By: Alyssa Laverda, Curator, Associate Director
Bailey Dodds, Seraphin Gallery Resident
Christina Tian Qiu, Seraphin Gallery Resident
(OTHER) STRANGER is a dialogue in photographs that illuminates reflection of the Self through creating awareness of the Other- our constructed perception of the different, the outsiders, the strange, and foreign- and association with the Stranger- the unknown and anonymous inhabitants that surround us in urban society. Studying these unnamed faces and figures allows us to inform our own reality. The image acts as a portal, a door into a room where one can explore the familiar, the unknown, and reflect on what is physically present or what is a mirror of ourselves.
Drawing upon the diverse range of Seraphin Gallery's carefully curated photography collection, and enlisting the work of Cheryl Dunn, this exhibition stills time and creates a space for contemplation. I have found a deep connection to the bodies within these works, as they are a reflection of my own face, my own need for compassion, and my own want for attention- the wish for recognition. This need does not stem from the purpose of fame or fortune, but from being a person in my own right, wanting to be known for all the facets of my psyche, not only shown in the best light, but through a lamp of truth. This deeply personal relationship with these images is one that emanates a universal understanding.
Living in a diverse and populated city, we encounter hundreds of people every day. Our eyes and minds cannot take in such stimulation, such magnitude, and massed individuality at once. Our focus must be centered on the important and relevant, but how do we distinguish what is significant without letting defining moments pass us by? There is a constant transience in living within the city limits- a struggle to stand apart, a struggle to connect, a struggle to find oneself amidst social, economic, and political pretexts and influences. This exhibition attempts to explore the realm of Self discovery, anonymity, recollection, and affective intuitions.
The combined works of Victor Vázquez, Anabell Guerrero, James Fee, Lisette Model, and Cheryl Dunn are marked in two separate spaces, but linked in their sentimentality towards the human condition. Interpreting these works through their photographic processes, by questioning the artist's intentions, and by dissecting the relatability between the viewer and these subjects, we postulate and endeavor to assume the existence of undeniable truths that fail to isolate and instead, determine to unify.
The Other: James Fee, Anabell Guerrero, and Victor Vázquez
The selected works of James Fee, Anabell Guerrero, and Victor Vázquez create awareness of the Other and the Other within ourselves, while commenting on the vulnerability and necessity of human emotion. Through establishing relation with these photographs, the boundaries that separate disparity become porous. It is rooted in our competitive human nature to be exclusive, to focus on difference (despite our intentions), and to ignore the lesser- whether this is evidentiated in the form of racial, gender, class, sexuality, physical appearance, or geographic frameworks.
It is the animal instinct, the process of natural selection, that is the force which creates a desire to surround ourselves with, and seek out, the best of what is available. In this aspect, Othering becomes an organic and fundamental mindset. While this is often a subconscious predisposition, the aptitude that distinguishes us from our primitive selves is the ability for reasoning, compassion, self-awareness, and deep connection. Diversity and open-mindedness can lead to transformative experiences in not only our own lives, but in the way we touch the lives of others.
This collection of artworks grants the viewer full agency. These raw photographs beckon the viewer to connect with the subject matter on a personal level- to feel their need for attention, understanding, and to be more than simply aware of their existence. It is up to the viewer to explore or exploit the intrinsic emotive and physical susceptibility that is accessible for either private reflection or personal satisfaction. Either to reveal the Other within ourselves or to contribute to the innate, yet disturbing process of Othering.
Taken from the French, Tableaux Vivant literally translates as “living picture,” and was a 19th century practice that married theatre, painting, and photography. The Tableaux Vivant includes a group of costumed actors or posing models who were often lit in a theatrical manner. They were usually presented in states of nudity in order to imitate nude sculpture or painting. Before the development of video, the Tableaux Vivant, while also considered in other contexts, provided a form of popular erotic entertainment. In the main gallery space, Guerrero, Vázquez, and Fee utilize methods of the staged and theatrical Tableaux Vivant in order to create touching photographs that demonstrate how this melodramatic process can be used for compelling authenticity and baring truth.
Guerrero’s L’oeil, La Main (The Eye, The Hand) from the series LES RÉFUGIÉS (The Refugees) operates as a Tableaux Vivant through the careful ordering of each individual photograph. Like an orchestrated puzzle, these photograph composites feature the poignant tell-tale body parts of one refugee man from Zaire. The process of capturing and focusing solely the eyes, knuckles, and palms, (the most revealing and individually dramatic elements of the human body) creates a heightened sense of awareness for the viewer. One’s eyes and hands open and close, functioning as the organic apparatus that allows the outside world in, connecting interior with exterior sensations. Guerrero’s tightly magnified frames shine a cinematic spotlight on these emotive body parts, delivering a message of human struggle that calls for the viewer to look down at his own worn hands, suddenly aware of the specific shape of his own eye.
Guerrero’s operative placement demonstrates the versatility of the Tableaux Vivant. Once again, placement, not only of the model but of the individual panels, becomes a crucial part of the photographic effect. These four columns of images create an asymmetric triptych that features a set of eyes enclosed by fingers and palms. The cells of the single open eye show glimpses of resistance, removal, and even resignation. The solitary closed eye, in the center of the composition, powerfully refutes the confrontational tension provided by the tightly laced fingers that act as walls. The alternating cells of hand-eye-hand confuses the viewer, but perhaps this bewilderment more accurately displays how tension is truly depicted, not as a digestible whole, but as a continuation of haphazard frames- the overwhelming memory of experience. It is through these specifically curated images, frozen half-seconds that form an eternal documentation of fleeting poses, that Guerrero engages in a deep dialogue describing embedded emotions and identities as a performance of parts.
Tableaux Vivant provides the framework of placing the realistic body into a space of creative manipulations. Victor Vázquez’s El Pan Nuestro de Cada Diá (Our Daily Bread) provides a more traditional interpretation along with the sexual connotations of the modern “living picture.” The artist's reinvention of Ramón Frade's famed painting, Our Daily Bread, not only comments on his cultural heritage and the constructs of history, but also engages in questions of virility, fertility, power, and duality.
The dramatic theatrical lighting that sensualizes the posed nude female body suggests the erotic and even exotic. Vázquez gives us only her performing body on display. She clenches a phallic bunch of plantains with her hands between her mounted legs, creating an obvious suggestive reference. However, he also presents a different construal of a fetish object through the illumination of the plantains and the woman’s feet, reflecting light through the dark vastness of shadow. The analogous shape of feet and fruit, which mirror each other, questions the relationship between prop and body. The prop can now recall flesh; the lineation between object and subject dissipates. Through this juxtaposition, we are again aware of the facility of transforming a living, breathing being into nothing more than a mere object.
Vázquez's depictions of the human body, as both a conceptual and formal device, allows the viewer to explore a re-creation of history (his conceived view of the present) and the relationship between gender, ritual, culture, and political formation. This practice is what makes the Tableaux Vivant format so powerful for these artists. It is through the interpolation of body and prop, theatre and framing, that the identities and underlying concepts encompassing this body of work emerge in center stage.
The complexity of our nature is that we absorb our surroundings. Through finding our role in society and our relation to others, we can further define ourselves. Identity is not only what, or who, we believe we are, but also the qualifiers that society labels us with. This often results in a composited sense of being. Syncretism is the combination of different forms of ideas or concepts, either in the contexts of religion, politics, or society that merge together to create a unique identity. While overt elements of syncretism can be examined externally, we all inhabit an internal emotive syncretism that is more subtly pronounced. The culmination of this identity and our human experiences is what forms our distinct perception of Self.
In the hand-painted black and white silver print portrait, La Ave Maria by Vázquez, a woman is adorned with ritual chicken remnants on her neck and an apostolnik over her head- suggesting a quiet embodiment of unorthodox beliefs and a colonizer's religion. Her eyes are closed contemplatively and her face is washed over in serene vulnerability. The religious artifacts speak to the ever-changing mixture of modern and traditional ceremonious experience- a combination of two seemingly opposed concepts that lead her to meditative transcendence. The elements of Santeria, found heavily in the Latin American and Caribbean regions, merge notions of Catholicism and West African faiths, proposing a religious syncretism. Her countenance is compassionate while she is enveloped by the interplay of a complex multifaceted identity.
Guerrero's monochromatic panels create a dynamic portrait of the refugee in L'oeil, La Main. The artist displays a larger picture of dislocation and immigration through the powerful details of these closely focused images. Stories of hardship and perseverance are shown through the cracks and wrinkles left on his hands and the resilient look in his eyes. This man is someone who has lost his place. Being forced to leave his homeland and his established way of life, he is now trapped in a refugee camp and seeking asylum. Once a man with agency, he is now a face without a name, categorized as a lost body, fading into a mere number.
But to him, he is not a statistic; he is still the same person who was once part of a community. His eyes once saw familiar faces; his hands once touched loved ones; he tried to provide for his family. In his gaze, he might have dreamed of a prosperous future. He is not simply a symptom of political machination and social distress. His status is vacillating and his surroundings temporary. As a refugee, he has been labeled by society as someone who does not belong, constrained by political pretexts. Each panel is explicit evidence of this transformation and the emotions that are derived from these involuntary course of events. Guerrero creates awareness, urging us to acknowledge a group identity that has been overlooked. Through finding our likeness, our own transience, within her subject, we recognize our similarities with the Other.
In Fee's photograph, Study for a Painting #8, there is a highly fervent display of human physicality and introspection. The observer is instantly prompted to decipher whether the evanescent projection is a reflection of the woman's own subconscious or a self of its own. The figure pensively looks to the ground, as a half-formed ethereality develops in front of her. This mirrored release confronts her in a passing moment of recognition and self-realization. Her body is outwardly tranquil, suggesting that she has accepted the existence of her impermanent identity comprised within the fluctuation of ongoing subliminal interaction. Her synthesized Self and extricated psyche illustrates the concept that our identities can, at times, be conflicted and deeply alienated. These multiple facets of the mind are fundamentally of one whole, forming the syncretical status of life- enduring the complex emotions informed by the internal, external, and memory.
Syncretical status does not always form only in cultural or political conditions, or with the introduction or implementation of society. We are at once an amalgamation of our full existence -- our child, adolescent, and adult Selves combined. A former kinship, and the imprint that has been left in that stead, sometimes emotively redefines us. We are continuously a product of opposing thoughts, of shoulds and should-nots, contradicting wishes and desires, and a ever-dynamic map of past and present experiences.
Sensuality and Companionship
Throughout this body of work, sensuality and the palpable desire for human contact is manifested in various ways. The complexity of human relationships is explored through the revealing photographs of James Fee and Victor Vázquez. While both artists traverse the inner psyche of their models, it is through the portrayal of, or the lack of, physical human connection and interactions that we become more aware of their true subjectivity. It is through confronting our own desire for companionship that we become verifiably whole.
Vázquez’s Milk and Liquids 3 portrays a young nude woman in her prime. In Milk, she stares at the viewer imploringly, her gaze calling out in a magnetic cry. Her exposed breasts and exhibited fertility requests the viewer to sympathize with her yearning for primal intimacy. While Vázquez pictures the woman in apparent lactation, he leaves no other suggestion of a child, creating a possible illusion of barrenness. Her need to fulfill the greatest biological imperative is not requited.
The response to such disheartenment is evident in Liquids 3, where our subject has moved to the periphery of the composition. She stands head bowed, abiding the lonely presence of a single ceramic bowl, edged into the frame. The unfilled space between the woman and the vessel flattens the picture plane, leaving the viewer stranded in a vacant central foreground. The dense negative space is silent, resounding the impact of emptiness. Where is her child? What is now the purpose of her bodily fruit?
Human longing conceives an ache within the soul and body. James Fee’s Study for a Painting series renders the undulating narrative of companionship and of lost partnership. His use of Selenium tone creates an other-worldly tint that allows his subjects to appear at once touchable and ghostly. In Study for a Painting #4, this spectral affect challenges the viewer to consider the space between the active bodies, a phantom of both melancholic loneliness and soulful connection. Is the darker toned subject alone in this space with her head turned away? Does she notice the other body behind her that gently reaches out? Is there in fact only one body behind her?
The effect that Fee achieves allows the body in between the two models to act as a bridge that connects two separate others, evoking the memory of intimacy. While the subjects may be presently separated, the ghost that leans towards the leading woman substantiates the craving to touch and be tied to a companion – another person, a warm body that can reciprocate. This range of separate yet connected bodies recognizes the sometimes overwhelming need for togetherness as one that is integral to basic human urgency as social beings.
It is through sensuality and feelings evoked by the memories of intimate others that our separated selves develop ethereal compensation. The need for another is an underlying instinct that permeates through all of us. We relate to the subjects in these photographs on an emotive level, leading to recognition of the Other, linking us to these brown-bodies. Through this connection and reflection, we find the Other within ourselves.
Public versus Private
(OTHER) STRANGER, as an overarching title for this exhibition not only speaks to content, but also to the layout and placement of the works included. The photographs of Anabell Guerrero, James Fee, and Victor Vázquez that are paired together in the main gallery space are inherently private. The viewer is permitted to enter a scene of carefully staged compositions that relay a sense of intimacy- of human emotion and warmth. Placing the (OTHER) within parentheses internalizes the Other, alluding to the relationship that is explored, while noting the interior and personal nature of these images.
The combination of Lisette Model and Cheryl Dunn juxtaposed in Gallery Two draws awareness to our urban vicinity, filled with Strangers and the unknown. STRANGER is placed on the outside of the parentheses, denoting the public space of street photography and the exterior facades of individual identities. While there is a seemingly implicit and clear delineation between public and private within this exhibition, there is a gray area where the viewer can question the interplay of both perceptions within the same work.
In James Fee's photograph, Hands Like Winter Leaves, two dark hands emerge from a velvety background and are presented in a forlorn manner. The close fixation of the hands exists at our eye level drawing our face and vision into the personal fleshy tools of touch and sensation. The process of solarization that James Fee utilizes along with deep contrast creates a distinctive tone that translates into a felt temperature, radiating from these anonymous hands. The rich copper tones highlight at once the delicacy and endurance of the nails and bends in each finger. Through this coloration and photographic effect, one can feel the warmth trapped between the two palms and beneath the texture of the skin. Although an innately private image, the study of another's ability to caress, the subject matter is also a public one. Hands reach out to Strangers as well, and the overturned nature of the pose versus an open palm suggests that the viewer is not invited inside; intimate details, life lines, and the ability to hold the hands are hidden from us.
Lady Bird III by Victor Vázquez features a female figure posed nude and wearing a bird-shaped mask that disguises her identity. Her arms spread wide and she is perhaps caught in the mid-movement of flight. Her bare chest is illuminated by a cast of warm light that insinuates the fragility of her bones underneath. Shadows encroach softly and meld her into the background, grounding the subject permanently into the framed space. The nudity and openness of her body suggest a private scene that is not for the public eye, yet her anonymity presents the opposing viewpoint. There are many faces and masks that an individual may wear. Covering the most visually unique and recognizable part of oneself is formal instead of comfortable, and cold instead of warm. She may also be relieving herself of her identity entirely, taking on the character of another. This facade acts as a barrier between the subject and viewer, leading to a more public interpretation.
Crossing into Gallery Two, the viewer exits the interior and enters the street. We are confronted with Model and Dunn's images that capture the essence of New York City street photography and outline their social blueprints of urban society. Dunn's image, Boogie in the Subway, snapshots Boogie (a contemporary street photographer based in New York City, given name Vladimir Milivojevich) framing a seemingly unsuspecting woman on what appears to be an underground subway platform. Although a communal environment, there is the illusion of privacy. The scene is quiet and still as Boogie emerges from shadow dressed in black, and his subject is static, brightly lit, and sheathed in white. We are close to this encounter and must remain still and quiet ourselves. Even though we own this space as well, we feel as though we have interrupted a moment, a voyeuristic pursuit-- not based on sexual gratification, but on artistic exploration.
The coalescence of public and private in these photographs illustrate an underlying theme in (OTHER) STRANGER. The complexity of human character, emotion, and personality cannot be defined entirely by terms such as Other or Stranger, and not entirely by environments or locations, whether public or private.
The Stranger: Lisette Model, Cheryl Dunn
Photography is heavily founded in the realm of documentation- in collecting, capturing, and acquiring the visual. Street photographers, such as Lisette Model and Cheryl Dunn, provide a window into the urban perspective and the subjects that inhabit it. Their voyeuristic view portrays a glimpse into the unstaged public lives of individuals, provoking inquiries about these downtown dwellers. We want to know more about them and the spaces they occupy, but we are only granted access to the external and the superficial.
The unknown and persons unknown are inherently embedded within the urban condition. Living next to, below, and above the Stranger, and the recognition of our place as a Stranger in relation to others, results in a fluctuation of anxious and comfortable anonymity. However, the figures in these works are not anonymous; Model and Dunn have chosen to preserve a small piece of their public identity and let us infer the rest. These images not only appeal in the historical arena, but in the artists choice of what is beautiful and relevant. We find ourselves recognizing and acknowledging our own Strangers (the bodies that surround us on the street, the café, traveling the journey of their own lives) by delving into these works.
Fragments and Reflections
Lisette Model born in 1901 in Vienna, Austria, immigrated to New York City in 1938. Cheryl Dunn born in New Jersey, moved to New York City in the mid ‘80s. Both women confronted their new home with camera in hand, documenting the ebbs and flows of urbanity. There is a hefty forty years between these two women. Forty years for the main subject of their photographs – the masses of New York City – to grow, change, die, and be reborn.
Juxtaposing Model’s Reflections with Dunn’s Made the Right Choice, Avenue C and Delancey Shoe, we garner the impression that despite the myriad of changes that New York City has undergone, the experience of city life has remained to be one of flux and transience. Model’s overwhelming depiction of a shop window reflection perfectly captures the swift movement of cars, shoppers, and city lights– a scene that has remained relatively the same against the passage of time. Meanwhile, Dunn’s documentation of street life further highlights the fragmented and seemingly precarious shots that resemble a moving film still. Dunn’s street is cut off at the edges, streaming beyond the limits of the frame. The man dressed in suit and hat, walking past the graffiti wall will quickly escape our field of vision, while the forgotten shoe abandoned on the sidewalk has been overlooked by countless passersby.
The fragmentary nature of Dunn’s street goes hand in hand with the multifaceted reflections captured by Model. These ephemeral modes of portrayal recite the way the human eye naturally encounters objects in motion. Our peripheral vision is mired in splinters of sight, flittering between barely-there scenes and quickly registering the instant fleeting sensations that crowd our eyes and minds. The short attention span of the eye is captured through these shuffled fragments and reflections, which encompass the holistic sensory actuality of urban life. Through both women’s work and their snapshot inspired street photography, we receive the most candid portrayal of the metropolitan experience. Through this lens, we see ourselves as one in a fluctuating multitude.
How does one define and describe a group identity that can be interpreted with such divergence? Lisette Model and Cheryl Dunn have ventured into the overpopulated space of New York City, encountering arguably the most diverse community in the nation. Inserting themselves into the inner-city sphere, they inform us of the multifaceted and broad ranges of society that are interlinked by dense proximity. They are both not only concerned with the daily, but also with the fringes of society- the downtrodden and the idle wealthy. Through their combined perspectives, we can access fleeting moments; we can spend time with their subjects, envisioning ourselves among them in the crowd.
In Cheryl Dunn’s photograph, Broadway White Hair, an old woman’s silhouette is framed, her silver hair polarized by the sunlight as she walks the city street. The subject stands out from the bustling crowd as a still and quiet icon. The viewers can imagine Cheryl Dunn having to slow her step as she walks behind the unhurried woman. We visualize this possible mother, grandmother, wife, struggling— her aged body fighting as she must walk the long city blocks to her destination. A symbol from another time, she has observed the city develop and grow into what must now seem to be a foreign land, sharing the sidewalk with overwhelming diversity.
From this vantage point, we are the old woman, we want to know her perspective and we attempt to see her surroundings through her eyes. We feel our wrinkled worn face and squint against the blinding sunlight as we take each step with concentrated movement, as if trudging uphill. Encountering this woman on the street, we see her only as an obstacle to avoid, consumed by our own pursuits. Our long and fast strides would leave her behind, but Dunn has slowed us down— creating an opportunity for the viewer to recognize and appreciate this woman’s presence instead.
In Lisette Model’s Femme au Voile, we are introduced to another elderly figure, a remnant of a different era. The woman sits rigid, protected and separated by a thin-netted veil. Gazing into the distance she waits for her companion’s arrival, or perhaps she is just passing moments – recalling memories set in a foregone time. Her surroundings are skewed, a blur of movement, yet through this commotion she is seemingly unscathed. The fast-paced rhythm of the city alienates her from the rest— in a possible moment of a saddening daydream.
In contrast to Cheryl Dunn’s photo, Model’s portrait gives full agency, as we consider the woman’s apparent facial expression and frail body language. Her polished clothes and tight curls are reminiscent of a nostalgic generation. A younger Self could be interpreted in the opposition of her stoic posture, perhaps she was once carefree and played, enjoying the spontaneity and liberation of life. We now see quiet dignity on her face as she sits alone, her isolation provided by time and detachment.
She shares this struggle with the white-haired woman, both in solitude as they face the strains of age. The combination of these images grants a face to an identity that is often unnoticed in the chaos of urban scenery. There are numerous individuals sharing our space that we overlook, and we all continue on unnoticed as we subconsciously refuse to acknowledge those outside of our own tenuous connections.
Shield and Window
The photographs of Dunn and Model inform us of a unique photographic process- a method that leads to a greater understanding of the interconnectedness of humanity. Cheryl Dunn once described this practice in Said and Dunn, an article written by Roland Henry and Geoff Whitehouse for VNA Magazine, "For me I had to work and I felt like I had an obligation because I had access to it but it also helped me, like that camera was my shield... and a window at the same time." The analogy of the camera as a shield and window grants the viewer insight into her work and the elementals of street photography. Through their portals, we not only see a vista, but also the reflection of ourselves.
Cheryl Dunn and Lisette Model both exhibit a distinctive ability to separate themselves from the crowd. Existing quietly within the population, they gain intimate access to the complex layers of New York City; they see this view from behind a veil, the protection of glass and mechanics. Throughout this collection of photographs, we encounter multiple elements of visual removal, whether in the form of physical blockades or optical distortions such as layered glass and camera lenses- further distancing the viewer from the true subject. In Model's photograph, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a framed former president is seen through a window, with the note, "We mourn the loss of a good and valued friend Franklin D. Roosevelt". A representation through camera, through glass, through frame, of a photograph establishes an encased memorial. Model seeks a sentimental tone, one of understanding and veneration.
Franklin D. Roosevelt pairs captivatingly with Dunn's photograph Bill Clinton vs. Bill O'Reilley, 911 10th Anniversary, a photograph in which two men hold a picket sign with the faces of these two Bills pasted on top of each other. The political tones of the work suggest that Dunn may have shot the men before or after they attended a protest or demonstration. Noting the difference in the artist's portrayal of these presidential figures leads to a comment on the change in political climate. Dunn's proclivity to capture moments of heightened tension is also expressed in Angry Pacifist, a photograph of a Guy Faukes masked man laying in the street in front of a blockade of police officers dressed in protective gear. The mixture of reactions from the standing guards, the faceless protestor, and the barricade that separates them leads the viewer to wonder how Cheryl Dunn inserted herself into such an uncompromising scene.
These photos reveal the window Cheryl Dunn and Lisette Model have created of the street- the site where public opinion is heard and freedom of expression is seen. The shifting moments these photographers capture are vital glimpses into the revolutions that happen around us every day. These images create and document a history of the ordinary person- letting their voices surface and reverberate. This awareness opens up a conversation of what the range of our circle of influence is, what it could be, and how we choose to reconcile our own voice within the crowd.
Past the Doors
We feel these figures in limited palettes, in monochromatic schemes that are principally devoid of color. These works envisioned in shades of gray create a slowed pace, a hushed space that rests in observation and consideration. These artists paint the image of three-dimensionality, a vitality that exists beneath the epidermis of circumstance. If we could read experiences on skin, as if they were written and apparent, we would all be recognized as the Other, as self-conscious, as in need, as selfish, and less than whole. Our skins are colored, blemished, and calloused, resilient in hiding our vulnerabilities and desires. The limited capacity to only see the exterior leads to unfulfilled potentiality.
Through acknowledgement and engagement with these photographs we are humbled. The grayed figuration of life-lived seen through lens intertwines past and present, fantasy with reality, and the opposition of thought. Through this encounter, it is crucial to accept all of ourselves in order to exist sincerely. Past the doors, there is a world of sound and color, distraction and invention, tribulations and celebrations. Yet, amidst the chaotic pulsation of life we vie to remember that what divides us does not define us.