SAN FRANCISCO — One of social media’s greatest sources of power stems from the idea that being visible and being seen are one and the same, that the currency of being liked carries the purchase of being understood. It’s the dream of celebrity and also romance, that your audience will clap when you stop performing, that when waking up in the morning you are enough. It’s the fantasy that one can see past style through to one’s essence, as though style were the gloss and armor of a multifaceted self — not a persona, not an avatar, not a front. To be considered as strange and beautiful as art.
But art doesn’t exist outside of its frame and nobody exists outside of their person. At a time of gleefully cruel and brazen government, the personal has never been more political nor has one’s individual relation to power been more crudely obvious. It’s a dynamic that is compounded by social media, which balkanizes under the guise of building community, rewarding the hottest takes and most photogenic banalities over the messy dispatches of a full life.
Show Me As I Want to Be Seen at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) in San Francisco resists these imposed and idealized models of being by probing the self — the unstable, performative essence of humanity — and bringing it to life with art. The show, curated by Natasha Matteson, gains its richness from a paradox at the heart of selfhood. As Matteson writes in the catalogue of coming out, “claiming an identity category does not miraculously create a self that is fixed, contained, or knowable.” Or, as the artist Claude Cahun once exclaimed: “under this mask, another mask. I will never be finished removing all these faces.” (It should be noted that in February, when the show opened, activists staged a protest outside of the museum, claiming its embrace of the “unfixed self” and LGBTQ culture was its own kind of mask, a form of pink-washing its relationship to Israel.)
Cahun and her partner Marcel Moore are the spiritual godmothers of the show. Their work, which encompassed experimental theatre, publishing, and political action, is represented in the show by photomontages from Cahun’s experimental anti-memoir Aveux non avenus and a series of hyper-stylized self-portraits that predate Cindy Sherman by decades.
But where Sherman’s early work wielded the banality of femininity to uncanny effect, the portraits of Cahun clash masculine and feminine gendered traits to create something flamboyantly neuter. “Untitled (I am in training don’t kiss me)” finds Cahun rouged like a courtesan and ripped like an athlete, while “Untitled (Portrait of Claude lying on leopard skin)” offsets its pastoral calm with a hint of Catwoman glam.
Two photographs rupture Cahun and Moore’s private world of gender theatre and draw them back into the chaos and anger of the early 20th century. “Self-portrait” features Cahun with a beaded Star of David fixed squarely to her chest. In a climate of rampant anti-Semitism, the Jewish artist born Lucy Schwob would defiantly change her name to “Claude Cahun” — “Cahun” being the French version of “Cohen.” In a second portrait, taken after the Second World War and prior to her scheduled execution by Nazi occupiers in Jersey, a bold Cahun stares down the camera with a Nazi insignia firmly in her teeth.
Most of the artists in Show Me approach selfhood through a certain degree of distance and obscurity that worldly violence can’t touch. Tschabalala Self’s fabric paintings depict multi-colored, multi-dimensional people set against a sea of lurking eyes, while the subjects of Nicole Eisenman’s “Untitled (G.B. Bathtub)” and “Long Distance” keep their inner lives fiercely to themselves. Toyin Ojih Odutola’s drawings render Black skin in rivulets of color, producing a human landscape that only her subjects can navigate, while the only point of entry to Isabel Yellin’s fleshy sculptures and Davina Semo’s industrial pieces are their titles — the names of women and all-caps found language.
Elsewhere, artists probe the act of looking and seeing, creating surfaces that shift and curdle, complicating any cursory impression one might have of their subjects. Rhonda Holberton is uniquely attuned to the weirdness and multiplicity of performed selves online and offers some of the show’s best work with her uncanny, half-scanned animated pieces. Hiwa K retraces the route he traveled as a refugee fleeing Iraq while balancing a set of mirrors on the bridge of his nose on “Pre-image (Blind as the Mother Tongue),” a gorgeous reflection (and refraction) of his life. Young Joon Kwak’s surreal sculptures are compelling, but her “Singing Mirror” is just north of cheap selfie fare — it does, however, pass the Kondo test when it comes to sparking joy.
Zanele Muholi is the clear heiress to Cahun, an artist who takes on the imagery of Blackness and femininity and blows it up into portraits that stare back from the wall. My favorite piece, “Bona, Charlotesville,” finds the artist gazing inward, looking almost skeptical as she considers herself naked in a mirror. It’s a reminder that the show’s title is not a request, but a demand, to others and to oneself — to look closer and see the person one is becoming.
Show Me As I Want to Be Seen, curated by Natasha Matteson, continues at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (736 Mission St, San Francisco) through July 7.