and projected images. Instructional keys placed underneath each photograph reveal that these images are snapshots of family members and youthful portraits of her central subjects. What results is a feeling that the artist has rifled through her subjects' psyches, discovering along the way vital bits and pieces of the past experiences and childhood environments that inform their adult identities.

           Cypis is also represented with a room-sized installation, "Hungry Ghost (and the Seven Muses)," in which she has re-photographed seven photographs from artist Gary Winogrand's 1975 series, Women are Beautiful. Mounted to mirrors and back-lit, she transforms these dated images of self-possessed women so that they appear hazy and distant. Perhaps as an homage to the co-opted Winogrand, Cypis includes on the room's far wall the word "FATHER" formed from white feathers, having come into being after the letter "e" fell from the original word, "feather." In this way, Cypis seems to be implying that after being committed to film, it is these confident women who have staying power and weight, as opposed to the absent Winogrand. All interpretations aside, it is refreshing to see her expand her repertoire into this medium.

           The show's other artists prove to be widely mixed in terms of quality, but several rise above the fray with mature and unique visions. Stevie Rexroth has two photographic series on view, and both are murky, muddy delights. Of particular note are six selections from her Gender series. Focusing on torsos and blunted views of legs, Rexroth distorts her subjects to the point where gender is obscured, as is weight and mass. The view through her lens is positively hallucinogenic, as she makes her figures appear emaciated and bloated at the same time.

           Another highlight is a large, untitled work by Shannon Kennedy. Here, Kennedy has taken a single image of her face and hands and created from it dozens of color photocopies of varying sizes. Mounted from ascending to descending scale, the monumental work seems to bulge from the wall in a wash of blue and violet. The multiplicity of her visage is reminiscent of a bank of televisions all tuned to the same channel--sort of a female big brother. Far from menacing, though, her contorted face remains placid and otherworldly, due to the work's grainy texture and Kennedy's generous use of dark black shadows.

           Other monumentally-scaled works by Jessica Crawford and Lynn Lukkas are mixed in terms of their success. Crawford's multi-paneled "Primavada" includes a stunning, long, narrow panel showing sequential exposures of a nude pregnant figure; arranged as mirror images of one another, the photos merge to create bulbous, sensual body forms. Hanging above this segment, though, towering images of the artist's face fall short in matching the dynamic quality of the smaller panel, and ultimately, the work does not come together as a unified whole. Also working with the nude female form, Lukkas combines the disparate mediums of video and still photography with gutsy bravado in "Cut-Aperture-Edge." The only artist in the exhibition to work with video, Lukkas's three small monitors show live, close-up images of female sexual organs, nipples, and facial and body apertures, mounted underneath a large photograph of a recumbent female figure whose defining features--eyes, ears, nose, mouth, nipples, and pubic hair--have been erased. While clearly the most explicit work in the exhibition, Lukkas's work is too closely derivative of similar works by more established artists, such as Ann Hamilton.

           At its worst, Through the Body offers works that are basically one-trick ponies--works which, through interesting display or technical wizardry, mask their basic lack of originality and content. The collaborative team of Mark Barlow and Keith Braafladt fall flattest in this regard with their two multi-component, wall-mounted works. "Temple," for instance, is composed of several individually framed body parts that, when hung in order, form a rough approximation of a human body. Not only is the work slight in its message, but such piecing together of the body has been done in every artistic medium from drawing to video.

           Also suffering from a substantive shortcoming are several photographs by the team of Abigail Braley Mouw and Michael Mouw. This team displays considerable prowess in layering figures, X-rays, and flat, projected shadows; however, while striving for surreal effects, their works often crash down to earth due to simplistic and sentimental imagery, as evidenced in such obvious pieces as "Injection," "Bird in Hand," and "Coquette."

           Individual critiques aside, Through the Body's lack of quality works should not at all detract from the fact that it represents one of the fundamental services a contemporary art institution can provide--keeping artists and the community abreast of what is currently being made in our corner of the world. In the end, the show's only true fault is the lack of insight the curators have provided into why Minnesota artists have become so enthralled with the human body.

           Through the Body is on view through September 1.

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