San Francisco

Alice Shaw

As the veracity of photographic representation has been thrown into question, it follows by extension that the status of the photographer herself is also in serious flux. Alice Shaw’s most recent exhibition, titled “Auto(biography),” initially read as a whimsical look at self-portraiture, yet functioned as an endearingly digressive visual essay concerning the multitude of strategies for personal and artistic representation. Known primarily as a photographer, the artist here employed a range of media—drawing, painting, appropriated objects, sculpture, as well as photographs—in an inconclusive quest to figure out why, or if, the photographer matters as an artist as never before (to paraphrase Michael Fried).

The show made the most sense when viewed sequentially, with one’s radar attuned to puns. The first work was the tone-setting Auto Portrait, 2003, a snapshot-size print depicting the smiling artist behind the wheel of a late-model car. The title is a play on Martin Parr’s 2000 book Autoportrait, a compilation of self-portraits, and Shaw likewise adopts his witty tack. But while Parr frequently appears as a comic sad-sack character in his works, Shaw’s persona is quirkier and more uncomfortably personal, albeit deceptively so. She has long worked with self-portraiture, as in her 2007 show, which paired images of a tall, African-American transsexual with portraits of Shaw, a short, middle-aged white woman—an attempt to find a reflections of herself in unlikely others.

“Auto(biography)” included various framed documents, “expert” opinions written by those skilled at reading palms, tea leaves, and an individual’s “astro-location.” The handwriting analyst, to whom Shaw submitted her artist statement, describes her as “spontaneous and uncontrived,” “a kind-hearted humanist,” and one who “is neither purely male or female, strictly straight or gay, yet does not typify the ‘swings both ways’ personality either.” Inconclusiveness, it seems, abounds. A synesthetic friend codes Shaw’s name pink in a document that launched a sequence of color-themed works, the most provocative being the ghostly Face Print of My Colors, 2008, which might also have been titled Shroud of Lancôme.

The indexicality of the print, in the general sense, is sometimes confused with presence in dialogues about photography. Shaw gleefully dismantled that misconception by deploying time-honored photographic and printmaking processes. Face Print of My Colors, for example, is essentially a monoprint using tinted cosmetics; but the work ultimately tells us more about makeup than about the wearer. Shaw riffs on daguerreotypes with The Artist as Medium, 2009, a portrait of herself dressed as a gypsy fortune-teller, made using the obsolete silver-plate technique. The picture looks convincingly old-fashioned, as the photographer has not only dressed herself up as a psychic medium, but also in a medium. The title Daguerreotype actually goes to a black-and-white pigment print, also from this year, a picture taken in the style of a commercial “fantasy portrait” studio, where Shaw’s hair and fashion were coordinated to emulate a 1970s Old West sunbonnet chic. Sea Print, 2009, is a mundane C-print depicting a view of the Mediterranean. Shaw’s punning titles conflate photographic technology and the subject of the image: They ask which brings more meaning, the photographer’s trained eye or the technology of her era. Obsolete techniques, Shaw finds, are useful as a way to manipulate the viewer, or, in her own parlance, to fudge an image.

Seen together, the forty pieces here drew out stream-of-consciousness associations at times clever, silly, or astute, and sometimes self-indulgent. The whole was greater than the sum of its parts, and Shaw makes a convincing case for looking at photography, and herself, as an expanded field.

Glen Helfand