Hold Still: “Pause” & Portraiture at the Zuckerman

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Peter Bahouth, Stephanie by Pool (detail), 2009; stereoscopic photograph with stand, 54 by 10 by 10 inches.
Peter Bahouth, Stephanie by Pool (detail), 2009; stereoscopic photograph with stand, 54 by 10 by 10 inches.

The exhibition “Pause,” at the Zuckerman Museum of Art at Kennesaw State University through June 6, takes a multidisciplinary look at some of the most fundamental of human refusals to accept the order of nature.

Rafael Soldi: A body in transit is now on view at the Frost Museum, Miami through December 4

Change is inevitable; growth and decay are built into the natural condition. Human beings, however, have sought to stop time in its course throughout history, or to make growth endless and avoid decay altogether, or to affirm a cycle of eternal return that today we would call hitting the reset button.

Human beings also organize the world into discrete categories. Not only (to quote the philosopher) is one thing what it is and not another thing, but it exists in a defined category. The categories with which humans impose a grid upon the world differ hugely from culture to culture and within social classes, but most human beings become uncomfortable whenever their categories fail to account for the apparent circumstances of the world around them. They feel this discomfort even when they believe that they believe that all categories are relative. This may be not only an inevitable consequence of possessing language, but a prerequisite for survival; lacking more than a handful of preprogrammed responses at birth, humans are compelled to find other ways of sorting out the fabled “blooming, buzzing confusion” of the world around them. The elaborations and excesses of categorization are among the consequences.

Portraiture is one of the enduring embodiments of all these impulses, and Zuckerman curators Teresa Bramlette Reeves and Kirstie Tepper have put together a look at portraiture that requires considerable explication to understand why all these images and objects have been placed in the same galleries. Despite the challenge this poses, they have managed the feat in wall-text language both clear and profound, and much more elegant than the first-year textbook prose I have just written. Seldom has an Atlanta exhibition put forth such challenging investigations with such clarity (albeit with a few inevitable slippages here and there).

The exhibition design is a variety of wall art in its own right, using the “pause” icon from video as a visual theme. Marked by the appropriate icons in the wall labels, the metaphoric categories of “pause,” “seek,” “skip,” and “stop” are used as organizational categories, less convincingly in some cases than in others (some “stop”s could well be seen as “pause”s or “seek”s, and frequently have an element of “skip” in them also).

Christina West, Pause (detail), 2015; painted Aqua-Resin; 84 by 33 by 20 inches. (Photo: Mike Jensen)
Christina West, Pause (detail), 2015; painted Aqua-Resin; 84 by 33 by 20 inches. (Photo: Mike Jensen)

This “organizational element intended to expand our understanding of stillness” is a useful device for getting the casual viewer to focus attention on the exhibition’s sometimes arcane topics:  “In Seek, the need for immobility and concentration…. In Skip, ideas of in-betweenness, time, and artistic practice…. Pause focuses on isolated frames, tiny interruptions, and moments of re-thinking…. And Stop is a real break, a cessation of action.”

Kelly Taylor Mitchell: Kin, Spirit, Seed on view at Westobou Gallery, Augusta

This is a tremendously ambitious conceptual agenda, one reason it deserves be to be treated at length. “Pause” is a demanding show in which the vigor and variety of the work on display keeps the viewer energized and interested.

The exhibition begins with the question of the in-between, and with aspects of the intrinsic instability that creates discomfort even among the most unquestioning supporters of incessant change. Reeves and Tepper have cleverly juxtaposed a set of experiences designed to jab at almost everyone’s comfort level one way or another.

The least disturbing image, and the one most in need of textual explication for its full emotional impact, is Dawoud Bey’s black-and-white photo diptych of an African-American teenage boy and an older African-American professional (or so the social codes of attire and demeanor would indicate). Absent explanation, it is impossible to discern that Bey intends these individuals to represent a victim of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing and the man he might have become had he not been killed. With that information, the diptych becomes an intriguing visual document, a counterfactual fiction designed to explore a truth about history.

Across from Bey’s diptych, Rineke Dijkstra’s photograph of a tweener girl/young woman in Berlin is a more literal image of change and growth recorded at an intermediate moment. Her evident discomfort—with the photographer? with the world in general?—is almost certainly intended to provoke a certain degree of discomfort in the viewer.  (If we don’t get the point by looking, wall text makes it for us—almost a necessity in an exhibition this conceptually ambitious.)

Although few viewers are likely to make the connection, this level of discomfort at situations that fall between categories is ramped up in the adjacent subgallery, where Christina West’s more-than-life-size sculpture of a young woman is awkwardly posed, unrealistically colored (dark blue legs on an otherwise unpainted figure), and possessed of video-projected eyes that blink continually. The phenomenon of the so-called uncanny valley is triggered here by the combination of realist-art rendering and sculptural stillness with a moving image that replicates rather than represents a human activity.

Installation view of "Pause" with works by Phong Bui, Philip Leslie Hale, and Elizabeth King. (Photo: Mike Jensen)
Installation view of “Pause” with works by Phong Bui, Philip Leslie Hale, and Elizabeth King. (Photo: Mike Jensen)

Andre Keichian’s adjacent video presents a transgender man singing “Desperado” in a vocal range previously impossible for him—hormone treatment having made possible his self-chosen physical transition from female to male. Keichian’s video probably evokes less discomfort for most audiences today than West’s sculpture does—and the shift in discomfort levels brings home just how many deep-rooted beliefs about biological and social dualities had to be unseated to reach this point in our history. Very ancient hard-and-fast dualisms have now been transmuted into a spectrum of possible conditions, in categories that range from “male and female” to “living and dead”—but to say that is to get ahead of the range of issues that “Pause” explores.

Although the extended encounter with the in-between just described is the most logical way to experience the exhibition, most viewers will, literally, not go that way. Traveling counterclockwise rather than clockwise around the galleries, they will find a quite different topic separating the two segments of the in-between: the temporal and socioeconomic dimensions of portraiture already implicit in the Bey-Dijkstra matchup. Illustrating the difficulty of staying on topic or ever getting off topic in interdisciplinary investigations, the section gives us a great deal of incidental information that sometimes seems barely germane to the main themes—but it can also be argued that they are central of them. The degree of stillness required for the tying of the cravat of an early 19th-century gentleman sitting for his portrait would be one example.

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