A Matter of Perception
Working through memory’s visual language in a pair of MICA exhibitions
Published: March 9, 2011
The Narcissism of Minor Differences
Through March 13 at MICA’s Fox Building Decker Gallery
Valerie Piraino: Fidelity
Through March 13 at MICA’s Fox Building Meyerhoff Gallery
Valerie Piraino’s past is filled with bits and pieces of domestic life being cobbled together to create something resembling a whole. At least, that’s what it feels like in a string of works contained in her solo show currently on view in the Meyerhoff Gallery of MICA’s Fox Building. The Rwanda-born, New York-based 2004 MICA alumnus has created a series of frames, images, and screens in these five mixed-media creations and one installation. In pieces such as “Pith,” “Split,” and “Staged,” actual pieces of a home—drywall, wood trim, wood paneling, wallpaper—get assembled with parts of furniture and picture frames to form curio pieces of plaintive nostalgia but curious purpose. In one, wallpaper partially covers a rhombus of drywall with one edge cracked and crumbling. In another, a wood frame surrounds a stretch of drywall wallpaper; on its flip side is mirrorized Plexiglas, the entire thing held up by a single plank. The effect is something like having to decorate the home after some disaster, taking whatever survived and trying to go forward with that.
It’s an impression heightened by Piraino’s installation, “Fidelity.” An array of six empty frames covers one wall; in front of them on the floor stands a portable screen, tilted slightly away from parallel to the wall. About six feet away from the gallery wall Piraino has built another movable wall; the side facing the frames is all exposed wood and later support beams, where one slide projector rests. It shines an image onto the larger, empty space inside one of the frames on the gallery wall. The other side of the moveable wall features a soft rose-colored wallpaper with a rather old-fashioned repeating design; an oval frame is hung high and centered, though there is nothing in the frame. Off to the right of the movable wall is a low side table with a second slide projector. It casts its images against the screen and the wall at an oblique angle, distorting the image in the process.
The projector cycles through the carousel. Some of the images appear upside down; in others, certain faces look familiar or at least appear to recur. The same family? It’s impossible to tell. The projected images are too distorted to see clearly, although when they fall upon the empty frames on the wall you sense what they’re trying to be but can’t. This photo montage is less the snapshots that form a family’s memories than something that aspires to be that kind of memory book but can’t. It’s an imperfect image album, a skewed catalog of times, places, and faces. A visual story that’s telling part of a story, but there are too many gaps to fill in to understand it clearly. Images tell stories, but not always the same ones to different people.
That imperfect visual narrative is what ties Piraino’s exhibition to the larger exhibition it accompanies: The Narcissism of Minor Differences, the big-idea exploration of intolerance curated by Gerald Ross, MICA’s director of exhibitions, and Christopher Whittey, the Maine College of Art’s dean and vice president of academic affairs. For this potent, frequently powerful consideration of the way people look at each other, Ross and Whittey wisely move from historical objects to artistic creations, recognizing that both employ the same tools and language for different uses. Simple photo documentation becomes an act of radical body art in Mary Coble’s 2005 “Note to Self,” for which the artist had the names of more than 400 gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people who were murdered as the result of hate crimes etched into her skin by inkless tattoo needles. Philip Guston’s simple charcoal-on-paper portraits of figures in KKK-like hoods hit the retina with a pervasive power. And an image from Francisco de Goya’s series “Disasters of War,” a 200-year-old print, still has the power to unnerve with its depiction of two soldiers forcibly moving two women away from a lifeless baby on the ground.
More profoundly unsettling are the nonart images and items: photos from Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian School where Native Americans were sent in the late 19th and early 20th century to be acculturated and assimilated into more socially acceptable American and Occidental ways; the shock therapy equipment formerly used to “correct” homosexual tendencies in people with “abnormal” impulses; photojournalism from the bloody result after United Auto Workers clashed with security from Ford Motors in Dearborn, Mich., in 1937. These were/are realistically captured markers of history, little steps on the road to progress, that bring an overwhelming wave of nausea to the back of the throat.
Nowhere is that horrible sensation more potent than in another slideshow, this one part of Narcissism. Against a wall a series of black-and-white photos are projected: images of indigenous people with facial tattoos; men and women from around the globe; portraits of faces that show various sizes and examples of features. It’s entirely possible to look at these images from beneath the protected veil of multiculturalism and see in them a display of the varieties of human beings that populate the globe. That could be one way you look at them. Read the piece’s accompanying wall text to see another: Nazi Germany Eugenics Slides from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. These images were the fussily maintained catalog of everything visually wrong with everybody else.
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