Double trouble

Alice Shaw and Kelli Connell get down with the looking glass
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Rosie O'Donnell, in a recent New York Times article about the TV star's video blog, has been outed as a woman of many personalities. The piece notes the shades of O'Donnell's various public talk-show personae, from closeted lesbian girl next door to outspoken View-er, and surveys her current makeup-free webcam self. Yet O'Donnell is simply following what legions of the less famous do via MySpace pages and YouTube postings: compose and experiment with low-budget media selves.

Artists, along with actors, have, in theory, a slight advantage in exploring this territory. They must consider the formal constraints of presentation in a gallery, yet plenty have managed quite well by dressing up as new incarnations drawn from their imaginations or obsessively charting personal information. In exhibition spaces, this stuff either hits a universal note or collapses under the weight of vanity.

The current exhibits by Alice Shaw at Gallery 16 and Kelli Connell at Stephen Wirtz Gallery walk that taut psychological tightrope and thankfully keep their balance. Both artists work with photography, a medium conducive to entertainment and realism. Both shows are seductive, witty, and disturbing as they extend dialogues put forth by artists such as Claude Cahun, Cindy Sherman, and Nikki S. Lee, who in different eras effectively confounded ideas of fixed identity by taking on different roles in their photographic projects.

Shaw immediately suggests schizophrenia by titling her solo exhibition "Group Show." It includes three bodies of work, all by Shaw and all addressing the notion of reflected or fractured selves. One of her identities is a photographer, and the first series involves appropriating works by 19th-century photographers Charles Dodgson, a.k.a. Lewis Carroll, and E.J. Bellocq, whose images of prepubescent girls and New Orleans prostitutes, respectively, employed a nascent medium to indulge visual preoccupations. Using lenticular printing — the plastic layering that creates the postcard illusion of a winking Jesus — Shaw fuses works by each artist to reveal nearly identical poses and create a compact narrative of ripening sexuality. First you see a young girl standing in a nightie; with a slight shift in view, you see a more mature woman doing the same. The juxtapositions of the photographers' works also recall tales of twins separated at birth who unknowingly go down parallel paths.

The second series follows a previous body of work in which Shaw sought out mirror selves. She developed her own character by photographing herself with a male grocery store clerk, friends, dates, her dad (artist Richard Shaw), and even Matt Gonzalez. The results are collected in a Gallery 16–published book, People Who Look Like Me (2006). For this show, she sought the opposite of herself, a self-described "small, white, middle-aged woman": a leggy young African American tranny named Ryhanna. The pair, in separate shots, strike similar boudoir poses in a sparsely furnished Victorian, subtly mirroring the Dodgson-Bellocq images hanging across the gallery. The two models appear in various states of undress, makeup, and sauciness, though both play on their mixture of male and female traits. The artist sometimes seems most confident posing in a wife beater, while Ryhanna appears equally self-assured showing off lace panties and her penis. Shaw's artistic demeanor is deadpan, so there's a comic appeal to these images. Both seem to ham it up for the lens, which also effectively channels discomfiting racial overtones and the way a different personality arises when we stand before the camera.

Connell doesn't pose for her large, glossy photographs in "Double Life," but the pictures immediately suggest an intimate form of role playing. In each of her photographs, there are two figures seen in the midst of psychologically and sexually charged moments.

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