New York

“Role Exchange”

Sean Kelly Gallery

“Role Exchange,” a group show exploring the theme of adopted personae in the art of the past three decades, demonstrated that an exhibition is not always greater than, or even equal to, the sum of its parts. If such were the case, this all-star lineup of often inspired works by twenty-seven exceptional artists would have been the hit of the season. Instead, it was largely a lackluster academic exercise that sparkled in spite of, rather than because of, its curatorial ambitions.

The exhibition’s title was borrowed from Marina Abramović’s performance at Amsterdam’s De Appel in 1975. Abramović found a local prostitute who had been plying her trade for ten years—the same amount of time that Abramović had been working as an artist. During the opening of her show, Abramović and the woman switched places for four hours. In an accompanying text outlining the performance’s parameters, Abramović suggestively claims that they each took “full responsibility” for their borrowed roles. A compelling and slightly scandalous note on the nexus of art, commerce, and sexuality, the work is a fertile point of departure, one that seems particularly likely to give rise to a rousing colloquy.

But “Role Exchange” begged comparisons, not conversations. In cases where works did have something to say to each other, the dialogue was often so overdetermined by the show’s airless juxtapositions that any exchange came across as scripted. There were works by Cindy Sherman, Nikki S. Lee, Yasumasa Morimura, Janine Antoni, Anthony Goicolea, and Matthew Barney, to name a few. Their works traced a textbook genealogy of the concept of persona, but not a particularly challenging one. The curators even trotted out one prominent pairing—Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe’s self-portraits in drag—already explored in the gallery’s “Celebrity Portraits” show last summer. The addition of another smart piece to the mix—Douglas Gordon’s Staying Out and Going Home, 2005, a Polaroid diptych homage reprising Warhol’s Self-Portrait in Drag, 1981—did little to alleviate the grouping’s predictability; the connection is just too obvious.

Some of the works showed the artist playing with a cultural archetype, and two of these pieces in particular managed to spark a productive tête-à-tête. Adrian Piper’s The Mythic Being: Sol’s Drawing #1-5, 1974, presents Piper in Afro wig and moustache, adopting the guise of the “young black male” from the ’70s popular imaginary. In another room, African artist Samuel Fosso’s The Liberated American Woman of the 70’s, 1997, a splashy, florid self-portrait of the artist in drag, offered an unexpected—and equally provocative—take on the subject.

The most compelling aggregate appeared in the main gallery, and comprised works that addressed the treacherous, incestuous cross-identifications of familial roles: Gillian Wearing’s uncanny Self Portrait as My Grandmother Nancy Gregory, 2006; Antoni’s Mom and Dad, 1994; Duane Michals’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1982; and Michel Journiac’s equally uncanny Hommage à Freud. Constat critique d’une mythologie travestie, 1972, in which the artist dresses up as both his mother and his father. (His resemblance to the former is stronger.)

Occasionally, individual works managed to stand out from the crowd. One such was Kalup Linzy’s video Lollypop, 2006, in which the artist, along with coconspirator Shaun Leonardo, performs a spot-on lip-sync to Hunter & Jenkins’s blues song of the same title. Robert Gober’s Untitled (Bride), 1992–96—a mock-up of a page from the New York Times in which the enigmatic Gober, outfitted in full bridal regalia and Photoshopped into an ad for Saks Fifth Avenue, is juxtaposed with a story about the Vatican’s smear campaign against homosexuality.

But for all its shortcomings, the show did prompt some compelling questions. Why, for instance, does the subject of artistic persona seem to pool so densely around the medium of photography? What is it about the camera’s role as a facilitator of “truth” that makes it so available for shaping and articulating “fictions”? An exhibition that worked to develop such questions would be a welcome endeavor.

David Velasco