Race, gender and identity have preoccupied artists working with photography since at least the 1980s, and it is fascinating to see those inquiries continue today through current exhibits at Leon Gallery and RedLine. While Tya Alisa Anthony’s focus at Leon is on race from her African-American perspective, and Jess T. Dugan’s at RedLine is on gender from her LBGTQ perspective, the politics and representation of identity is crucial to both.
“SKINs” by Tya Alisa Anthony (at Leon Gallery through April 8) continues Anthony’s explorations of African-American culture and identity, and is dominated by vibrant color and an emphatic female gaze. Anthony’s title refers to skin as the signifier of identity, and she uses familiar tropes of popular culture, such as flamboyant design, sculpted bodies and sexualized catchphrases, to comment on the dominant (white) culture’s objectification of Black American culture.
The show consists mostly of small groupings of photographs and mixed-media works, many of them portraits but also bodyscapes and wrapped figures representing the African heritage shared by the artist and other “humans of the world,” as she put it to me.
Her signature image at Leon, “Polymath. Strategian. Artist. Innovator.,” (mislabeled “The Plymouth” in the show, which had me thinking of pilgrims for a while), is a dynamic portrait of a woman whose powerful aura is heightened by Anthony’s vibrant metallic palette. “Eleven” is a mural-sized, black-and-white portrait that shimmers with a jewel-like sheen. Its physicality is enhanced by its size and proximity to the gallery entrance; the piece is an impressive tribute to its subject, who is an artist, an activist and a close friend of Anthony’s.
Given her professional background in commercial and editorial photography, it’s no surprise that much of Anthony’s work appropriates a media-driven approach intentionally borrowed from magazine and fashion advertising. Aesthetically, this often complicates her social critique. One black-and-white series of “Skinscapes” makes for an elegant set of modernist, abstract images but lacks a discernible political viewpoint. Conversely, her series of pulsating, red and blue bodyscapes (that I’ll refer to as “Rated R” after one of its titles) invites political as well as aesthetic interpretations, but with titles like “PG-13,” “Don’t you want me baby?,” and “Does this make my butt look too big?” they could be read as celebrating the objectification they intend to critique.
Postmodern wordsmiths such as Carrie Mae Weems and Barbara Kruger have influenced Anthony’s previous work, and their strategies for integrating text with images might offer a solution to the “Rated R” problems. Anthony also cites local artists Amber Cobb, Laura Shill and Rebecca Vaughan as influences. Their use of materials is more obvious in a quartet of gauze-covered portraits that “embrace the feminine,” as Anthony described it to me. The pieces function on several levels: aesthetically, they are celebratory images that move their subjects beyond the realm of stereotypes; metaphorically, their layered construction suggests skin’s visceral surface and the barriers that skin imposes; physically, they soften the jarring impact of the “Rated R” pieces and help establish a visual rhythm to the installation.
Anthony describes her Leon show as a bridge leading to more identity-related works grounded in her relationship to her home environment. “SKINs” shows terrific promise, but her challenge is to resolve how best to convey her message without falling into her own stereotypes. The media tropes she appropriates — particularly for her color bodyscapes — are largely about objectifying and sexualizing their subjects. In the context of cultural critique, those are risky tools to play with.
Anthony could also look to Jess T. Dugan’s show at RedLine as a way to glean the secrets of pacing one’s ideas and approaching a big subject strategically. Dugan’s “Every Breath We Drew” (through April 9) is a concise and affirmative portrait of the artist’s queer and gender variant community. It is something of a revelation to consider her approach. Over time and a number of inter-connected projects, Dugan has created a complex body of work that is both manageable and inexhaustible. It is also something of a rabbit-hole down which this writer is pleased to fall.
The installation, curated by Samantha Johnston of the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, consists of 16 portraits and three still-life images, titled by name and date only. At first viewing, this seems to be a rather typical show of documentary portraiture — restrained color, somewhat austere, sparse, and elegantly presented. Dugan’s artist statement is eloquent yet somewhat puzzling: “Working within the framework of queer experience” is pretty clear, but what does “my actively constructed sense of masculinity” actually mean?
We get a sense of that with the first image, “Hunter and Jeffry.” In the foreground a man approaching middle age with tribal tattoos and heavy leather wristbands leans confidently in to the camera. He displays the kind of “gentle masculinity” Dugan’s statement tells us she likes — a confident dominance. In the background a blurred, naked figure reclines in a chair. We move on, feeling the man’s gaze follow. Across the gallery we find “Hunter,” an ornately tattooed man sitting on one of two single beds; we have to surmise that he is the same naked figure we saw in the first photo, Jeffry’s partner. And so one image gradually informs another, and the impression of community starts to grow and take shape.
Dugan inserts herself into the narrative and makes plain that this is her community and her experience as well.* Although there are no wall texts there is enough visual evidence to suggest a deeper story and a much larger context for what we are seeing. For instance, in the show’s most dynamic image, “Self-portrait (muscle shirt),” Dugan poses to reveal the scars of her chest reconstruction surgery. Everything realigns, genders are reconsidered, relationships scramble, preconceptions disappear.
It is more than informative to read the interviews associated with Dugan’s “To survive on this shore” project, which is available on her website. To quote one person:
“[H]ow do you explain on the FAFSA forms for the federal government that somebody’s a biological mother and at the same time they’re legally a man and what’s their legal relationship, and how do you explain that I am legally a man that was never married to my former spouse who is legally their mother because we were a lesbian couple?” (Chris, 52, Boston, MA).
Such a life is beyond labyrinthine. As individual photographs, Dugan’s are some of the most empathetic and sensitive portraits you will see anywhere. At the same time they hint at the hardships and traumas associated with being different; one literally sees the physical scars, some surgical and some self-inflicted, and one can only imagine (or recognize) the emotional scars that accompanied them.
In its larger context Dugan’s work bears witness to how extensive and deeply rooted her community is, and to how fluidly gender is transitioning and evolving in our world — that is truly something quite brilliant to recognize.
“Every Breath We Drew” was organized by the Colorado Photographic Arts Center. Both the RedLine and Leon Gallery shows are being presented in conjunction with Denver’s Month of Photography. www.redlineart.org; www.leongallery.com.
* I use the pronoun “her” in accordance with Dugan’s website biography.
Rupert Jenkins is a writer and curator based in Denver. He is the former director of the Colorado Photographic Arts Center. His company, Durrington Edits, specializes in arts-related editorial projects, exhibition planning, and consulting, with an emphasis on photography and the photo-related arts. rupertjenkins.com.