Portraiture can be a tricky business. Today's digital snapshots are the result of a long evolution that started out as likenesses of gods and emperors in pre-Christian times before morphing into images of saints and aristocrats in Renaissance Europe. That may all seem normal to us, but in strict Islam, Orthodox Judaism and other fundamentalist faiths, images of God or holy men are strictly verboten, a big no-no. So when a paper in some secular place in Europe or America runs satiric caricatures of the prophet Mohammed, it should come as no surprise if all hell breaks loose in the Islamic world.
Why are they so touchy? It's complicated, but the short answer is globalization. In the past, only the mobile, moneyed elite in Islamic countries got to experience Western lifestyles, but now that TV, radio and computers have spread Western pop culture almost everywhere, traditional Islamic societies feel that their way of life is under attack. It's like the way some members of our Black middle class felt when certain "experts" argued that most of New Orleans East and Gentilly ought not be rebuilt. What sounded hunky-dory to real estate developers and urban planners sounded like sacrilege to the home folks.
Fortunately, there are no images of Mohammed or maps of New Orleans with any neighborhoods missing at Barrister's Gallery, so no violent reaction is imminent. Instead of gods or prophets we see regular folk, but often from unlikely perspectives. Dan Tague, the show's organizer, is kind of a serial curator, and while his efforts are often interesting there is always a risk that his cast of usual suspects can become repetitious. Fortunately, much of what we see here is surprising and enlivening. Michelle Elmore's Chopper is a big color blowup of someone's elaborately bejeweled front teeth. Here they are closely cropped and framed by the dude's moustache stubble and ample, tropical lips, and blown up many times life size in a stunning example of cosmetic dentistry bordering on baroque architecture. More subtly shocking is Sean Neary's Public Enemy portrait of Saddam Hussein being examined by a doctor. It looks like a canvas painted with broad, cubist brush strokes, but up close it is clearly a collage with facial contours cleverly constructed from different shades of paper taken from printed magazine advertisements.
Alex Podesta's Untitled (Bunny Self-Portrait) is a realistic, near life-size sculpture of a bearded man in a bunny outfit dressing a nearly identical bearded man in an identical bunny suit. Sort of like a modern artist with a Harvey the Rabbit alter ego, it is spooky, surreal and spectacular. But Jeffrey Cook says his own arrangement of six prints of barn owls, each with a jigsaw puzzle-shaped piece missing, is actually a self-portrait because he's "wiser now," in the wake of recent events. No less enigmatic is Tim Best's diptych of two large photographs, Breathing Indicator and Ascending Chanel, views of a snappily dressed young professional man and woman who look like they've just been thrown out of some place, landing on their respective backsides, arms and legs astraddle. Curator Tague suggests it's a corporate analogy of a Biblical theme, perhaps an Expulsion from the Garden of Enron. Hmm. But Daphne Loney's display case with an alabaster-white forearm paired with a little statuette of the Blessed Virgin is pointedly mysterious in a Duchampian vein, a symbolic confrontation, perhaps, between the Holy Mother and the chaotic forces of Dadaism.
Dan Tague is himself represented with a body-shaped outline on a wall in the form of an orange extension cord, with a frayed end on the floor amid some coins in a puddle of water. He says the orange extension cord has become a symbol of life and death in these parts, where every week the bodies of asphyxiated workers are found near electrical generators in places with poor ventilation, in a kind of Home Depot vision of mortality. Appropriately, Christopher Brumfield's Portrait of Me as a Mochia Worrier rounds out the ritualistic atmosphere in a pseudo-Peruvian burial mound for a "worrier" instead of a warrior. While this Atypical show contains some fairly familiar stuff, its occasional flashes of brilliance burn brightly in the works that most eloquently live up to its name.
- Michelle Elmore's big, color photograph, Chopper, captures a stunning example of cosmetic dentistry bordering on baroque architecture.