Gender fluidity & mutable identity

  • by Sura Wood
  • Tuesday February 12, 2019
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Claude Cahun (Lucy Schwob) and Marcel Moore (Suzanne Malherbe), "Untitled" (1928). Gelatin silver print. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © Estate of Claude Cahun. Photo: Don Ross
Claude Cahun (Lucy Schwob) and Marcel Moore (Suzanne Malherbe), "Untitled" (1928). Gelatin silver print. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © Estate of Claude Cahun. Photo: Don Ross

"Show Me as I Want to Be Seen," a scintillating in-house exhibition filled with the new and different, is, by turns, revelatory and unsettling, and one of the most intriguing shows mounted by the Contemporary Jewish Museum in a while. Curated by Natasha Matteson, it showcases the path-breaking work of two French artists, activists and card-carrying Surrealists: queer photographer Claude Cahun (born Lucy Schwob into a family of Jewish intellectuals) and her longtime partner in love and art, Marcel Moore (nee Suzanne Malherbe). Their early-20th-century collaborations produced imaginative black & white portraits of Cahun. Radical for her time, she has attracted a cult following since being rediscovered over 20 years ago. Wearing masks and assuming a variety of guises and expressions of ambiguous gender, she inhabits simultaneous selves and a world that's a movable feast of personas. Some are mischievous, such as one in which Cahun is lodged in an open cupboard; others are mysterious, like "Portrait of Claude naked near rocks" (1930), where she's face down in the sand, seaweed twined around her body. Is she a goddess, a beached mermaid, or is it Deborah Kerr washed in by the tide after the passionate lip-lock with Lancaster in "From Here to Eternity?" Yes, the time frame of the latter is off by a few years, but these small, potent, staged images stimulate unanticipated associations. Constituting roughly one-third of the 90 pieces in the show, they're exhibited in informal conversation with artworks by 10 contemporary artists, many of them knockouts who, in a myriad of wildly inventive ways, explore the concept of mutable identity.

In the gender-bending "Untitled (I am training don't kiss me)" (1927), Cahun is an impish bodybuilder in full face makeup and lipstick. Spit-curls coyly pasted on her forehead, flat-chested with fake nipples, and heart shapes painted on her cheeks, she's a muscled Betty Boop with crossed legs and barbells emblazoned with Totor and Popol, the names of popular comic book figures of the time created by Herge of TinTin fame. The photograph is displayed next to Tschabalala Self's "Perched" (2016), a large canvas of collaged handmade paper and paint. On a background of circus colors, eyes peer out as the saucy central figure sits with her back to a mirror offering ops for self-admiration. In a near-perfect match-up, "Self's Sunshine" (2016), a collaged fabric and paper work of a woman with pouty blue lips and a nimbus of curly hair, is shown alongside a picture of Cahun, whose wavy mop frames her face like a halo.

Claude Cahun (Lucy Schwob) and Marcel Moore (Suzanne Malherbe), Untitled [I am in training dont kiss me] (1927). Gelatin silver print. © Jersey Heritage. Photo: Courtesy CJM-SF  

Young Joon Kwak, founder of Mutant Salon, a traveling beauty platform for queer, trans, femme, POC artists and performers, riffs on the Greek deity Hermaphroditus, the embodiment of fluid sex and gender. Kwak's sculpture "Hermaphroditus's Reveal I" (2017), a wave-like arc of fiberglass cloth and resin coated in gold enamel, relates to Cahun's masks and intentional enigma. Installed on the floor, the metallic surface appears to harbor an unseen figure on its hands and knees; a pair of hands edges beyond the curtain, and fingers from a third tease a back flap, hinting the veil is about to be lifted and the truth exposed.

A number of the show's works concern the body, distorted internal perceptions of it or dysmorphia, and the involuntary visceral response to perceived deformity in oneself or others. Isabel Yellin's soft corporeal sculptures, composed of contorted limbs and torsos and given incongruously upbeat names, are emblematic of dysphoria, thwarted desire and general physical discomfort. "Erin/Heather" seem to be connected by an umbilical cord, and "Penny," a short stuffed sculpture with two stubby legs and no neck, covered in mustard-colored leatherette and urethane, could be a science experiment gone wrong or a primitive creature that wandered out of the ocean too soon. "Felix," made of nylon and corset boning, is sans head, limp-legged and pinned to the wall on its side. Other sculptures look like refugees from nightmares or botched surgeries.

Oakland artist Rhonda Holberton is represented by nine installations, each more fascinating and mind-boggling than the next. Too bad there weren't more. Among other things, she envisions a world where the human body is obsolete, a relief or a disaster, depending on one's point of view, but at least there'd be no hay fever. For the digital animation "The Ground Was Never Stable in the First Place" (2015), she tried on football padding and riot gear, 3-D scanned her body, then animated the scan walking forward, combining movement of soldiers marching and fashion models strolling down the runway. The result: a plaster-white, robotic space soldier of indeterminate gender, wearing breastplate armor and arm and shin guards, its face half-blown off a la "The Terminator" on a bad day. Soulless and unstoppable, it strides relentlessly toward the viewer. Even spookier is "The Italian Navigator Has Landed in the New World" (2014), for which Holberton also used keyframe animation techniques similar to puppetry or stop-motion. Headless, missing part of an arm, and the flesh-tone of raw chicken, a limber figure resembling a ripped egg carton goes through the paces of a virtual yoga routine, a spectacle disturbing in a way that's difficult to overstate.

South African photographer Zanele Muholi, who established a forum for queer and visual media activists seeking "to re-write a black queer and trans visual history of South Africa at the height of hate crimes in SA," contributes a succession of powerful black women in glossy, staged self-portraits. In a gesture aimed at reclaiming their blackness, they've darkened their skin and stare down the camera with an air of defiance, each an imposing presence to be reckoned with.

The same could be said of Cahun and Moore, rebels to the end whose in-your-face, fuck-you attitude extended to the Nazis. During WWII, the couple lived on Jersey, a Nazi-occupied Channel Island, where they smuggled treason-inciting notes into soldiers' quarter, acts for which they were arrested, imprisoned and sentenced to death. Fortunately, the war ended before the execution could be carried out. A 1945 photograph taken upon their release shows a gray-haired Cahun with a Nazi badge clenched between her teeth, as if to say: Up yours!

Through July 7.