What is the relationship between artifice and feminine power? Three, a photography exhibit on view at Hagedorn Foundation Gallery through March 12, presents three collections of work so different in their approach to this question — both in style and thematic exploration — that it’s hard for them to be in the same room.
But the mash-up is purposeful. Curator Elisabeth Biondi, who was photo editor for the New Yorker for 15 years, knows something about being provocative. (An interview with Biondi) She brings together European fashion photography from the 1950s and ’60s by F. C. Gundlach, exquisite color studies of geishas by Ethan Levitas and conceptual explorations of intimacy by Yijun (Pixy) Liao to show female identity masked, mimed and revealed in radically different contexts.
Gundlach’s work is a special treat. His black and white images say much about the miracles fashion was expected to perform for women on the verge of liberation. In Costume by Uli Richter, the model is photographed from a perspective that causes her to tower above Berlin’s iconic Victory Monument. In Lissy Schaper Ensemble, the model seems to step forth from the Brandenburg Gate. With their exquisite apparel and regal postures, these women have triumphed over triumph itself.
In Summer Fashion Theater, Gundlach’s models face each other in animated conversation, creating a comical symmetry, while the bewildered, unfashionable masses observe from a street level window below. These women are so confident in their ascendancy that they don’t mind clowning a bit.
Gundlach’s mid-’60s collection, Op-Art Fashion, presents women as harbingers of the new — daring in their ability to sport mesmerizing geometrical designs. The backgrounds are bold and abstract as well, brilliantly composed to accentuate the Bauhaus sensibility of the fashion.
Geishas represent an important concept in traditional Japanese aesthetics, namely the idea that the beauty of nature is most effectively conveyed through artifice. In other words, we can see the essential beauty of women more clearly in an artificially created woman (who is sometimes actually a man in traditional Japanese theater) than in a woman who is naturally beautiful.
The beauty of the geisha is carefully scripted, rehearsed and finally internalized to such an extent that the role eclipses the woman behind it. The geisha’s power clearly resides in the role. The geisha might be seen as an extreme manifestation of something experienced by Western women as well, who sometimes recognize that the source of their allure is not who they actually are as individuals, but the images projected upon them by those who admire them.
Levitas’ color studies examine his subjects against theatrical lighting — bright yellow and brown tones, or a negative image against luminous blue. The photographs are large, 46 x 38 inches, and these color fields seem to flood into the gallery. The effect is a little alienating, but it serves to accentuate, by contrast, the photographer’s incredible attention to the fabric of the costumes and the geishas’ ornaments. Levitas achieves exceptionally sharp resolution that draws the viewers’ eyes to the frayed edges of the obi and other unexpected details. These antique costumes convey the quality of “wabi,” or worn imperfection, that is prized in traditional Japanese ideas about beauty. We also see strands of hair lacquered and fastened to the base of a wig and cracks in the geisha’s white makeup. What seems most alive in these photographs is fabric.
Levitas’ intention is not quite clear to me. Certainly he wants the viewer to see and appreciate the extent of artifice that constitutes the geisha’s persona, but does he want us to know the subject in some way, to wonder about her, or is he confirming that the bearer of the persona is irrelevant?
Yijun (Pixy) Liao’s digital photographs create a jolting contrast. While Levitas and Gundlach make us think about the role of costume in creating female power, this Brooklyn-based artist, originally from Shanghai, confronts us with artless nudity and vulnerability. And yet Liao, too, is interested in feminine power. In these photographs, which document aspects of her relationship with her boyfriend of several years, she seems to find power in unguarded intimacy rather than in artifice. We should also note that Liao is showing us the experience of female power from a female, rather than the male perspective of the other two.
Creating a World Just for Us captures Liao bending maternally toward her boyfriend. Her hair falls over his face and frames it, so that the two seem to fuse. His hair is bristly and clipped, and hers is enveloping, comforting. Behind the pair is an antique map of Paris monuments. The colors of their sweaters reiterate the tones in the map. This is one of the only photographs with a hint of romance, and perhaps for that reason I liked it the best.
In a wildly globalizing society, intimacy becomes more urgent than ever and perhaps takes on a new meaning. But when intimacy is so candidly documented, is it still intimacy? In the age of the “selfie,” every aspect of personal experience is fair game. The rather silly photograph Debut shows the artist’s bum protruding comically from between red curtains. Flesh now appearing on stage for the first time? Nudity has not had much part in Chinese art until very recently, and Asian artists traditionally have not been attuned to the aesthetics of nudity. Liao seems to have fun transgressing against the puritanical sensibility that afflicted China in the Mao era and continues to linger in the older generation.
In how to build a relationship with layered meanings, Liao and her seemingly very patient boyfriend are stretched out nude. The boyfriend forms the top layer, and beneath Liao are layers of bare mattresses. The room is spare, defined by a square of glaring light. Liao looks into the camera, her boyfriend looks away; both have their hands around the cord connected to the shutter. “The one who holds the cord to the camera holds the power,” Liao said in a conversation during the opening. Sharing the power may in fact be the source of the power Liao explores.
Click here to view more work from the exhibit.