March 8th, 2016
At the Art Institute of Chicago, three artists provoke timely questions about race and sexuality.
By Faye Gleisser
Nothing Personal exposes viewers to intimate moments, sounds, and photographic evidence of personal experiences, both imagined and real. The potential connections on offer within this exhibition, which opened in January 2016 at the Art Institute of Chicago, are rich and timely. Three dynamic projects by three leading American artists—Cindy Sherman, Zoe Leonard, and Lorna Simpson—provide viewers with the chance to examine, as the curators propose, how “the passage from personhood to persona” sits firmly at the intersection of canonical photography, conceptual art, and gender theory. But an evasive stance on class, race, and historical narratives prevents Nothing Personal from inciting the fullest possible conversation about identity, which these provocative works clearly demand.
The superstar checklist of Nothing Personal includes six of Sherman’s black-and-white Untitled Film Stills, produced between 1977 and 1980; Leonard’s The Fae Richards Photo Archive (1993–96), a fabricated archive of a fictional 1930s African American queer starlet, which Leonard made for the filmmaker Cheryl Dunye’s movie The Watermelon Woman; and Simpson’s two-channel video installation Corridor (2003), which uses a split-screen format to portray an African American woman—played by the artist Wangechi Mutu—simultaneously undertaking daily routines as a servant or slave in the mid-nineteenth century and as a wealthy homeowner in the mid-twentieth century.
To be sure, Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills series, in which the photographer enacts various female prototypes from the housewife to the B-movie Hollywood star, is considered one of the most influential works in heralding a feminist critique of the masculine gaze, while also recalibrating the strategies of appropriation and reference in portraiture. In the 1990s, alternatively, Leonard’s eighty-two touch-worn photographs, accompanied by typeset biographical captions, exemplified the turn toward institutional critique that pressed viewers to confront the reality of systemic racial, gendered, sexual-orientation, and class-based exclusions. The action of making oneself up links Sherman’s and Leonard’s photographs to the characters appearing in Simpson’s Corridor and their collapsed labor of self-presentation and the tidiness of interior spaces. Like Mutu’s actions of applying makeup or bathing in Corridor, the typewritten captions in Leonard’s archive, full of intentional typos, capture a process of imperfection, of making or becoming that all three works examine.
A number of distressing evasions, however, characterize Nothing Personal. The central impulse about that “passage from personhood to persona” fails to take up the links of whose personhood and whose personas remain concertedly effaced. Nothing Personal should have opened a critical space in which to reconsider how the similar actions of inventing and reinventing oneself—as an artist and as a woman in American society—are in fact motivated by different sets of racial, sexual, and class-based exclusions. Instead, the exhibition flattens the most significant points of revision that might have been illustrated by viewing these artists side by side. Not only are the institutionalized social barriers that catalyzed each artwork made by women about women’s experiences of commodification unremarked upon in the exhibition’s didactic text, there is surprisingly no mention of the explicitly political photo-literary book Nothing Personal (1964), created by Richard Avedon and James Baldwin, despite it being the seeming inspiration for the exhibition’s title. Perhaps the hedging of these concerns in the exhibition arises from a pervasive institutional anxiety about the place and role of identity in museums, as well as a self-conscious motivation for the show itself: Leonard’s piece, as noted by the exhibition label, is an “acquisition consideration,” as if this installation were a rehearsal and Fae Richards, ironically, auditioning for yet another role.
Despite its shortcomings, the main conceit raised by Nothing Personal remains critically salient: the show asks that we consider how collecting and consuming images is tied to protecting and maintaining our cultural fictions. Additionally, the brevity of context given by Nothing Personal reminds us that the work of making significant connections between fraught histories cannot be left to speculative meditation. Displaying histories of exclusion and erasure, however painful and deep-seated, in a manner that represents both the violence and potential of representation, is surely how art museums critically engaged with the politics of identity today will remain relevant tomorrow.
Faye Gleisser, a PhD candidate at Northwestern University in the Department of Art History, is the Marjorie Susman Curatorial Fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
Nothing Personal is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through May 1, 2016.