From di Rosa’s world-class collection of contemporary Northern California art, curator Robert Wuilfe has organized Looking at You Looking at Me, an exhibition examining the ways we, as humans, look at each other. Wuilfe has drawn out a thread in the collection of artwork that “engages directly with the viewer and social situations.” The twenty-four pieces in the exhibition consider a variety of approaches and possibilities to what happens when glances are exchanged, or when the viewer is also the viewed. Not surprisingly, much of the work is expressed in media using photography, video, and electronic constructions, but collage, assemblage, and sculpture are also included. While the work explores various ways of eyeing each other, visitors to the gallery supply additional aspects to the stories by interpreting for themselves what they see filtered through their own preconceived notions, or filling in parts of the story that may be left out, thereby multiplying the layers of looking.
This is not the same as hidden surveillance, where the subjects may not know they are being viewed. When the looking goes both ways, other things occur. This implied “you see me but I also see you” premise is cleverly employed in Corporate Edge #4, (Public Image/Private Sector), 1990, by Anthony Aziz. The piece is comprised of two large (70 inches high) color photographs of a middle-aged gentleman. The man stands in the same frontal posture in each frame—facing forward, with hands loosely clasped. However in one he is attired in his corporate/public image, wearing a blue suit and red tie. In the other frame, the private sector, he holds the same pose, but is not attired at all. We look at him, he looks at us, but I begin to notice a subtle difference in his countenance. In the dressed version, his gaze reflects confidence with a slight condescending smirk as he looks down at us. In the nude pose, though his expression is very similar, his visage softens and there is a feel of vulnerability, he seems more relatable even in his nakedness. I am reminded of Goya’s two paintings of the nude and the clothed maja. Though painted a few years apart, the clothed version, while more socially acceptable during Goya’s time, retains a provocative look despite the attempted cover up, and, like Aziz’s work, addresses how clothed versus nude can change our perceptions of a subject.
While Aziz investigates the stereotype image of corporate masculinity, much of Lynn Hershman Leeson’s work is about the constructs of female identities. Leeson’s 1975 chromogenic print, Constructing Roberta Breitmore, is part of a conceptual project created by the artist over a number of years. Roberta Breitmore is a fictitious single woman in her 30s who has a life of her own which Hershman occasionally embodied. Roberta participated in the world, joining groups, renting apartments, and having bank accounts. Perhaps she represented a hidden part of Leeson, but was very much her own “person”. As she interacted with people, they became part of the piece. The evidence and traces of Roberta’s escapades are documented with photographs, letters, clothing, and other “personal” ephemera. In this photograph Roberta’s face is delineated with a theatrical makeup diagram, including an index explaining which type of makeup goes where. Leeson’s later work involves internet projects where viewer’s participation is also part of the process. For example, A Room of One’s Own, 1990-93, “Investigates a reverse peep show in which the viewer’s gaze both determines the narrative and is captured in the act of surveillance.”1 (from www.lynnhershman.com).
Adding a kinetic experience of pseudo-surveillance are Alan Rath’s two pieces, Wall Eye #6, 1998, and Creature, 2001. Inspired by earlier kinetic artists such as Jean Tinguely, Rath combines aluminum, cathode ray tubes, and various electronics to create constructions that seem to be keeping an eye on things in the gallery. Wall Eye #6, a wall mounted piece, incorporates a small monitor with a close-up video of a human eye looking about and all around the room. The combination of human elements and mechanical robotics is both humorous and a bit unsettling.
A classic work that so consummately reflects many of the exhibitions theses is Imogen and Twinka, 1974, At Yosemite, silver gelatin print. In this iconic photograph by Judy Dater, the legendary photographer, Imogen Cunningham encounters a nude model, Twinka Thiebaud, in a forest. The contrasts are epic as the two exchange glances. Imogen, who at the time was in her 90s, wears a long black dress and, encumbered by her trusty camera, has spotted a target for her well-developed photographic eye. The model gazes back at Imogen coyly, her youthful naked body glows smooth and pale against the gnarly bark of the tree. The glances are private, between the two subjects, but we, the viewers, are allowed to observe the scene through the lens of Dater’s camera.
When eye meets eye, whether actual or virtual, we are moved to respond, either by looking away or meeting the gaze with our own inquisitiveness, judgments, or interpretations.
The exhibition continues through February 11, 2012, at di Rosa, 5200 Sonoma Highway, Napa, CA 94559. 707-226-5991, www.dirosaart.org.