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Art Review : ‘Ciphers’: Is Prejudice Only Identity Deep?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maybe one reason we can’t “all just get along,” in Rodney King’s plaintive words, is that we’re too complex as individuals to fit either the negative stereotypes of race, gender or class or the positive, corrective models offered by social reformers.

“Ciphers of Identity,” an exhibition at the UC Irvine Fine Arts Gallery through Feb. 4, argues for constructing a blurred, split or frankly fake identity as a way of dismantling the rigid categorizations that fuel prejudice. Curated by cultural historian Maurice Berger for the Fine Arts Gallery at the University of Maryland, the show of work in various media by 15 artists deliberately thwarts the desire to define other people in simple, fixed terms.

All the work is not equally persuasive. For some reason, the more successful the artists are in devising a workable intellectual strategy, the less compelling their works tend to be in a visual or visceral sense. The major exceptions are Mary Kelly’s “Gloria Patri” series and Adrian Piper’s installation “Vote/Emote.”

In art or real life, resisting typecasting can mean exaggerating the presentational qualities we normally perceive as someone’s true identity. One tactic is to dress in drag, thereby creating an unclassifiable persona that appears at once male and female, and possibly even (in Lyle Ashton Harris’ self-portrait photo in white-face) both black and white.

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Another tactic involves recasting historical portrayals of members of one race by members of another, to uncover hidden, or not-so-hidden, bias.

In “Mandan,” Elaine Reichnek juxtaposes a shadowy vintage photograph of a Native American that makes him looks belligerent and unkempt--the popular notion of a “savage"--with two knitted black wool silhouettes of his body. The plain one looks like some sort of childhood bogyman or mutant creature; the other one, enlivened by facial features and random patterning, has a dumb, toylike air. Both make palpable the lack of basic human empathy conveyed by the photograph.

Still another method of dislodging fixed identities is to imagine yourself into the psyche of someone whose race or gender or sexuality you do not have in common. “Gloria Patri,” Kelly’s series of mock-heroic shields inscribed with personal anecdotes, recounts the personal dilemmas of men troubled by having to fake the macho qualities expected of them.

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Although the bare bones of these little stories can be rather banal (the hopeless non-jock who flubs a baseball game, for instance), the sensual language and emotional undertow give the men’s reflections an eerily “female” quality perhaps closer to many men’s thoughts than the “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” stereotype.

Nina Yankowitz takes the displacement of human identity one step further, using animals as surrogates.

Another ploy is to face the real anxieties involved when people confront someone they perceive as different from themselves. Piper’s “Vote/Emote” consists of four booths outfitted with backlighted photographs of uncertain date showing various groups of black people who face the viewer.

The first group are younger people who walk down a flight of steps; the mood of the crowd seems neutral except for a man in the front row who holds up his thumb: a triumphant yet somehow also defiant gesture. The second group gathers in an urban street. A third group (shown with a placard) demonstrates for civil rights in Washington. The all-male members of the fourth group hold group bowls, presumably awaiting a soup kitchen handout.

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Each booth also contains sheets of paper headed with questions inviting written responses: “List your fears of what we might know about you,” “List your fears of how we might treat you,” and so forth.

At UCI, the responses were passionate and enormously varied: “You may know that I am afraid”; “That I am a fake, that I might be a lesbian”; “That my grandfather was a member of the KKK . . . but will you stop to ask me how I feel?”; “I am afraid of change”; “I fear you want to know nothing about me” (this from someone who identified herself as a white victim of a black sexual attacker); “Sometimes I (think) . . . that ‘we’ forget ‘your’ humanity (from a black viewer).

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Some of the other pieces in the show require insider knowledge of one sort or another. Oliver Herring’s “A Flower for Ethyl Eichelberger"--a large, plush, “show-off” jacket knitted from clear adhesive tape, resting on pads of the same material--refers to a performance artist whose stage persona crossed the boundaries of gender. Simon Leung’s weirdly mesmerizing video loop of a pair of male lips continually approaching and retreating from a ragged hole is meant to recall a “glory hole,” an architectural fixture of anonymous sex in male bathhouses.

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But the most disappointing pieces are those in the videotape compilation by several artists, which--with the exception of Cheryl Donegan’s “Head,” a messy spoof of sexual relations--tend to be either ponderously heavy-handed or irritatingly enigmatic.

* “Ciphers of Identity” continues through Feb. 4 at the UC Irvine Fine Arts Gallery in the Fine Arts Village on Bridge Road, Irvine. Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Admission: Free. (714) 824-6610.


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