'Ciphers': Artistic questions of identity

November 16, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Barbara Kruger's "Untitled" in UMBC's show "Ciphers of Identity" plays with identity in several ways. She used an existing photograph of a woman's hands pulling a photograph out of a file drawer filled with folders bearing numbers -- 2400, 3150, etc.

The photo the hand holds is blurred; you can't tell what it shows, so the subject doesn't have an identity. The numbers indicate that whatever or whoever the photo shows has been reduced to something nameless for the purposes of this file. On the photo Kruger has superimposed the written legend "Who do you think you are?" By throwing this question at the viewer, Kruger indicates we all have as little identity as the subject of the photo.

By using an old photograph for new purposes, she has altered its original identity. The woman's disembodied hands suggest that she, whoever she was, has no identity for us beyond what her hands are doing. By extension, Kruger says, our identity changes depending on what we do, who sees us do it, and how they interpret it. Our identity, therefore, doesn't belong to us.

The premise of "Ciphers of Identity," curated by cultural historian and art critic Maurice Berger, is challenging. A UMBC statement defines the exhibit as an investigation of "how artists from diverse racial, ethnic, sexual, and economic communities have defined cultural identity in the politically charged climate of America in the 1990s."

Identity is a difficult question, especially in America, because there are so many complexities to it. There is individual identity, socio-economic identity, cultural identity and national identity, and sometimes they're conflicting. How does one identify oneself as black, say, or homosexual, and at the same time as American, when the country as a whole has traditionally rejected or oppressed one's culture? It's not surprising that the artists here, like Kruger, deal not so much with defining cultural identity as with how difficult that is to do.

Fred Wilson's "Friendly Natives" consists of four plastic skeletons in four old-style showcases in which one might have seen artifacts from "other cultures" in an ethnographic museum. The impersonality of these skeletons suggests the inadequacy of such exhibits to encompass the real nature of whatever it was they purported to show. But by labeling the skeletons "somebody's mother," "somebody's brother," Wilson gives this work another meaning as well: that we all ultimately lack identity, that identity is a myth. And by using fake skeletons he suggests that even the myth is a myth.

Elaine Reichek's "Red Delicious" consists of a romantic depiction of what appears to be a young American Indian woman, inset with stills from old movies showing white men crudely dressed as Indians torturing white women. The work suggests that both the romantic and the Hollywood western versions are stereotypes, and the title further indicates the indignities to which American Indians have been subjected.

Lyle Ashton Harris' "Face" shows the artist as himself, a black man, and in blond wig and white makeup, suggesting that the difficulties of identity of blacks and homosexuals are compounded when one is both.

L These are but a few examples from an thought-provoking show.

ART REVIEW

What: "Ciphers of Identity"

Where: Fine Arts Gallery at University of Maryland Baltimore County, 5401 Wilkens Ave.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; through Jan. 15

Call: (410) 455-3188

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