REVIEW | Body Doubles

Valerie Belin, Untitled #03010907.jpg

Body Doubles

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

As I enter Body Doubles, I am halted by the very first image, Untitled #03010907 by Valerie Belin; a breathtaking, stark, black and white photograph of an incredibly realistic mannequin. It’s utterly captivating. As I move back to get a more nuanced view, just out of my periphery, I catch a glimpse of Jean Arp’s Torso to my right. Like a magpie drawn to the highly polished bronze, I can’t help myself but go over for a closer look. As I circle the piece, my eye is drawn back to the entrance where I began and I know I’m in for something good. When I can’t wait to make the rounds and have to jump from one piece to another, knowing I’ll have to make a second or third pass to really see it all, I’m excited by the opportunities for discovery and edification. Body Doubles is precisely this kind of a show.

Designed to raise complex questions about the relationship between the body and identity, and explore the myriad ways that artists have used the body to challenge boundaries (between the individual and society, male and female, interior and exterior, normal and transgressive), Body Doubles suggests the plurality of the body as both subject and object. Perpetually in a state of flux and transformation, the body serves not only as the actual, physical self, but also (through representation) as identity. Drawn largely from the MCA’s permanent collection, the exhibition features artists who highlight the body as an object (something that we have), the body as a subject (something that we are), and the body as an ongoing performance (something that we become). These contemporary artists use the body as a tool for radical transformation as reflected through the lenses of sexuality, gender, class, age, and race. Of particular interest for me is the inclusion of so many female artists, and there are a number of pieces that should not be missed.

For artist Valerie Belin, the illusion of perfection within the illusion of reality is carefully orchestrated through black and white photographs of what she termed, “the Rolls-Royce of mannequins” (created by the designer Adel Rootstein). After visiting a warehouse that held hundreds of life-like mannequins, all cast from real women, Belin selected glamorous and expressive subjects that, once photographed, easily question the actual from the virtual. Through careful positioning, the addition of realistic wigs, and soft lighting, Belin presents perfect specimens of the female form. Untitled #03010907 (pictured above) is large, and from a distance appears as a glaring portrait of a very primped, very real woman. It is only up close that I can begin to distinguish the details: the painted on makeup, the plastic surface, the false eyelashes, and hardened lips. Upon this realization, the female form becomes an object, bereft of being a person and nothing more than a mere stand-in – a beautiful, artificial subject. How quickly what is “real” changes when appearance impacts our understanding. In just a few seconds, I went from admiration of a beautiful portrait to questions of appearance and thoughts to the objectification of the female form; and I realize, everything included in Belin’s images is done to achieve just such an effect. By exploring the significance of the facade and exploiting all the possibilities of digital manipulation, Belin presents a type of magic realism, hovering somewhere between reality and illusion. Interestingly, I find reside in the same valley of non-distinction.

Margot Bergman, Marie Christine.jpg

The work of Margot Bergman, one of the few paintings on view, reflects the two central and parallel ideas of the exhibition: first, that multiple bodies can perform one identity; and second, that multiple identities can exist within one body. Often beginning with existing artworks, usually found in thrift shops or flea markets, Bergman features an uncanny double-face, both of which directly address the viewer.

Marie Christine instinctually feels playful in its muted color palette, the child-like application of paint, and in its somewhat whimsical depiction of the human face. However, the overall four-eyed image is incredibly haunting – obviously reflective of an incredibly potent imagination and stirring psychological deliberations. Penetrating and evocative, there is a visual bite in the glare from the center eyes. Surrounded by a virtually undistinguishable mound of flesh, these detailed orbs are the crux of the work – a trapped self within the self is begging to be recognized and yet remain hidden. I am left with quite unsettling sensations in my gut and find myself looking over my shoulder more than once as I moved away from the work.

Gillian Wearing, Self-Portrait as My Mother, Jean Gregory 2 .jpg

Equally as haunting, Self-Portrait as My Mother, Jean Gregory by Gillian Wearing, in its candor and psychological intensity, extends the traditions of photographic portraiture. Known from exploring the differences between public and private life, the individual and society, voyeurism vs. exhibitionism, and fiction vs. fact in a method Wearing describes as “editing life,” her focus on questions of the human spectacle continue to blur the boundaries between the interior and the exterior. Investigating the complexities of personal identity, specifically within family dynamics and how such tensions are sometimes exacerbated when involved in public or semi-public display, Wearing employs the use of the mask to disguise herself in the visage of several of her relatives captured in old family snapshots. Confronting me in a mask cast from her mother’s face with her hair done to mimic her mother’s hairstyle at the time of her birth, Wearing peers directly at me through the eyeholes of the mother’s rubberized face. It’s uncomfortable and unsettling. The work can be interpreted as a comment of the bond of a mother and a daughter, how close this type of relationship can be that it is fused into a single depiction. Or perhaps, it is more about the traits that she has acquired, both internal and external, from her mother. I think it is a reflection of both of these ideas, but more so about the realization we, as women, have when we realize that the woman we are is so much identical to our mothers. There comes a point, at least for me, when I realized that the woman I wanted to be and was becoming was very much like my mother - funny, forceful, creative, loving. While I am confidently my own person, as is Wearing, the “faces” we have grown into are ones with which we are acutely familiar, which raises the question if they are masks at all. Wearing, while raising a multitude of provocative questions about identity and memory, confession and secrets, and authenticity and artificiality, expresses the rich tenderness and longing often felt through periods of transformation of self.

Xaviera Simmons, Landscape Two Women.jpg

There are a number of exceptional and notable works in the exhibition not included here but worthy of viewing: Landscape (2 Women) by Xaviera Simmons, Flipside by Lorna Simpson, Untitled (Double Portrait) by Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince, and Torso by Jean Arp.

Body Doubles is open now through April 19, 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. For more, visit:

Images (from top to bottom): Valerie Belin, Untitled #03010907, 2003, Gelatin silver print, Edition 2 of 5, 39 37/100 x 31 1/2 inches, Courtesy of the artist; Margot Bergman, Marie Christine, 2014, acrylic on linen, 65 x 50 inches, Courtesy of Corbett vs. Dempsey; Gillian Wearing, Self-Portrait as My Mother, Jean Gregory, 2003, Gelatin silver prints, 53 1/8 x 45 5/8 inches, Restricted gift of Collectors Forum in memory of Tom Ruben, Photo Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago; Xaviera Simmons, Landscape (2 Women), 2007, Color photograph, 30 x 40 inches, Edition of 5

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