Faces behind the masks

  • by Sura Wood
  • Wednesday March 28, 2018
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How well can we ever truly know another person? There's the private self vs. the faces we present to the world; the version of who we'd like to be but are not; the outright con artists and imposters. What lies behind the mask? These issues of identity, personae and gender mutability are among those raised in "Selves and Others," a provocative, artfully constructed show of 120 portraits from the 19th century onward, now at SFMOMA's Pritzker Center for Photography. Opting for a clean, minimalist installation and representations from a Who's Who of the medium - Diane Arbus, Nicholas Nixon, Irving Penn, Carrie Mae Weems, Robert Frank, Cindy Sherman, Dora Maar - the museum's savvy associate curator of photography Erin O'Toole has resisted the obvious choices, selecting works that seem new or warrant another assessment.

Some believe that photographs can steal the soul; they can expose subterranean psychological rumblings, buried secrets, or covert experience, even when artists train their penetrating gaze on themselves. In the opening section, comprised mostly of artist self-portraits, a few mischievously tweak their own image. Berenice Abbott's distorted face resembles a reflection in a fun-house mirror, and Andy Warhol memorialized himself in a bow-tie, circa 1963, in a grainy photo-booth strip, while we can see only the furrowed brow and probing eyes of the subversive gay artist Robert Mapplethorpe (1988), framed as if through a speakeasy peep slot. French provocateur Sophie Calle, a more adept writer than photographer, can be counted on for sober prose that delivers an ironic punch one doesn't see coming. There are two pieces on view from her series "Autobiographical Stories," photographs displayed with brief narratives of events that may or may not have happened the way she describes, if at all. "The Plastic Surgery" (2000) shows Calle's solemn face in profile, a clinical shot that might have been taken in a doctor's office. It's accompanied by her recollection of an episode in which her grandparents, advocating a nose job and other cosmetic improvements, carted her off to a surgeon. "In the end, it was Dr. F. who put an end to my dilemma," she writes. "Two days before the operation, he committed suicide."

For the playful "Lick and Lather" (1993-94), a pair of flawed side-by-side busts in her own image, Janine Antoni used soap for one and chocolate for the other. She degraded the surface of the former by lathering it, and disfigured the features of the latter by licking it with her tongue, a tool not readily available at the art supply store. The soap version fared better. O'Toole suggests they symbolize opposite poles of idealized female sensuality and purity, Madonna and whore, that women have been forced to navigate since the beginning of time. One thing is certain: chocolate tastes better than soap.

The exhibition showcases a range of images, from pictures of family, friends, lovers and encounters with strangers - spontaneous or calculated, in the case of Arbus - to meticulously crafted avatars, a form of performance art. Chameleons rock the show and rule in "Masquerade," a section where one marvels at the ingenuity of merry pranksters and masters/mistresses of disguise, who perform for the camera, employing costumes, makeup and prosthetics to alter their appearance and gender. Gillian Wearing, a Brit with an "artifice as path to truth" credo, who has dressed up in fearsome blonde wig and black leather as Andy Warhol, and assumed the identity of Marilyn Monroe, donned silicone masks to become the spitting image of her father, and a youngish incarnation of her mother; the transformations are astonishing. Gender-bending, NY-based, Japanese "sexual appropriation" wizard Yasumasa Morimura reconfigures himself in a spooky rendition of Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring," and as an elder Rembrandt, imitating the Dutch master's chiaroscuro lighting in a work he impishly titled "Unfinished Self-Portrait, 1660." Defying gender roles with brio in whimsical surrealist scenarios, Claude Cahun (Lucy Schwob), in concert with her lover Marcel Moore (Suzanne Malherbe), engage in private dialogues within their pictures, like one of a winged Cahun voguing in a flapper dress ("The Mystery of Adam," 1929), or the well-heeled couple seated in a nightclub and radiating ennui. Exhibited elsewhere in the show, though it would have fit this category, is Man Ray's "Portrait of Rrose Selavy" (1921). The subject, wearing an identity-concealing, oversized hat tailored for subterfuge, is Marcel Duchamp posing as the glamorous female alter ego he credited with several of his works. Her name is a pun on the phrase "Eros, c'est la vie."

A grouping called "Just the Two of Us" addresses forms of intimacy, from partnerships that have evolved into a country of one to sensual images of lust and longing. Historically, this "genre" has been dominated by men photographing their wives or mistresses sans clothing, such as Alfred Stieglitz's "Torso - Georgia O'Keeffe" (ca. 1918-19), but Nan Goldin upends that tradition, inviting us into her bed with a female lover - that's the artist on the bottom in a black lace bra. The romantic portrait, partially suffused in warm, indirect golden light, exudes sexual heat and desire, while treading the boundary between frankness and exhibitionism. Similarly, viewers are allowed to trespass on a private moment in her tender, softly lit picture of a youthful slender nude curled on her side ("Amanda on my Fortuny, Berlin," 1993).

"I Love My Friend" (1989/2015), a photograph by gay black filmmaker Isaac Julien, was shot during the making of his groundbreaking film "Looking for Langston"(1989), an impressionistic love letter to the Harlem Renaissance and poet Langston Hughes, filtered through a queer lens and a noir, whisky and cigarettes haze. Two dapper black men-about-town are caught off-guard round Midnight, standing together on a bridge after meeting at a club. Eyeing the camera in this charged, clandestine scene, their body language betrays a kind of closeness dangerous to express at the time.

Through Sept. 23. sfmoma.org.