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Monday, June 15, 2009

MAM’s “Class Pictures” Exhibit Captures High-School Experience

Art Review

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With its sometimes humorous, often painful and always poignant reminders of the awkward cusp of adulthood, Dawoud Bey's "Class Pictures" at the Milwaukee Art Museum offers a glimpse into the lives of 40 high-school students from across the country, photographed between 2003 and 2006. Each is presented as a collaboration between the student and Bey, the image accompanied by the student's personal statement in his or her own words.

Coming of age at a time when reality television and social networking sites make private acts into photo-ops and attention-starved exhibitionists into celebrities, Bey's students are candid without hubris. Though they hail from dramatically different backgrounds, Bey conceals this information from his viewers in the gallery, photographing his subjects against anonymous classroom backdrops. (For the curious, the exhibition catalog contains the students' geographic and academic origins.) Some attend prohibitively expensive prep schools; others come from public high schools in central cities. Two students from the latter, Shaheeda and Odalys, discuss their struggles as teen mothers. Odalys has aspirations to become a doctor, while Shaheeda just wants respite from her crying infant, wishing she could soar with the birds so she could "fly to school and never be late."

Some struggle with racial and cultural identity, being the only black or white or Muslim student in their school; others struggle to stand out. For some, defining individuality through a carefully constructed exterior is a luxury, like subcultural plumage worn with pride. Perched atop a desk, hands with chipped black fingernails folded primly in front of her, Sarah uses her statement to ruminate on what it means to be "normal." Experiences, she says, not appearances, define who she is.

"Class Pictures," at its most interesting, doesn't merely document appearances, but depicts the dissonance between the students' aesthetic self-presentation, filtered through and captured by Bey's lens, and their brief personal narratives. Amy, a young woman photographed in profile, casually leans back, her elbows resting on a windowsill. Wearing a studded belt and a black tank top, her hair dyed pink, she poses confidently. Amy's statement summarizes her musical interests, and mentions that despite her looks, she's a "good kid" who doesn't drink or do drugs or hurt other people. Amy's forearm, however, is subtly banded with thin red lines, bearing the faint scars of self-mutilation. While she doesn't hurt other people, she doesn't spare herself. In a more humorous contrast, Robert, a great bruiser of a man in a football jersey, first lists his favorite sports, then writes enthusiastically of his fiancée, crediting her as his reason to stop fighting. "I quit all the stuff I used to do," he writes. "Sometimes I just put stuff down, like if I gotta do something, like go visit somebody, I put that aside just for her 'cause I love her so much." Predictably, "Class Pictures" teaches the old lesson that looks can be deceiving.

Like Studs Terkel's Working or Michael Apted's Up series, Bey's "Class Pictures" is a sympathetic series of portraits, part of a larger tradition belonging to those who remark on the seemingly unremarkable. And while his portraits are limited to what the camera shows and what the students choose to tell, as a whole they reveal a diverse cross-section of individuals, not merely a demographic to be assiduously marketed to, but one deserving to be both seen and heard.

"Class Pictures" runs through July 12.

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