Sunday, September 5, 2010

Interplay: Alternative Portraiture at the CAC

When photography first got popular over a century and a half ago, its widespread appeal was based on its ability to render a likeness quickly and accurately. But soon all sorts of painted backdrops and optical tricks were used to embellish some things and conceal others, so portrait photography has been both a mirror and a masquerade. INTERPLAY, a photo-portrait show at the CAC, leans toward the latter. For instance, Phyllis Galembo’s images of costumed black folk in Haiti and Africa focus on traditional masking rituals. In LES INDIANS, some Haitian boys appear in carnival-like Indian costumes, yet their approach to body painting harks, unconsciously perhaps, to Africa. In BABY DANCE OF ETIKPE, top, we see an adult couple peering through eye slits in the vivid African fabrics that cover them from head to toe, a totally surreal scene that is actually a traditional ritual from the Cross River region of Nigeria. Like Irving Penn before her, Galembo fuses anthropology with a high fashion aesthetic. A different kind of ritual appears in Sonja Rieger’s backstage photos of transsexual beauty pageant contestants, below right. Situated somewhere between portrait and documentary photography, her large and vividly detailed images crackle with a crisp, if campy, Dionysian electricity.

     If the claim that “photographs don’t lie” was always a stretch, the advent of Photoshop was its coup de grace. What Herman Mhire does with it is radical by any standard, turning portraits of friends into fright masks and transmogrifications like BOB 2, upper left, a visage demonic enough to give the Notre Dame cathedral gargoyles a run for their money. But reality has many shades of meaning, as we see in Kevin Kline’s classic street photos of Bywater folk including a couple of guys sharing a joint and a couple posing with power tools. Then there’s the bedraggled elderly guy in a dress and sunbonnet posed in front of Frady’s corner store on Piety Street, and what can you say? Sometimes truth is stranger than Photoshop. ~Bookhardt

INTERPLAY:  Photographs by Phyllis Galembo, Kevin Kline, Herman Mhire and Sonja Rieger
Through Oct. 24
Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528-3805;