Since 1970, Westbeth has been home to hundreds of artists working in performance, dance, painting, photography, writing, and more. As one of the first examples of industrial buildings being adapted for artistic and residential reuse in the US, Westbeth has helped shape the West Village’s reputation as an artistic haven. It’s fitting, then, that curators Eric Lawton and Daphne Takahashi would bring to Westbeth Gallery Discursive Selves, a group show of photography and video art that examines how identities are formed, transmuted, distorted, and displayed in the social sphere.
The exhibition features works by 11 artists who are exploring self-portraiture, either straightforwardly or by circumvention, by photographing elements of their environment that help constitute their definition of themselves. Dispersed throughout the large gallery like people scattered across a city, the works feel like a series of fragments hinting at the disjointed and incomplete nature of who we perform as ourselves.
The fragment is a focal point of the show, particularly for artist Rindon Johnson, whose work is installed in nearly every room. Johnson’s abstracted and miniature self-portraits are the hidden gems of the exhibition. In a piece titled “Identity Crisis” (2012), the artist has collaged a diptych featuring two photo-booth images of their body. On top is a picture of themselves with their shirt up, bare-breasted, next to a female gender symbol. In the image directly below, their chest is covered with a button-down shirt, with a male gender symbol alongside. Johnson thus uses their body to explore the construction of gender, commenting on how biology and apparel overdetermine the social perception of the self.
Photographer Aneta Bartos also navigates an intimate social space: that of her family in rural Poland. For her Family Portraits series, the artist poses with her father, a bodybuilder, to create a collection of unsettling images. Her father is often found in a side-chest pose, while Bartos hovers in the background, close enough to be shielded by his presence, but distanced enough to introduce a tension in their relationship. For her, the fragmented nature of self-portraiture exists in the cracks of her own memory and resurfaces within the frames of her photographs.
At the intersection of Johnson’s and Bartos’s work lie Nona Faustine’s photographs, which feature the artist either topless or fully naked in public spaces. In one, titled “Over My Dead Body” (2013), Faustine, bare but for white heels, walks up the steps of New York’s City Hall with a rusty shackle in her hand. The image powerfully conjures the damage white supremacy has inflicted on people of color and suggests the obstacles it continues to pose to communities attempting to write themselves back into a history that systematically erases them.
Other artists in the show look at interpersonal relationships as forms of self-definition, like Matthew Morrocco, who photographs men nude while including himself in the corners of the pictures, or Tommy Kha, whose images feature individuals kissing. Kha turns instances of intimacy into moments of public display, while Morrocco focuses on what happens within the household, rarely setting foot outside.
Discursive Selves is a careful exploration of the bits and pieces that comprise our ideas of selfhood, and Lawton and Takahashi propose a refreshing take on what can feel like an overworked and insipid theme. The exhibition doesn’t feature selfies or paintings of iPhones as characterizing elements of our contemporary identities; instead, the curators have put together a show that compels viewers to look both inward and at ourselves as social animals.
Discursive Selves continues at Westbeth Gallery (55 Bethune Street, West Village, Manhattan) through August 11.