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Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Love and Beauty on the Subway

One gallery of work in Tanyth Berkeley’s current Bellwether exhibition, Love Parade, has been haunting me since I saw it last weekend. Its memory hasn’t stuck with me, though, for the right reasons.

Berkeley rides the subway scouting for portrait subjects, and she certainly finds interesting ones. Each of the 16 young women photographed for this show has facial features that are slightly “off” in some way. There’s Claire the albino; Deana, Alexis (at right), and Suzanne with their self-conscious hipster-chick hairstyles and kitchen-sink color; Maya with her bulbous nose and a style sense teleported direct from the late-70s; Emily with an acne problem; and Meredith who resembles a young Sissy Spacek with a mild case of Down Syndrome.

As a rule, our society overly compensates the beautiful. These portraits all show women who don’t get any of those rewards. Because of their appearance, they must face passive (if not active) discrimination on a daily basis. Their lives have to be difficult and filled with disappointments, simply because they don’t fit the standard definitions of beauty.

None of that emotion, though, comes through in Berkeley’s photography. The portraits are all surface—slick and passionless. Any sense of empathy, any hint of pathos, has been stripped from the work.

Berkeley earned her graduate degree at Columbia last year—another example of a promising artist identified young and launched early into a high octane market by an ambitious dealer. Berkeley’s work, no doubt accomplished, still carries the aftertaste of an MFA program. She knows what she wants to do, but she would have benefited from more time to work and edit before her Chelsea debut. Seeing this project made me wish that Berkeley had more exposure to Dorothea Lange’s work in school and less to that of recent Yale-MFAs. If she had, her individual pieces might have gone deeper than the surface of her subjects’ appearance. They might have given a sense of the lives these women lead.

But, like I said, I can’t get this show out of my mind. Although I wasn’t overly impressed with the individual portraits, I can’t stop thinking about the fact that when the work sells out, as it most probably will, the community that Berkeley has assembled here will be dispersed.

Berkeley’s Bellwether show is that rare example of a gallery exhibition that becomes stronger, much stronger, than the sum of its individual parts. While each of her pieces is lackluster on its own, the combination of them creates an environment that projects a sense of completion. The richness and challenge that arise from her work comes from the gallery installation, rather than from the individual photographs.

In addition to her portraits, Berkeley is showing a video in this gallery. The video (prosaic on its own) serves as the catalyst. On the screen, subway musicians sing love songs. These crooners all fall well short of the ideal set by the songs’ original performers. Their shortcomings make them the perfect collection of balladeers to serenade this group of young women.

Neither these imaginary suitors nor their pursued would be seen as desirable by our culture’s tastemakers. But in the community of outsiders that Berkeley has created here, the promises of love, romance, and happiness seem possible in a way that they wouldn’t if you ran into each of these people individually on the train.

On their own, Berkeley’s photographs and video stand about as much chance of being noticed, lionized, and loved for what they are as her subjects do. The installation is the object to covet here, not the individual works.

But given market dynamics, the installation probably won’t survive. The individual pieces will be forced to stand on their own, and someday in the future they won’t have the ability to show what Berkeley had once done, long in the past, when she brought all of these people together for a short, intense period of time in the back room of a Chelsea gallery. It’s this impending sense of loss, of community disbanded, that has been troubling me.

Love Parade (at Bellwether, 134 Tenth Ave.) runs through February 5.

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