Who’s real and who’s not? Photo exhibit poses questions about identity and reality 

  • Martine Gutierrez, Girl Friends (Rosella & Palma 4), 2014. (c) Martine Gutierrez; courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York

  • Martine Gutierrez, Line Up 5, 2014. (c) Martine Gutierrez; courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York

  • Martine Gutierrez, Line Up 4, 2014. (c) Martine Gutierrez; courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York

  • Martine Gutierrez, Line Up 2, 2014. (c) Martine Gutierrez; courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York

  • At right, Martine Gutierrez, Girl Friends (Anita & Marie 4), 2014.

For the Bulletin
Thursday, April 25, 2019

For Martine Gutierrez, art and life are fully entwined and fluidly transformational. In “Life/Like,” which displays two series of photographs at the Mount Holyoke College Museum of Art, she engages in serious play with intimacy, identity, and gender — and transposes illusion and reality.

As a trans woman, Gutierrez, a performance artist and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y., does not pose for self-portraits as much as compose complex narratives, rich with props and personae. And as the maker, model, and muse of her own imagery (and her own image), she deftly inhabits each frame unfolding in a cinematic stream.

Paramount among the props she employs are life-sized mannequins. Girl Friends explores two sequences of seven images: one presents “Anita and Marie,” while the other introduces “Rosella and Palma.”

Printed in black and white, measuring 9 by 13½ inches, the photographs are scaled for intimacy. Pairs of women appear in a variety of places and poses that announce narrative connections but obscure the nature of their relationship. They look like sisters, if not identical twins, and in pose, they repeat and enhance each other.

But look more closely into the frame. One figure in each image is the artist herself and — surprise! — the other figure is a meticulously styled mannequin, imitating life through costume, lighting, and camera angle — and manipulating viewer expectation.

 With that realization, the initial sense of intimacy in each scene shatters, revealing itself as a hollow shell, an illusion. Despite the presence of an almost identical shadow, each figure is alone.

The images lead the viewer through a series of perceptual twists and turns, following the women through scenes of uncertain stories. “Rosella and Palma” find themselves in a sequence of elaborate settings. In one in particular, the architectural curves of a stairwell flare like wings around the two women.

But a pivotal moment comes with the implicit drama in one of the photographs framing Anita and Marie. A third figure — alive? imaginary? male? female? — enters the scene. Anita and Marie echo each other’s poses, but in reverse.

One woman is flooded in light outside a doorway, leaning towards the ambiguous interloper. The second woman — her visual twin — stands inside, deep in the shadow of the doorway, but facing forward, to invite similar engagement, this time with the viewer. Complicit, we are drawn into their equation of intimacy.

A stronger demand for viewer participation emerges in another series, Line Up. At 42 by 28 inches, these photographs are life-scaled, if not life-sized, and the element of color adds another dimension.

But Line Up conveys none of the intimacy — illusory or not — of Girl Friends. In this series, Gutierrez poses herself among a crowd of similarly styled mannequins. The repetition of the female form as well as the depiction of feminine stereotypes shifts the focus to an exploration of gender roles and collective identity.

Line Up 5 shows a cluster of beautiful women swathed in pink cloth and soft light, similar in style and stance. Most avert their gaze, but one, in the center and soaking up the spotlight, is in profile. These women could be ballet dancers, poised and ready, backstage. Or maybe they are cookie-cutter contestants in a beauty pageant, just before the curtain rises.

But look closer, and note the shoulder seams at the joints of the mannequins, who surround the sole live figure, the artist herself, in the center.

Line Up 2 depicts a group of young women with identical long, black ponytails topped with white bows, wearing crisp white blouses and short black skirts, suggesting a girls’ field hockey team. The delicate physique of the figures introduces some doubt, however, about field hockey.

Maybe just “school-girl uniforms” (sans sport) is the better way to describe this styling. No faces (or shoulder seams) help identify which figures are mannequins and which one is “real.” This time, it’s lifeless fingers that identify the inanimate figures.

In the center, the live figure tenderly cradles a creepily plastic hand in her own two hands. Another mannequin rests a lifeless hand on her shoulder, in a gesture that would indicate strong group solidarity and reciprocal support — if the plastic hands were not so unnervingly spooky.

But the greatest challenge in determining who’s real and who’s not (or what’s real and what’s not) comes with Line Up 4. Here, the scene is visually congested. All the women have ostentatiously unreal, bright red hair, made all the brighter by their green-toned turbans and the uneasy chartreuse light that suffuses the scene.

Gazes go in all directions — up, down, sideways, forward, fully averted — and the artful blur of overlapping bodies eliminates clues like shoulder joints and waxen fingers.

Which figure is the “real” live woman? Is she the one in profile on the left, who seems to claim the spotlight? No, her face seems too flawless, her chin too shiny in the light. Maybe the figure facing towards the viewer? No way: her face seems composed of planes of plastic rather than flesh and blood.

I found one major clue in the seemingly real hand of a totally blurred figure falling off the right foreground, but also turned to crowd-sourcing for comment, curious about what others would see. Answers varied, but that blurred hand was a sign of life for several other sets of eyes.

Of course, the point is not to play the game of “One of These Things is Not Like the Others” but to toggle in and out of perceiving what’s real and what’s illusory, and what’s individual and what’s collective. Think of it as the revelations of a social or conceptual astigmatism, with a shift in perception, blurred vision, and multiple focal points.

At the gallery, an iPad attached to the wall invites viewers to reflect on their personal and collective identities. Gutierrez’s images offer the same invitation as she creates a world in which constructs of seeming opposites — male and female, gay and straight, intimacy and alienation, reality and illusion — tend to blur, then bend, and blend together.

“Life/Life: Photographs by Martine Gutierrez” is on view at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum through June 16. More information on the museum, such as visiting hours and special events, is available at artmuseum.mtholyoke.edu.