Artists Explore Self with Nuance and Complexity

by Jean Schiffman

Contemporary Jewish Museum exhibition features works that take a deep dive into the meaning of “self.”

The 89-piece exhibit—a mix of photography,painting, sculpture (both free-standing and wall-hanging), video, 3-D animation and installation—features 10 contemporary artists, all of whom are either a woman, LGBTQ, a person of color or gender non-binary. They are featured in relation to the groundbreaking 20th-century French artists Claude Cahun, born Lucy Schwob (1894-1954), and her life-long collaborator and lover, Marcel Moore, born Suzanne Malherbe (1892-1972). Cahun (the French form of the common Jewish name Cohen) was a photographer, writer, surrealist, performer and radical activist; art critic Hal Foster called her “a Cindy Sherman avant la lettre” (meaning before there was a Cindy Sherman). The exhibit includes more than 20 of their photographs plus their photomontages created for “Aveux non avenues,” or “Disavowals” in English, Cahun’s “pseudo-autobiography” as it’s been called. Moore and Cahun often photographed each other, in various guises; Cahun is most famously depicted in a photo circa 1928, one hand on the lapel of her boldly checked jacket, with short, cropped hair (in another photo she’s bald), glancing at us and away from a small wall mirror that reflects, from a different angle, her slightly tilted head and enigmatic gaze. “Claude and Marcel’s work is declaring and claiming a particular kind of [mutable] selfhood,” says Matteson. “They were so ahead of their time!” Cahun wrote, “Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.” Her “Disavowals,” Matteson notes, feels relevant, in its slipperiness, to the ways that the self is often represented in contemporary art, as seen so distinctly in this exhibit.

For example, there’s the work of South African artist Zanele Muholi, a self-described “visual activist,” whose series of photographs most closely resemble what’s considered a traditional portrait. Muholi “uses everyday objects as adornments,” Matteson points out: in one portrait, a blanket is draped as a head covering, with Muholi gazing fiercely at the viewer. The skin is darkened in these headshots as a way for the artist to reclaim blackness, explains Matteson—“thwarting… gender normative standards of beauty.”

On the opposite extreme, the most non-figurative works on display are by San Francisco artist Davina Semo. “A Great Thing in Her Life Is That She Has a Secret” is composed of pigmented and reinforced concrete, stainless steel pipe and broken auto glass. The various ways of concealing the self is one of the exhibit’s thematic threads.

The human hand reappears as a motif in many of the works, including Semo’s; it symbolizes, says Matteson, action, “representing the self as an active figure,” not an object. Among them: Los Angeles painter Gabby Rosenberg’s depiction of fragmented body parts; East Coast-based Tschabalala Self’s paint-and-fabric portrayal of the black female body (in “Scarlet,” her subject has a black, four-fingered hand; in “Perched” her fingernails are blood red and lethal looking). Young Joon Kwak’s mixed-media, abstract sculpture, “Hermaphroditus’s Reveal I,” features three uncannily life-like hands with a curved slab of resin representing the body.

Some of the photos in the exhibit highlight performativity through costume and gesture, points out Matteson. In several, a mirror or reflecting pool appears: a reclamation, or subversion, of the myth of Narcissus, which Cahun wrote about as a positive archetype, one that represents self-love and self-approval, a concept that’s captured in a photo of her seen from behind and above, naked, languishing on a rock and peering at herself in a pool.

Berlin-based artist Hiwa K’s video shows him retracing the path he took when he fled
Iraqi Kurdistan and walked to Europe years ago, this time balancing on his nose a tall sculpture made of rear-view mirrors with their multiple reflections. “He’s thinking about how geographies and territories contribute to our sense of self,” comments Matteson.

Local artist Rhonda Holberton’s large digital animations are particularly unsettling: In one, a headless, fragmented and disintegrating body is doing yoga asanas; Holberton scanned her own body to create a model, then animated it. “She’s posing questions about whether and how we might be able to represent ourselves in virtual space with avatars,” points out Matteson.

In contrast to Holberton’s disjointed bodies, Isabel Yellin’s stuffed sculptural torsos and limbs seem soft, unbreakable, made of such materials as nylon, leatherette and acrylic; in “Estelle” (which includes corset boning) a pair of unnaturally long arms hang down the back of a slender, zippered torso, which is being embraced, around the waist, by another pair of arms, disembodied.

“What is the role of portraiture in visual art in this era of widely distributable selfies?” Matteson asked herself in planning “Show Me.” She posits that in art museum exhibits, with their slowed-down tempo, nuance emerges, as well as “productive confusion and a certain kind of audacity.”

Ultimately, for us the viewers, she writes in the catalog, the fact that these artists present themselves in such unselfie-like complexity “may spark a deep sense of recognition”—we may see
a new facet of ourselves, she suggests, “self-mirrored in that complexity.”

Show Me as I Want to Be Seen

Through July 7

Contemporary Jewish Museum

736 Mission St., San Francisco