Eye for I

“Hold it,” thinks the photographer as she takes one last look at the dreamlike setup. And “hold it,” thinks her model as she hopes everything’ll be alright. But they work together without sharing a word, because they’re one and the same person: multimedia artist Bethany Shorb.

The art of self-portraiture — the trick of catching that oh-so-familiar image unawares and seeing in it the presence of an “other” — is a strange magic. In Shorb’s pictures, whether in eerie black and white or mysterious color, a new self gets invented with each click of the shutter. Though now a graduate student in sculpture at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Shorb has explored an interlocking variety of media since her first encounter with painting back in grade school in Connecticut. Later, at the Boston University School for the Arts, she focused on sculpture and photography as well.

“Having a painting background really helped me get into color. ... I really got into warping the film from what it’s supposed to be used for.”

Joining a long tradition of modern and postmodern photographers, from Man Ray to Cindy Sherman, Shorb combines inner gazing with masquerade into scenes of ambiguously disturbing drama and gothic desire. There’s a degree of complicity between the eye behind the camera and the body in front of the lens that’s particularly intriguing.

But what about the technical difficulties in setting up and shooting oneself? Wouldn’t it be easier to use other models?

“I feel like I’m a horrible director of models. In order to get the amount of emotion that I want in my work, to get the right mood of each piece, I found that I could do all that better myself. And it’s easier to correct the technical problems of each shot than to correct the mood.”

Paradoxically, her early work in photography was almost impersonal.

“I used to do a lot of architectural things that didn’t necessarily talk back.”

It’s this “talking back,” from one part of the self to another, that lets viewers in on a hypnotic flaunting of libido, an autoerotic flashdance that won’t let us look away. As she changes in each shot from blonde to brunette to skinhead (she’s a natural strawberry red), Shorb puts herself where we find ourselves wanting her to be: “right there, a little lower, let down your hair, raise your chin, look in the camera ...” Of course, it’s just a seductive illusion, the way she seems to put us in the driver’s seat. In fact, she’s become a master (or mistress) of the controlling gaze.

Not one to become infatuated with the past, Shorb, 24, has a whole list of new projects: She’s currently planning a series of self-portraits to be shot as pseudo-film stills, in which she’ll appear with her broiling organic sculptures, “jumping in with them and interacting with them.” Or, as in the words of a recent statement of hers on beauty and repulsion: “The body of work, the body of the artist and the machine are in union as one, sexually, psychologically, and proximally.”

Shorb, the multiplier of possibilities, also continues to promote rock bands, as well as updating her Web site, sinister.com/dethany, which documents her various creative ventures (photography, installation, sculpture, video, noise, etc.).

This past April, Shorb’s visions were included in Valkyrie UK, a group show in Sheffield, England featuring work from Clive Barker and David Bowie among others. And three of her sculptures are included in The Clarity of Seduction III, organized by Network Gallery at the Cranbrook Art Museum (1221 N. Woodward, Bloomfield Hills — call 877-462-7262) through July 9. The museum is open late on Fridays, until 10 p.m.

As should be pretty clear from Shorb’s photographs on these pages, just take one look through her eyes and you won’t want to stop.

George Tysh is the Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected]