70 `Women,' larger than life

Review: Annie Leibovitz's exuberant show at the Corcoran portrays women in roles that shatter stereotypes

Fine Arts

November 16, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Photography in the postmodern era has taken an odd turn away from what most people think the camera is for.

Rather than simply being a convincing image of the world, photographs increasingly have had to serve double duty as exemplars of all sorts of arcane academic theories as well as chief whipping boy for the culture wars. The result has been a lot of boring pictures by art world stars that pitifully masquerade as serious art.

Fortunately, some of the best photographers have refused to compromise their vision to accommodate the fad for incomprehensible French poststructuralist theory and obnoxious subject matter. Annie Leibovitz's "Women," at Washington's Cocoran Gallery of Art, is photography at its most exuberant that also manages to comment cogently on its time.

The photographs in "Women," 70 in all, are taken from Leibovitz's new book of the same name, but in the gallery many of them are blown up to life size or larger. This gives them an imposing scale absent from the images in the book that accounts, at least in part, for their unexpected power.

It should be said at the outset that there is no way work like this can escape a political coloring, even if it does not advance an explicitly feminist agenda.

The mere act of recording images of women engaged in occupations that until recently would have been considered exclusively male preserves -- astronaut, coal miner, baseball pitcher, Supreme Court justice, gangsta rapper -- is an implicit endorsement of the seismic social transformations that have occurred in U.S. society over the last 20 years.

On another level, of course, Leibovitz's portraits challenge an entire tradition of "art" in which pictures of women focus mainly on their appearance and conformity to male-constructed standards of "beauty" and "femininity."

Leibovitz is fundamentally an entertainer rather than an ideologue, and not surprisingly her pictures are remarkably good-humored as well as instructive.

There are any number of fascinating portraits here, from harrowing close-ups of battered women to the high-kicking Kilgore College Rangerettes cheerleading team, so comically identical to each other one thinks they literally were cut from the same mold.

But Leibovitz's good humor doesn't prevent her from making powerful social statements. Thus there is something inherently revolutionary in her portrait of Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a space shuttle mission, confidently standing on an airport tarmac in her red NASA flight suit.

Collins is a good-looking woman, but ultimately the photo has nothing to do with female attractiveness; it is in fact an emphatic denial of the significance of beauty as defined in traditional terms in favor of those qualities of character and competence previously accorded only to men.

Similarly, Leibovitz's portrait of the gangsta rapper Lil' Kim flaunts the fetishes of the celebrity sex kitten -- disheveled blond mane, blue contact lenses, scarlet see-through blouse -- to subtly undermine representations of woman's identity solely in terms of male desire. By the very aggressiveness of her masquerade, Kim unmasks the artificial character of the role she has adopted.

This is a show that works on many levels, one that isn't afraid to be profound or delightful as the occasion warrants.

"Women" continues at the Corcoran through Feb. 28.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.