artbeat (2006-26)

We Are Family

KMA’s newest exhibition frames variations on a familial theme

FAMILY PORTRAIT: Strip for the camera!

by Leslie Wylie

Family photos can be among the most honest or staged of human artifacts. Sometimes, they qualify as both. We arrange ourselves in front of the camera as we have been trained to do so since childhood, and we smile and wait for the flash of light that means this moment in time is no longer fleeting. It is permanent. It is tangible. And therefore, it is wholly immune to the barrage of invisible forces—secrets, geography, death—that so often tear families apart.

It’s no wonder we keep albums full of them, with little thought as to the why and how of what we’re doing. The desire to protect and be protected by family, whether literally or through the metaphor of a photograph, is a primitive instinct that all of us possess. But it’s a paradoxical impulse as well: Is the familial image we’re preserving true to the reality of the family it represents? If the smiles are forced, are we just perpetuating a kinder, glossier lie?

Then again, if the photographs we took captured our families in their most honest, expressive moments, we wouldn’t be so inclined to treasure them, and we certainly wouldn’t show them off. Shoot the Family, Knoxville Museum of Art’s newest exhibition, is the exception.

Curated by Ralph Rugoff and drawing from the work of 16 diverse international artists, this traveling collection of family photographs feels at once universal and voyeuristic. It reveals families and family members in their most awkward, or vulnerable, or otherwise compromised states. The unfiltered intimacy is at times uncomfortable, at times uplifting.

Miguel Calderon’s “Family Portrait ,” for instance, shows his extended family traditionally posed but in various stages of undress. Mitch Epstein captures his father, who’s recently suffered a stroke, struggling to remain upright while floating in a dark pond. Chris Verene shows his cousin Steve sitting nervously at a McDonalds with his numb-eyed daughter, shortly after they’d been left by his wife. Ari Marcopoulos snaps a photo of his son mid-nosebleed, and his wife’s yellow, bruised breast.

Further complicating the unorthodox objectives of the photographs is the charged relationship between the artist and his or her subject—to whom he or she is related and may even physically resemble. In this sense, these photographs, which are so deeply entangled with the artists’ own sense of identity, function as self-portraits.

The relationships exposed aren’t always flattering. In Richard Billingham’s video projection, “Ray in Bed,” the artist films his elderly father while he sleeps, oblivious to his son’s clinical, borderline exploitative invasion. Despite the physical closeness, and perhaps because of it, the emotional disconnect between the unresponsive father and his prying son becomes palpable to the viewer.

In a few works, the artists take this revelation a step farther and literally insert themselves into the shot. In Jeanne Antoni’s photograph “Momme” (a punning merger of “mom” and “me”), the artist hides beneath her mother’s skirt, visible only by the stray foot resting between her mother’s two feet, suggesting the inseparability of maternal bonds. In “The Marder Sisters,” the artist kneels beside her sister, whose naked body is unsettlingly similar to her own. And in perhaps the most startling photo of them all, Gillian Wearing disguises herself—through makeup, wardrobe and prosthetics—as her brother Richard, in an effort to mimic a photo taken of him as a shirtless, tattooed young man.

It’s a commentary on the blurring of boundaries between our own selves and others in our families, a phenomenon that alternately haunts and comforts many of us throughout the course of our lives. Is it possible to ever truly extricate our own identities from their outline? And even if we could, would we want to? Does our attachment to family ever dissolve, even after death?

Zhang Huan’s “Foam” series suggests, with grisly intensity, that the answer is no. The large-format photographs frame close-ups of his face, and inside his open mouth, he carries yellowing photographs of his wife, sister and children, like mouthfuls of rotting teeth. His features are partially obscured by bubbly white foam that slips grotesquely down his face, suggesting our readiness to both protect and seek shelter in family life, or the image of family life, through even the most volatile of times.

With Shoot the Family , the artists are claiming that intuitive response and dragging it out into the light, where it loses its identity as a private, autonomous unit and becomes inseparable from the larger social sphere. In doing so, the photographs encourage us to abandon the superficial expectations we impose upon the familial image—get beyond the “smile and say cheese” already—and embrace the authenticity of our roots.

What: Shoot the Family