San Francisco

Alice Shaw

Gallery 16

Whether by accident or some grand universal design, the invention of photography and the inception of psychology took place more or less simultaneously. According to Alice Shaw, the two have always had much in common as ways to see through new eyes. With an appealing honesty Shaw describes one of the driving forces behind her work as a kind of psychological state—a confusion that leads her to try to make sense of the world and its illusions through pictures, often of herself.

In this exhibition three separate bodies of work all addressed issues of identity and selfhood. Shaw has clearly put a lot of thought into what’s in a name; four large digital pigment prints show her portraying famous Alices—Alice in Wonderland, Alice B. Toklas, Alice Nelson (the housekeeper on The Brady Bunch), and Alice Cooper. The velvety surface and deep, nonreflective blacks of these prints emphasize their goofy theatricality. Seen as a group, they are a striking example of the camera used as magic box or mirror, a tool in our quest to find out what we really look like to the rest of the world and thus who we really are.

A second series consisting of smaller prints features Shaw posing with a different person in each picture, cataloguing ways in which we find ourselves reflected in others. The artist confesses to an interest in twinning and reflection, but a more accurate way to characterize these photographs would be as a search for the doppelgänger—the secret shadow self visible only to its owner. In one she stands with a woman who shares her engaging gap-toothed grin. In another she and a grocery clerk wear the same style of glasses. Once we know the game, we try to guess what the link is, but the truth is, this work is as much about identity (which isn’t necessarily visible) as it is about mere resemblance. One pairing turns out to be with a man who has the same birthday as Shaw; another is with Matt Gonzalez, Green Party politician, making us wonder about the way Shaw votes.

The newest work was a group of untitled drawings. These, too, emerge from a kind of confusion, this time between the identities of Henry Darger and Charles Dodgson. Shaw claims to have had difficulty remembering which was the outsider artist obsessed with little girls and which was the eminent Victorian mathematician and photographer who shared the same Nabokovian bent. Using Sir John Tenniel’s famous illustrations for the Alice books and reproductions of Darger’s work, Shaw makes the drawings by tracing over pictures—a technique used by Darger himself—then transferring the image with carbon paper onto another page, often combining it with others in what Shaw describes as a primitive form of Photoshop. Watercolor completes these tender little compositions, the best of which generate a disquieting tension between Tenniel’s Victorian girls and the pouty, short-skirted cherubs favored by Darger.

Looking at all these Alices and shadow-Alices is a reminder of photography’s promise: that being able to see what we look like on the outside will somehow confer new knowledge of what lies within. By directing the camera at herself, Shaw seems to suggest that taking pictures can be just as efficient a means of achieving self-knowledge as therapy—and a lot more fun.

Maria Porges