Unmasked and Uncomfortable
An air of uneasiness lingers over the “Unmasked and Anonymous” exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum and it has little to do with the severe, antiquated faces gazing at you from beneath glass vitrines. Perhaps it arises from the sense of history compressed into a rather tight space; perhaps it’s the nagging conviction that the body of contemporary work presented here is somehow ill equipped to bear the weight of all this history.
The exhibit brings together the work of contemporary Wisconsin photographers John Shimon and Julie Lindemann with pieces from the museum’s permanent collection dating from the 19th to the late 20th century. It sets out to provide both a historic framework through which to view the work of the artistic duo as well as well as presenting a kind of truncated history of American portrait photography.
The former intent is a credible one given the nature of Shimon and Lindemann’s oeuvre. For years they’ve been working collaboratively to create images using antiquated image-capturing and processing techniques, lugging unwieldy apparatus around on site, asking their subjects to pose for long durations of time and spending hours in the darkroom laboriously bringing the images to life. These practices result in a strange negation of what we’ve come to expect of the artist as a purveyor of naked and resplendent truths, pushing new media to its limits in order to plunge us into a deeper understanding of the human condition. Save for a handful of mug shots that blaze with unnerving intensity, there are few unstudied gestures or unmasked expressions of joy, curiosity, or dread in their work. Instead Shimon and Lindemann’s subjects gaze at us beneath hooded eyes, arranging themselves in studied postures of defiance, ennui or boredom. They model themselves on pop icons, deceased film stars or the covers of Rolling Stone magazines. While others appear startled and self-conscious, arms stiff and expressions vacant, they too seemed locked in a struggle to suppress their urge to act natural. This too is a form of rebellion.
In faithfully capturing the contrived persona, Shimon and Lindemann’s work signals the act of the photographic portraiture turning back upon itself, at times evoking the haughty grandeur of 18th century courtly paintings and at others the cipher-like subjects of early photographic portraits, where the anonymity of the subject’s gaze is carefully preserved behind a mask of bland propriety. What’s different here is that for the modern eye the masks these modern subjects don hold no real mystery; they’ve become threadbare with overuse. If this work constitutes our epoch’s contribution to the dialogue of portraiture past and present it signifies an age struck dumb by its own self-wrought artifice. Set against the insistence gaze of Walker Evans’ blanched image of depression-era America, or Walter Sheffer’s enigmatic and pathos-filled image of Mary Martin, the self-possessed subjects of Shimon and Lindemann’s photos seem to shrink and recede, their voices lost in the tumultuous roar of history.