Robyn Renee Hasty is an artist who is drawn to the challenges presented by obsolete technologies. She is excited by the unpredictability and vulnerability they inspire, and in her current exhibition at Pioneer Works, Z, she presents us with photographs that are complex both in their form and because of the questions they ask.
Using the late-19th century techniques of wet-plate tintype and ambrotype developing, Hasty has shot an extensive series of nude portraits that challenges our notions of gender, identity, and sexuality. The exhibition, titled after the gender-neutral pronoun “ze,” has a powerful and heavy presence in the way the works crystallize the gaze of the sitters through a paradoxically amorphous medium. With expressions ranging from perplexed to seductive to standoffish, the subjects are all seated on the same patterned couch, some sprawled languidly with their legs apart while others curl up on the seat. Yet each sitter infuses the space with a different vibrancy and energy, staring back at you with a similar intensity and sense of confidence as you walk past them, luxuriating in a security of self-identity that is almost enviable.
The juxtaposition of an archaic and often-cumbersome method of photography, with subject matter that is so relevant and pressing to our contemporary context creates a startling union between composition and documentation. It is impossible to look at the images and not imagine that they have been unearthed from a Victorian treasure chest — a fellow visitor was audibly shocked when he heard the photographs had been shot and developed at Pioneer Works over the last year. But there is something fitting in the way the wet-plate method interacts with the nude body and its complexities. Through a process of chemical emulsions, the images have a fluid quality; the edges are often cracking or bleeding. It almost seems like some of the sitters are slowly evaporating into a thick smog of deep gray and inky black. It is this physical self-referentiality that makes Hasty’s photographs so intriguing to peer into, around, and behind. The dim lighting against the gallery’s black walls also casts ghostly projections of the images behind the glass plate and even on the gray floor, creating barely discernible projections reminiscent of negatives.
The photographs in Z create a palpable yet playful silence, one that allows us to reflect on our conceptions of gender and how we inhabit our own bodies in both a physical and a spiritual sense. The nude subjects, a range of individuals identifying as genderqueer, transgender, or cisgender, generate a strong tension between the material presence of their nakedness and a more elusive sense of self. However, sometimes it is the struggle to identify with one’s own physical body that proves most difficult. Hasty’s photographs, in their fluidity and feeling, give us a spectrum of choices, questions, and people to connect with.
Robyn Renee Hasty’s Z is on view at Pioneer Works (159 Pioneer Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn) through July 12.