Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Picked RAW Peeled: Josue Castro at Noel-Baza

by Andrew Printer

Josue Castro - "Dominatrix"
Equal = Secret Identities is an engaging but inconsistent exhibition of photographic portraits by Josue Castro showing at the Noel-Baza Gallery on India Street until April 23rd.  The exhibition, comprised of two connected bodies of work made months apart consists of numerous black & white images of different people, each face partially or wholly concealed by a mask of one kind or another.  

According to the gallery’s website the photographs aim to "capture the inner truth or the face people hide from public view," an interesting investigation but one that implies there is just one truth and two faces (public & private) per person, neither of which is the case.

The set of images made first (the unframed ones) are more successful.  They are the result of an early project in which Castro photographed friends in his studio wearing masks that either he or his model provided.   The point of the mask (and the project) was to allow the sitter to hint at the notion of having a secret identity.  Castro’s motivation was and is less about documenting a sexual sub-culture or documenting disguised individuals engaged in a taboo but universal truth, how an American audience is likely to approach the images.  Rather, the artist’s intention, referencing Mexico’s enthusiastic embrace of masked super-heroes (lucha libre etc), is to photograph ordinary people simply demonstrating the possibility of a secret them, connoted by a personally specific or even an arbitrary disguise; and in turn to create a level playing-field by neutralizing external identities. 

Each photograph is simply titled with the person’s occupation (lawyer, chef) so only the mask provides clues to the sitter’s secret identity, although this mask/secret identity seems vaguer and therefore more satisfying to ponder in the initial set of photographs.  Castro claims that each shoot was collaborative between subject and artist, but it doesn’t appear that this went too much farther than choosing a mask and posing the model this way and that.  Light and composition, for example, don’t seem to have had much bearing upon Castro’s larger concept, particularly in the second set.  While the images are all uniformly and immaculately printed and beautifully lit, I felt that those characteristics unique to photography could have been employed more to contribute to each person’s idiosyncratic secret identity; either that or every image might have been lit, framed and shot in exactly the same deadpan manner allowing viewers to survey all the portraits truly equally, catalog style.

Scale clearly was taken into consideration, with the first series of portraits anyway.  Castro’s images were originally exhibited in Mexican museums with huge walls so the original photographs were very large.   Unfortunately, there’s only one of these giant prints at Noel-Baza; size does make a difference.  If each secret identity refers to super-hero possibilities then prints that are super-sized contribute mightily to both the artist’s intention and, as Castro learned, to the viewing experience as each spectators looks up at these larger than life proxies up on the wall.  The rest of the photos from the first series are pinned to the wall in a grid of twelve smaller prints, less effective than the one large intended example, but more compelling that the many images that form the second part of the exhibition.

Part two of Equal = Secret Identities is an extension of Castro’s original project.  For me, its explanation is more fascinating than its execution.  According to Castro many people visiting his museum shows in Tijuana and Guadalajara were so enamored by his photographs that they began taking pictures of themselves standing in front of them, clearly identifying with the ordinary superheroes as they might Superman or a favorite character at a Lucha Libre wrestling match.  Many of these museum patrons went so far as to sign Castro’s artist book adding notes offering to pose for him if his project continued. 

More than 100 portraits later a set from these additional photographs was selected for Castro’s current exhibition by Deborah Klotchko, executive director of the Museum of Photographic Arts.  These images are of medium size and are framed to conventional gallery specs.  While there is something authentic and strange about the first set of photos in both the photographer’s approach and their presentation (in Mexico) these thematically similar, nicely framed photos are something else, somehow something more commercial, which isn’t bad; just different. 

Nothing kinky might be intended with any of these images but with the first set of images (especially the huge one) conjures gently subversive thoughts.  And, even though no one looks like a “real” super-hero, the first set of photos makes me believe one of them might be.  I like these people, I am curious about their secret identity.  By comparison the second, more recent set of images are tamer, more calculated and lazily beautiful in their rote execution.  Even though Castro was energized by so much interest by ordinary strangers wanting to reveal/disguise themselves for his project, it feels like the artist is going through the motions for the their sake rather than his own.  While some images are certainly striking, (a chef holding two clean bright blades in front of her face, for example), most congeal into a thin exercise in illustrating disguise.

The fact that so many people wanted to participate in Castro’s project is interesting though.  Lot’s of us want our moment in front of a camera these days, but with our face covered, that’s something new.

Disguise, anonymity and the implied scandal of a sexually sordid lifestyle associated with certain kinds of mask are nothing new.  Like most, if not all themes in contemporary photography examples of images of people with their face concealed can be found as far back as the early years of photography, exemplified by the image La Comtesse de Castiglione taken at the commercial studio of Meyer and Pierson in Paris in the 1860s. The Comtesse de Castiglione was a notorious celebrity of her time and this notable portrait has been described, referenced, copied and critiqued ever since; it has been noted as an early example of an image-savvy woman controlling her reputation with great determination, preserving her image despite the toll time had taken on the woman behind her strikingly modern disguise; the Comtesse’s secret identity: an a woman no longer young.

More recent, iconic masked faces in photography would include some of Diane Arbus’ final photos, disturbing images of institutionalized adults in a field, as well as similar photos of children wearing hideous masks by Ralph Eugene Meatyard.

But Castro has other interests.  As the title of his exhibition makes clear Castro’s position is that we are all equal once our self-evident exterior identities are concealed and our inner identities emerge.  As his promotional material states:  "Prompted by the passage of Prop 8 banning gay marriage, Castro says he embarked upon this project interested in our tendency to compartmentalize our experiences, interests and beliefs."  By using the subject’s occupation label as the title, Castro claims to be seeking and exploring the divisiveness people experience once their opinions are known—whether it’s support of gay marriage, religion or politics or involvement in a sub-culture. “People really change once they know your secret.” Castro states.  Otherwise, they don’t care.  The idea behind the work is to make people accept that once you know someone’s secret, you start treating them differently."

Each sitter therefore is no longer male/female, young/old, gay/straight, attractive/unattractive, political/apolitical, latino/caucasian/black, Catholic/Jew.  Once concealed, each individual is no longer instantaneously profiled, conclusively labeled as one thing or another.  Each person is masked.  Each person professes to have a secret identity.  Each person is equal.  We are, therefore, all the same.

Even though I wanted something a little more from the images, or the exhibition itself tightened up, who can argue with that?

No comments:

Post a Comment