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"Undressed" might be the operative word for characterizing Shoot the Family, Cranbrook Art Museum's current exhibition of photographs and video works.
Not only are there a lot of naked bodies to see, but, more to the point, a number of the artists have composed psychologically raw portraits of their beloved family members. Shoot the Family manages to both construct and deconstruct contemporary notions and conditions of the family while exposing the bare-bones style of the current state of video and photography.
Curated by the highly touted Ralph Rugoff for Independent Curators International (ICI), the exhibition has the feel of a global survey. ICI is a kind of rent-an-art-show outfit that Cranbrook has hired, quite successfully a few times, in order to keep our local audience up-to-date on current trends in the arts when other local institutions can't, won't or aren't up to the task.
From the jump, the show smacks you in the face with Gillian Wearing's squalid "Self-Portrait as My Brother." She is one of the "young Brits" that the Saatchi Gallery's notorious Sensation show brought to New York, the one New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani tried to censor for indecency. In Album, the series from which this photo is taken, Wearing used herself as a model to create large digital portraits of various family members.
Using her own face and body as her medium, Wearing employs a staff of costume and makeup people on herself à la Cindy Sherman to bring her portraits to life. The contrast between the artifacts of everyday British life architecture, furniture and decor and the representation of her "self-portrait" as her brother constructs a stunning social ethos while calling attention to the ideological baggage that portrait photographers carry with them. With a skull and rose tattoo on her arm, which is positioned to cover her breasts, piss-stained sweat pants and hair "product" on the table next to him, we get the all-too-recognizable picture of an outsider, as well as an extraordinary portrait of a sibling.
Another of Saatchi's British artists included in the exhibition is Richard Billingham, whose "Ray in Bed," a raw video of his elderly father awakening from sleep, accomplishes a similarly intimate portrait of alienation from the dominant culture. In a bedroom festooned with fading Edwardian floral prints (bedding, including sheets and blankets, wallpaper, headboard and Ray's wife's outrageous floral tattoos), a ravaged man awakes into a bedraggled world. The pulsating "autofocus" searches the contours of the aged subject, his seedy nose hairs twitching and swollen pores glistening, while the austere morning light invades his fitful sleep. The camera objectively reveals the man, his obese wife and the tormented squalor of their world. The muffled sound track is a perfect representation of the abyss between the family members, the glory that was England and our invasive eyes.
There are artists from America, Europe and Asia represented in Shoot the Family, and perhaps the most salient representation of radical change in family life is in the work of two Chinese photographers. With the opening of the Chinese economy to global markets, the traditional Chinese family has been radically altered. In Hai Bo's "Dusk" series, we see sumptuous photographs of his sleeping father, coupled with an aged photo of an isolated man in a Mao suit, the uniform representing the unity of Chinese proletariat. In another, his delicately photographed son, after the recent changes in China, is coupled with a photo of workers housing of the new order.
In famed Chinese photographer Zhang Huan's three self-portraits, his head is covered in what appear to be soapsuds, as though a ravaging disease is consuming him. In each image, he has a small portrait of a different family member in his mouth, as if trying to preserve them or hide them, implying that the disease of contemporary China is the cleansing of minds through the elimination of memories and individual identities.
Perhaps the most touching project in the exhibition is Mitch Epstein's "Circles for Dots," a video portrait of his father closing his Holyoke, Mass., furniture store after a fire put him out of business. The sound track of a Dean Martin pop song accompanies the scene in which Epstein's father prices the leftovers in his furniture store. His father, pictured in various sadly outdated sweaters, quietly goes about ending his life's work with an indelible marker.
There isn't a singular articulated political agenda in Shoot the Family, but as the artists' work is examined there are 15 engaging projects each one materializes as evidence of a sea change and an apocalyptic gulf between individuals, family and social fabric. It appears that Rugoff has tried to curate an unofficial survey of artistic representations of family life, and while his catalogue essay seems a bit desperate to make it all fit together thematically, it's a convincing overall portrait of the family, that supposedly natural organizing unit in global culture.
Through April 2 at Cranbrook Art Museum, 39221 Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills; 248-645-3323.
Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.