Local artist Debra Jan Bibel reviews the Mirror Image show:
A shape emerges through the mist and we detect a human approaching. The very next attribute we perceive is whether it is a man or a woman, but that developing figure may have an entirely different self-perception than ours. Thus, among the first presentations encountered as we enter the Frisbie Street exhibit is Molly Kate Taylor’s photographic grouping of a transgender, cross-dressing man whose self-image is challenging.
Carrel Crawford’s backroom cluster of subjective abstractions and an objective photograph epitomize the theme of the show: What I want my body to be; what I feel inside; what I see; what I think others see; and what others actually see. Crawford projects a target metaphor of a large, beautiful, graceful horse, but others see only plain blue jeans.
An adjacent slide show prepared by Elisa Salasin views what people answer to “What weight do you carry?” Weight, a factor in appearance and self-image, is interpreted broadly here, as in Robert Bly’s Jungian bag of shadows or Buddha’s dukkha: social status, expectations, conceptions, pains, secrets, traditions, and other cravings, burdens, and guilt.
To emphasize the focus on weight, scattered about the floors are weighing scales, by JJ Fryzel, whose readings and marking have been altered. One scale only provides positive outcomes, such as Gorgeous!, or Cutie Pie!, or So Pretty!, or Hot! Hot! Hot! Another scale always reads “0”.
Yet another urges resistance to advertising and social forces on what is an appropriate weight, as if genetics has no role whatsoever and Barbie is anatomically correct. Indeed, our self-image, another encumbrance, is socially conditioned, health-related, and age-dependent.
The curators, Lanell Dike, Becky Jaffe, and Carrie-Andrea Kaye, have assembled a thoughtful and sometime whimsical assortment of artistic explorations on what and how we judge ourselves in appearance. The reasons why are less obvious. It is a daily ritual for many: the weighing on a scale, the view in the mirror, grooming, and cosmetic applications, which is extended to choices in clothing and gadget accouterments.
(Measurement of Worth by Lauren Davis)
We alter our appearance not only to identify ourselves to others but to conform (or, like many adolescent rebels, not to conform) to social norms and to attract mates, and if we fail, we can suffer. Perhaps that is why Courtney McCutcheon’s photographs of people in masks show us that anonymity provides self-acceptance.
Historically and culturally, what are regarded as beautiful features have varied. Once, a Rubenesque plump figure was keenly attractive. The midriff is sexy in India and the Middle East, but American men zero in on breasts.
Becky Jaffe’s introductory section in the front room was an experiment that required patience. She took some 2,000 photos of each volunteer model over 4- to 6-hour sessions and requested a choice of but one that best fits the self-image.
Some portraits were nudes, others included prop clothing. Audios were provided of the subjects explaining their choices. The most arresting image was of a Black man in partial theatrical blackface, a visual statement of protest since even among African and Afro-American communities the level of melanin pigmentation has social consequence.
The self-perception of a person in chronic pain or disability is Maia Huang’s study. Other people can observe the changes in appearance that come with pain; often a muscular strain or a melancholy is manifested. For the sufferer, self-image is often negative, and a search arises for transcendence beyond the body.
We can also regard scars of mastectomy and accidents as body flaws to overcome.
(Maxine by Bruce Temuchin Brown)
But then we come to self-inflicted assaults on the body. The photographs of G. M. M. Coghlan of bloody “cutters” ask questions but provide no answers. On the one hand, tattoos and skin inserts are allowed and even encouraged within ritual tribal cultures or urban subcultures, but hair-pulling and nail-biting are inattentive habits of anxiety and compulsion.
In anorexia, the delusive perception is as if the person is facing a fun-house mirror that broadens a truly slim body. (Indeed, in an alcove there is a reflective film that twists and bends our mirrored body shape.)
In contrast, long-distance runners and competitive bicyclists can have a gaunt appearance, and a few people who voluntarily consume near starvation but balanced levels of food in pursuit of health and longevity also appear unusually lean. Their self-image is not pathologically distorted.
Age influences our self-perception. Elisa Salasin’s photographs of children in play wearing costumes or in dress-up with parental clothing only begin this discussion. Young children do not have self-image standards or even concerns.
Indeed, in play, clothing as a uniform has fetishistic quality, and in their imagination with a cape, the child becomes a superhero. The adolescent, however, is mired in self-image problems, peer expectations, and cultural dictates. Senior citizens have consciously discarded such nonsense.
These artists and other contributors at the Frisbie Street show place a mirror before us, demanding, “Is this you?” Our self-perception supports our ego and shapes our life and social interactions, but it is in flux, changing day by day and hour by hour. It is also pliable, developmental, soon reduced to “old,” and ultimately meaningless.
Once again, the multimedia, multifaceted approach at Frisbie Street has offered a worthy, highly interesting, and evocative exhibit. The universal theme is, of course, psychological but also sociological and biological, and I can envision the exhibit expanded into an interactive presentation at the Exploratorium and similar public scientific venues.
- Art Review by Debra Jan Bibel, Ph.D. – you can view her work at Studio Lone Mountain and during East Bay Open Studios on June 12 and 13.