Exploring Self-Construction and the Presentation of the Other in “Seeing Other People” at projects+gallery with Jessica Baran

 In Culture, Interviews

Seeing Other People,” a new exhibition opening at projects+gallery on April 26 from 5-8 p.m., draws connections between your most recent Instagram selfie and 19th-century portraits of reclining nudes that litter the walls at the Louvre. How have female bodies been historically represented, and how have those paradigms shifted and inverted as our understanding of gender and feminism widen?

Helmed by local poet, artist and seasoned curator Jessica Baran, the group exhibition pairs three historical depictions of women executed by men with a cadre of contemporary work by predominantly local and women artists. We snagged a minute of Baran’s time to learn more about her vision for the show, the emerging artists involved and the complex themes their work explores.

How was the concept for “Seeing Other People” originally conceived?
The show emerged from an exhibit I curated at the Des Lee Gallery called “XOXO,” which drew work from the Barrett Barrera Projects collection. That particular exhibition was more concerned with how self-presentation is often socially constructed and plagiaristic. In “Seeing Other People,” we’re borrowing from that premise, but focusing on the depiction of female bodies by female artists.

We are so used to seeing female nudes in art history, but they’re very complicated images. The reclining nude contains a specific history emerging from bourgeois desires to consume erotic subject matter, often predatorily. Artists justified that erotica by claiming to represent the culture of the “exotic land.” So these historical portraits also insinuate the colonial gaze and the notion of what is exotic. We’ve contrasted those works with contemporary versions of that motif created by women in a range of media.

contemporary art photography barrett barrera st louis alive guided

Image courtesy of Jess Dugan.

How did you go about selecting the contemporary artists to be included?
Each artist included has a strong connection to aspects of this conversation. Yvonne Osei has recorded performances of her in public spaces clothing nude Western sculpture in African fabric, calling attention to the colonial exchange present. Katherine Simóne Reynolds, rather than considering the African-to-American exchange, asks us to think about the meaning of the African-American female body.

Catalina Ouyang hints at the violence of the male gaze and the fetishizing of Asian women. Krista Valdez’s self-portrait in a European hotel room speaks to the bedroom as a shelter, but also as a space of alienation and fear. Finally, Jess Dugan questions our construction of the female body, moving away from a traditionally binary understanding.

The beauty of the show to me is that the work itself is answering—or rather, asking—all the good questions, using images to investigate what feminism, gender and representation mean today. The emerging artists are proving how far we’ve come from the historically male-dominated space of portraiture.

The title of the exhibition, “Seeing Other People,” alludes to underlying themes of self-construction, the violence of representation and the male gaze, while managing to sound a little humorous. What do you hope patrons get out of the show emotionally?
I like that “seeing other people” is a casual phrase that belies a lot of complexity. I want people to think about what they take for granted in gazing at others, as well as how they’re gazed at by others. Think of the “selfie”—we see ourselves only in these current selfie iterations, these performed identities that replace vulnerability and authenticity.

Rounding out the show, the back gallery includes a library of books and a record-listening area inspired by the exhibit. I felt like there’s only so much I can say, so I wanted to offer people a variety of media to engage with to suggest the complexity and expansiveness of the subject.

How does this show relate to the mission of Barrett Barrera Projects and projects+gallery?
Our job as a gallery and cultural producer is to respond to contemporary topics and concerns. I believe issues of female presentation and self-presentation, gender and the gaze are on our mind at this moment. We have the privilege to curate shows that deal with more pressing and immediate subject matter. We are so thrilled to be able to show pieces by young emerging artists doing incredibly important work in this field.


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