RedLine Plays With Notions of Beauty, Gender and Roles in Two "Month of Photography" Shows

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More than a decade ago, while he was at Houston’s FotoFest, photographer Mark Sink decided that he wanted to do something similar here. So in 2004, he created Denver’s Month of Photography, a series of exhibits and events that runs from mid-March through April. Initially an annual, it’s now a biennial, as it’s been for the past several years.

For 2015 — as was the case the previous two times — MoP’s centerpiece event is being presented at RedLine. Organized by Sink, Playing With Beauty is a group show that fits in with RedLine’s exhibition theme this year: “Play It Forward.”

Sink is a good curator — I’ve seen many shows he’s put together over the years — but there are problems with Playing With Beauty, principally that it’s actually a mash-up of several different shows instead of being one cogent presentation. Still, it is certainly worth seeing, because even if the material is only loosely connected under the “beauty” umbrella, it all reveals Sink’s unfailing eye for what constitutes a credible photo.

The concept of “beauty” is a charged topic in the visual arts, having been denigrated for decades. To naysayers, making work that’s beautiful is seen to be lazy at best, reactionary at worst. But from a conceptual standpoint, dismissing beauty in a field purportedly concerned with seeing is an idea that has mostly fallen under its own illogical weight. To cover his bases with the postmodern crowd, Sink includes the concept of “play” in the show’s title, which allows him to align with RedLine’s program — and to include pieces that are classically beautiful along with those that aren’t.

The show is dominated by contemporary photography, but there are also historic photos on display. These older images, which depict either women or the landscape — frequent subjects for those interested in capturing beauty — are by some of the giants in photo history. For instance, there’s a lovely portrait of Marilyn Monroe by Philippe Halsman that’s represented twice, both by a silver print and by the 1952 Life magazine cover that it appeared on. There’s also a stunning scenic view captured in “Bryce Canyon,” done in 1930 by Laura Gilpin. Other notable historic photographers in Playing With Beauty include Robert Adams, Herbert Bayer, William Henry Jackson, Bert Stern and Sir Cecil Beaton.

As could be imagined, these masters of the medium produced work that was undeniably beautiful. But the same could be said for several of the contemporary entrants, especially those interested in the landscape. Examples include Mitch Dobrowner’s stunning photos of climatic conditions, as in the supercell in “Chromosphere,” and Libby Barbee’s captivating scenic collages, “The Big Freeze” and “Re-imagining Bierstadt.” Martin Stupich, Chuck Forsman and Kevin O’Connell also turned in some solid landscape entries.

A trend in contemporary photography, facilitated by technical advancement, is the fruit-and-flowers still-life scenes evocative of the Dutch masters; these typically feature a deep focus, so that every element is crisply conveyed. Paulette Tavormina does this to a high standard in her breathtaking pigment prints included in the show.

Some of the photographers achieve beauty through a dark backstory — beautiful with a twist — as in the work of Mandy Barker, who creates gorgeous color images that at first glance look like all-over abstractions but are actually close-ups of debris floating in the ocean. Two from her “Shoal” series record the colorful debris produced by the Japanese tsunami as it swirls just below the water’s surface. They’re gorgeous, if disturbing.

Obviously, Barker’s work makes a social comment, as does Thomas Alleman’s “The American Apparel” series, in which he takes photos of the pretty women (and girls) on billboards for American Apparel clothing. Typical settings for the billboards are grungy urban neighborhoods, which strikes a tension between the place and the slick images on the signs. Add to that the fact that the company’s founder, Dov Charney, has been accused of sexual harassment, and you’ve got a lot going on in these intriguing works.

It’s impossible to wind up a discussion of Playing With Beauty without noting the minor current of gender-bending, which is seen in the famous Christopher Makos portrait of Andy Warhol, who has been made up to look like a woman. Sink put it near the Marilyn portraits, but way in the back are some edgy photos by Renluka Maharaj of real transgender individuals, some of whom are exposing themselves. These particular subjects are in diva mode, wearing theatrical costumes.

That’s as good a segue as any to the other photo show at RedLine right now, Role Play, curated by Colorado Photographic Art Center director Rupert Jenkins with Conor King. Whereas Sink’s show is all over the map, Jenkins and King’s exhibit is tightly organized around a single idea — that of people playing fictional roles. For this show in the small but still spacious Community Gallery, Jenkins and King selected the work of eight photographers, showcasing each in depth.

Some of the roles being played are conveyed with ease. Nina Katchadourian has transformed herself into different Flemish women using strips of toilet paper to make a variety of period-looking headdresses. Her facial expressions and poses help to further the illusion. These photos were taken with an iPhone, and Katchadourian posed herself in an airplane lavatory while on a flight.

An even more straightforward transformation is carried out for the “Egyptians, Or Clothes Make the Man” series by Nabil Boutros, an Egyptian who lives in France. Boutros grew out his beard, then trimmed it in stages, creating a kind of continuum in which he looks like a mullah before he shaved and a Westerner once he’s clean-shaven. As simple as this idea is, it does address a complex issue: the fear of terrorism, a white-hot topic in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack. Stacey Tyrell, who is biracial, also delves into identity politics, but in her case, it’s depicting herself dressed up as her white relatives. Jordin Paige Wommack addresses gender identity in self-depictions as a bearded woman.

Other artists eschew simplicity in favor of elaborate costumes and perfectly conceived settings. Chan-Hyo Bae, a Korean artist working in London, refers to the grandeur of the sixteenth century by wearing heavy gowns and tall wigs.
Sally Stockhold is well known for her impersonations of famous individuals in appropriate custom-built settings, but she’s taken things even further this time. In “The Life I Never Lived” series, set at the Hotel Chelsea, she plays off the history of American pop culture.

Allison Welch imitates the covers of American Girl books by wearing outfits similar to the girls in the cover drawings and placing herself in similar settings.

All of these photographers are represented by self-portraits — selfies writ large, if you will — but one photographer, Stacy Kranitz, also depicts others, with only a couple of images of herself. These other subjects serve to deepen the narrative she’s addressing. Kranitz is Jewish, but she joined a Nazi reenactment group to play the role of disgraced propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. What’s really amazing is how authentically historical her photos look, as though they were taken during World War II.

There are so many photography shows around town right now that are a part of MoP, it would be hard to see them all — but Playing With Beauty and Role Play should be on your must-see list.

Playing With Beauty and Role Play
Through April 25 at RedLine, 2350 Arapahoe Street, 303-296-4448, redlineart.org.

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