BOSTON, MA — “Gray Matters,” at the Griffin Museum of Photography, consists of six shows that examine the layerings of identity — layerings of time, layerings of surface, layerings of material, layerings of meaning. The title alludes both to aging (that ultimate layering of time) and the wetware encased in a human skull. What’s human identity without human mind?
“Gray Matters” runs through Dec. 3.
The most striking of the six shows is J. Fredric May’s“Apparitions: Postcards from Eye See You.” The punning title has a grim history behind it. May, a professional photographer and filmmaker, lost almost half of his vision after a 2012 stroke. The reduced vision led to a syndrome that produces visual hallucinations — an optical version of phantom-limb sensations.
Drawing on this dual visual dislocation, May takes vintage portraits, scans the images, then alters them with a variety of techniques, both digital and analog. The 15 examples at the Griffin are startling. Each image looks inchoate yet suggests an internal coherence. Each is a set of studies in search of a face — or, in the context of “Gray Matters,” identity.
Liz Steketee also radically reworks vintage portraits. As the series title “Sewn” indicates, sewing and thread figure as a significant part of the altering. The 17 examples at the Griffin offer energy, surprise, and consistent unease. The use of thread requires needles, after all, and these needles get under the skin. Some of the bolder images recall Francis Bacon. Is that tribute or warning?
Marina Font takes sewing and photography a lot further. Her series “Mental Maps” does not lack for ambition: “I aim to approach what lies beyond control and reason, exploring, through the act of drawing with thread, embroidery, fabric and appropriated crochet pieces onto the photographic surface, the intricate mysteries of the psyche.” Font photographs a woman’s head and torso — or, in a few cases, her full body — against a black background, then obscures the face or other parts of the figure with those textile elements. This is serious layering. Alas, those intricate mysteries she speaks of remain unplumbed. The results look pretty goofy without a redeeming sense of wit.
Sandra Klein’s series “Noisy Brain” (great title) follows a formula. The 18 images show her in silhouette, with all sorts of things superimposed on her profile. The repetitive format frees up Klein to be anything but formulaic. Surprises abound, and the results are vigorously unruly in the layers she adds. In one case, the superimposition is her mother’s silhouetted profile. Visually, Klein’s brain is definitely noisy. Viewers are the better for it.
“Comus” is the title of the yearbook at Francie Bishop Good’s high school. It’s the same high school her mother went to. After her mother’s death, Good found her yearbook. Good’s series “Comus” consists of enlarged portraits from the 1942 and 1967 editions: the year of her mother’s graduation and her own. Good appropriates the portraits, making them her own with paint, drawing, collage, and digital layering. The images are garishly ugly. That’s not necessarily bad. Garish ugliness can very effectively make any number of points. Here it doesn’t. These images look like Warhol silk screens of people who never got their 15 minutes. That’s not meant as a dismissal of the people. It’s a function of how appropriation works or, as here, doesn’t. Appropriation without recognition is like a dust jacket without a book. There’s no visible meaning. Colleen Woolpert’s “Persistence of Vision” is the smallest show: two photographs and a silent video loop. The video shows a sculptor who is blind shaping the eyes of a self-portrait bust, which is almost as striking to watch as it is to think about.