Four artists explore our interactions and connections with strangers

Stranger Self

Through march 29 at Gallery CA

Crisco is somewhere between seductive and revolting. Oozing and plopping to the floor, it is vaguely sexual but almost totally artificial in all its partially hydrogenated glory. It is a mixed sign, conjuring memories of comfort food but also unabashedly representing the well-greased (sorry) machine of late-capitalist food production. Crisco evokes the body-fleshy membranes full of fat and mucus and semen and bile that we are-but also the alien; it is a hybrid product of the organic and the man-made, neatly packaged and shipped and sold in millions of anonymous supermarkets in anonymous shopping centers globally.

In Nancy Daly's new "Missed Connections" series, four crank-operated white aluminum-and-steel boxes feebly ejaculate Crisco from cutout text sourced from the eponymous Craigslist service. It is pretty gross. The ads themselves are a little funny, a little sad, and at times surreal. In "no face - m4w - 24 (Baltimore) - 24," an account of a banal alleyway conversation about American Idol takes an unexpected turn: "you didn't have a face. i don't know how the words were coming out. i might have imagined you."

Stranger Self explores the way "the other" is represented, as well as how individuals represent themselves to others. Organized by Gallery CA curatorial interns Haley Palmore and Joseph Shaikewitz, the exhibition is a nice survey of four artists addressing strangers in a world that is paradoxically shrinking even as it grows.

Faces, and not just a perceived lack thereof, are central to the work of Jackie Milad, Benoit Paille, and Laura Payne, the other artists in the show. Payne's 2012 series "Before/After" combines images of women pre- and post-cosmetic surgery into stereoscopic paintings. The technique is typically used to create a realistic 3-D image by offsetting an image of an object in cyan and magenta. Here, it juxtaposes two images of the same woman made unrecognizable. The resulting paintings disconcertingly don't add up to solid visages. The subjects shift between their "natural" states and how they chose to alter their appearances. The effect is a reminder of perception/representation's mutability and its implication for facial recognition-the foundation of identifying others. Jackie Milad's "Portraits Project" humorously indexes facial expressions through line drawings of strangers that are delicately executed but feel informal. Presented as a kind of pseudo-scientific illustration, the drawings chart the awkward stares, looks of surprise, and other nonverbal aspects of interpersonal communication. To further objectify her subjects, they are all drawn bald and stripped of most indicators of gender or ethnicity. With only their personalities to distinguish one from another, the portraits have a cartoonish, almost alien quality. Hung between the drawings are less successful photographs from the same series. In the photos, backlit people wearing bald caps mimic facial expressions from the chart. Aesthetically, they aren't great, but I mostly dislike them for functioning in opposition to the drawings. The tiny drawn portraits are strangely anonymous but feel intimate due to scale and the artist's hand. When looking at the photos, I found myself wondering about the individuals-how old they are, how they met the artist, etc. . . . and paying less attention to whatever goofy face they were making. Three hanging sets of bald caps and hand mirrors invite viewers to interact with the piece, a far more effective strategy for tying Milad's whimsical drawings to the real world. At the opening reception, a crowd of people were miming facial expressions and taking pictures of each other posing as the emotive, hairless studies that populate Milad's work.

Despite crowdsourced imagery and (in the work of Daly and Payne) an interest in how technology offers new means of representing oneself to others, the artists' hands and a strong sense of craft pervade most of the pieces in Stranger Self. Benoit Paille, however, removes himself almost totally from his work, surrendering authorship to strangers. The appropriately titled "Stranger Tourist Self-Portrait" series is the product of Paille inviting passersby at the beach to take their own photos standing ankle-deep in surf. Among cocktail-sipping retirees, a couple of chest-puffing bodybuilders, and plenty of UV-damaged flesh posturing itself for the camera, I spotted a friend of mine.

After a double take, I confirmed that the young woman in front of me, holding a drink with one hand and the shutter release in the other, staring at the camera with a slightly confused gaze, was, in fact, Jaimie Warren. I thought at first that Benoit Paille must have been a friend of Warren's. She is, coincidentally, a well-known photographer whose self-portraits have been exhibited in galleries and museums nationally, and her art collective, Whoop-Dee-Doo, showed in Gallery CA less than a year ago. I asked gallery director Deana Haggag (also a friend of Warren's) for the story about the photo. I was shocked to learn that Paille did not know Warren, who only vaguely remembered taking the photo, and Haggag had no idea the photo even existed until it was shipped to the gallery. Apparently the photo was taken while both Warren (who lives in Kansas City) and Paille (who lives in Quebec) were coincidentally on vacation in Mexico at the same time.

I am sharing this somewhat personal aside not only because the odds of this image making its way to this particular gallery in Baltimore seem so unlikely, but because it adds an interesting layer to the exhibition as a whole. In an increasingly globalized, urbanized, and telecommunicative world, strangers are constantly meeting, interacting, and parting ways. What lingers after these encounters is worth noting. The artists in Stranger Self explore the phenomenology of glances, missed connections, hazy remembrances of familiar faces made foreign, and the discovery of foreign faces made familiar.

To take one encapsulating sentiment away from the exhibition, I returned to Nancy Daly's Crisco-dripping sculptures and their internet-sourced wisdom: "I would like to know you and if we click see where things go." Often, where things go is pretty strange, it would seem.

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