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[Art reviews]

Groups du jour
Categorical imperatives at the ICA and the BCA

BY CHRISTOPHER MILLIS

The categorical prescriptions of group shows often impose the kind of æsthetic and social boundaries that in an ideal world artists would be encouraged to test and break. We get arbitrary groupings of who: women or men, blacks or whites, gays or straights. And what: two-dimensional or three-, experimental or traditional, static or kinetic.

The good news is that once in a while those phony prescriptions work, though not necessarily for the motives that inspired them. Two cases in point are the current exhibits at the Institute of Contemporary Art and the Boston Center for the Arts. The ICA group show of Marlene Dumas’s watercolors, Rineke Dijkstra’s photographs, and Laylah Ali’s paintings at the ICA hypes three internationally acclaimed Western women who do, sort of, portraits. The BCA’s “Hybrid IDs” spotlights five yet-to-be-internationally-acclaimed artists of mixed Asian ancestry. Forget the political correctness — both are well worth seeing.

The most captivating and provocative artist at the ICA is Rineke Dijkstra, whose large-format color photographs of “New Mothers” and smaller-scale color photos of teens and preteens at various beaches around the world provide unexpected drama and subtlety. Certainly you wouldn’t imagine that three photos of naked women clutching their newborns and still drained from the ordeal of childbirth could pack the complex ambiguity Dijkstra achieves. Two of the three figures stare straight into the camera: something like, but not quite, terror emanates from those wide-open orbs. The women’s expressions, in the context of their nakedness, their blood, and their upright position against blank, institutional walls, ought to make them vulnerable. Yet they read as noble in their wounded, unglamorous flesh. Seeing the three in their almost life-sized dimensions made me feel I was standing before the inverse of Genesis’s Abraham and Isaac: mothers who deliberately sacrificed themselves for the sake of bringing a child into the world.

The most striking of the mothers is the dark-haired Saskia, with the fresh Caesarian scar and the troubled complexion. She of all of Dijkstra’s subjects does not look into the camera but off to the side. And of the “New Mothers” she alone stands with her legs pressed tightly together, as if at attention, as if her military posture could correct her nakedness or the turmoil she’s been through. It is she alone who seems traumatized, vaguely crazed, unequal to her difficulty, unable to confront the artist with her gaze. In her remoteness she is heartbreaking.

For all the æsthetic — not to mention psychological and spiritual — wealth of “New Mothers,” Dijkstra’s “Bathers” series, for which she is deservedly world-renowned, may be even more compelling. Whereas in “New Mothers,” the photographer positions herself more or less at eye level with her subjects, the “Bathers,” themselves adolescents between 12 and 20, are shot from below, so that in the full range of their incipient strength and transitional awkwardness — in their newness, in other words, to adult bodies — they nevertheless appear monolithic.

The photographer heightens that peculiar sense of towering presence through some immensely subtle techniques. She provides backdrops of vast, hazy, oceanic horizons (not one bather is shot with his or her back to the beach), so that the kids’ bodies almost look as if they’d risen from the sea. In addition, the panoramic backdrops of water and sand often come into focus only around the bathers’ feet, enhancing the sense of their emergence from background to foreground. Then there’s Dijkstra’s compositional sense. In one image, a girl’s zebra-striped bathing suit finds its natural analogue in the sharp, horizontal shadows she casts in the sand. In another, the green of a girl’s dress is almost the exact hue of the ocean behind her. The hair on the legs of a teenage boy corresponds in color and texture and even density with nearby sticks and seaweed washed up by the tide. This first occasion to see a large sampling of Rineke Dijkstra’s work in the United States is one to take advantage of.

The work of Marlene Dumas and Laylah Ali is less arresting. The celebrated Ali’s round-headed teeth-baring cartoon characters register like a visit to the zoo: everything that ought to be wild and voluptuous and terrifying and strange has been caged into flat stick figures. Ali’s aim, it would seem, is to play her naive technique against gritty narratives, as in one piece in which angry formations of identical figures with raised fists march while in another area of the frame a clone of the marchers gives a Nazi salute with one arm while cradling a disembodied head with another. The problem is that there’s no grit, only caricature, references to charged emotional states and social turmoil instead of genuine evocation. When you’ve seen one Ali painting, you’ve pretty much seen them all — neither scale nor expression nor gesture nor compositional scheme nor color ever changes. She’s predictable. Maybe that’s the key to her success.

Predictability also dogs Dumas, who creates blurred watercolor portraits of women’s faces and heads. Her press kit tells us that these visages derive from models’ faces, and that her distorted renderings are an effort to challenge traditional representations of women. That challenge, however, is undercut by the artist’s limited visual vocabulary as well as by her style of presentation: numerous (I didn’t count, but it felt like hundreds) identically sized, indistinct. essentially interchangeable unframed images on paper are hung salon-style in “Models.” If one weren’t versed in her argument, nothing about the work’s actual appearance would suggest that she’s making a point about human values.

WHEN I FIRST SAW the paintings of Kanishka Raja in the BCA’s “Hybrid IDs” exhibit, I wasn’t impressed. They looked clumsy and strained. When I returned, I realized I’d been standing too close. At a distance this work achieves a haunting immediacy: airplanes fly calmly into classrooms (Higher Ground) or seem projected as if by video onto the interior of a room with hallucinogenic wallpaper (Untitled). In Cowboy and Indian, the black silhouette of a cowboy is seen galloping off on horseback into a desert sunset. What’s most odd — and there’s lots of competition for that distinction here — is that the cowboy is about to lasso a cactus and that both horse and rider seem to have just emerged from a small motel room with cheesy paneling and carpet. There is no Indian. Part cartoon, part Hollywood movie set, the painting moves effortlessly and ingeniously between myth and dreck, dreaminess and depravity.

Also included in “Hybrid IDs” is a Soon-Mi Yoo installation that includes a stretch of wallpaper made of personal ads seeking Asian women. The wallpaper is bracketed on one side by rows of beefcake photos of Caucasian men; on the other side appears the repeated image of a single Asian woman. Tomas Vu-Daniels has made paintings on mylar, his “Opium Dream” series; Fred Liang’s engaging, abstract prints seem to derive from the patterns of fingerprints. And Lillian Hsu-Flanders contributes a sizable installation of 19 overlapping painted and otherwise manipulated doors.

Issue Date: June 7-14, 2001