Critics’ Picks

Erica Deeman, Blue, 2016, ink-jet print, 26 x 26".

Erica Deeman, Blue, 2016, ink-jet print, 26 x 26".

San Jose, CA

“Sense of Self”

San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art
560 South First Street
November 9, 2019–March 15, 2020

As the title of this smart group show suggests, these artists reveal aspects of themselves in their photographs, but their pictures are not simply self-portraits. Marcela Pardo Ariza and Jamil Hellu, for example, locate themselves within the group portrait. In “Hues,” 2017–, Hellu invites members of the Bay Area’s LGBTQ+ community to perform a component of their cultural identity for his camera. Against the notion of the uninvolved documentarian, Hellu is a co-actor in these costume dramas, which he produces with campy exuberance in front of brightly colored backdrops. In Tammy Rae Carland’s series “Untitled (On Becoming: Billy + Katie 1964),” 1998, the artist poses alternately as her father and her mother in portraits whose visual language borrows from 1930s social documentary photography.

Erica Deeman is more subtly present in her series “Brown,” 2015­–16, in which the heads and shoulders of men from the African diaspora are shown in front of light-brown backgrounds, a shade that Deeman chose to approximate her own skin tone. In these tender images, Deeman, who is English and Jamaican, rejects the conventional role of woman as portrait subject and muse, and counteracts the historical associations of pictures of black men with criminality and anthropology. The gallery walls are painted to match Deeman’s backgrounds, but the tonalities shift slightly in the light; the discrepancy is a reminder of the variability inherent in photographic reproduction. Stephanie Syjuco also highlights the medium’s inaccuracies and compensatory tools, to sobering effect. In Total Transparency Filter (Portrait of N), 2017, a figure is draped with a gray-and-white checkerboard cloth, a tangible Photoshop transparency layer. The sitter, a student educated under the auspices of DACA, is invisible for now, but can be easily (and to the student’s danger) revealed. Each artist complicates expectations of objectivity and self-revelation in portraiture, whether by stepping in front of the lens or by foregrounding photography’s complicity in suggesting the veracity of images.