About face

It’s no secret we live in a “me” culture — the brisk trade in self-help books, active participation in talk radio and reality TV, and the birth of the blogosphere are just a few examples of the claim-staking we do. But the obsession with individual identity goes back to the Romantics, who in the mid-1700s were the first to embrace personal self-expression as the true measure of self-worth. In Identities, a photography show at the Gallery at Marygrove College, two contemporary artists with distinct visions prove that identity questions pervade our culture, especially in terms of ethnicity and gender.

Journeyman photographer Eric Smith searches for the unique marker of individuality. After spending years churning out product for the Detroit ad industry’s image factory, he is now getting back in touch with his inner artist. His co-exhibitor, artist and University of Texas faculty member Karen F. Sanders, takes a more social approach. That they both gain from their juxtaposition is a credit to the intuition of the show’s curator Nelson Smith, who’s no slouch of an artist himself.

Both exhibitors work with digital technology and, appropriately, binary oppositions run throughout the show. Smith works in color, Sanders in black and white. Smith’s photos are matted, framed and densely stacked up the wall salon-style, whereas Sanders’ larger-than-life images are tacked in place, with the bottom edges hanging free and curling under the room’s humidity. Smith’s photographs consist entirely of full-frontal headshots, all taken with the same lighting and posing, closely cropped to focus attention specifically on his subjects’ facial features. Sanders’ photos of people (there are also a few images of just body parts) are posed in profile with enough evidence of grooming and attire to offer clues as to identity. Then there’s the dichotomy of the artists’ themselves: Smith is a white guy, and Sanders, a woman of color.

Dialectics of identity further play out in terms of subjectivity and objectivity, issues explored by Smith and Sanders respectively. On the one hand, there’s the question of what makes individuals unique and, on the other, of how society helps shape self-consciousness. And it’s another of the show’s smart touches that the catalog essay on Smith is written by a psychologist and the one on Sanders by a cultural anthropologist, both of whom are Marygrove faculty members.

Smith’s overall series is titled Faces Project, with individual photo groupings titled either by the subject’s first name or surname. Each portrait is presented in rows of three, the first printed straight-up, the second digitally altered so that the left side of the face is duplicated on the right and the third so that the right is duplicated on the left (R/L, L/L, R/R). In most cases, there’s a visible change in the subject’s appearance, making the point that even individual facial features, the quintessential markers of personal identity, are themselves unique and asymmetrical, perhaps external effects of internal left and right brain functions.

Sanders shows two pieces, the 12-part “Not to Mention” series and the diptych “Domino.” In both, individuals or body parts are featured with universal graphic communication symbols (like those in airports and malls) set underneath each portrait, suggesting multiple readings. Some symbols seem purely formal, such as the V-shaped flap on an envelope in “Not to Mention #9” that echoes a similar shape in the neck of the subject’s T-shirt. Other symbols seem to have more meaning, such as those for a man, woman and steamship, perhaps representing a migrant heritage, featured under the portrait of someone wearing native attire. Still others function as both — like the simplistic iconography for jet planes positioned under the close-up of a penis. But there’s always potential slippage in these interpretations. For one thing, the supposedly universal icons are actually culture-bound: For example, how could an Australian aboriginal who spent his or her life in the Outback interpret the sign for an up or down escalator?

Ironically, the more the individuals in Smith’s series are scrutinized, the more indistinguishable they become, while the opposite seems to happen with Sanders’ archetypal photos. One way isn’t better than the other. A dichotomy, like all good art, isn’t necessarily so cut-and-dried.


Identities runs through Nov. 15 with a gallery talk at 4 p.m., Nov. 14, at The Gallery at Marygrove College (Fourth floor, Liberal Arts Building), 8425 W. McNichols Rd., Detroit; 313-927-1370.

Vince Carducci writes about art and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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