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Through a Fractured Lens

The Schmidt Center Gallery at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton has to be one of the most underappreciated display spaces in South Florida. It's not nearly as spacious as the similarly unsung Coral Springs Museum of Art, which at least has the advantage of all that square footage. In fact, the Schmidt could easily feel cramped or boxy if it weren't put to judicious use. It usually is.

The gallery is essentially one medium-sized room with a few partitions, although there's a much tinier room in a rear corner that's typically darkened and used for video installations. But the glass wall at the front and the high ceiling promote a feeling of openness. That airiness is further enhanced by the even higher ceiling in the entryway, a long corridor and foyer that together often serve as spillover space for exhibitions.

The last time I visited the Schmidt was a year ago, for a small group show called "Corporal: Contemporary Women Artists from Latin America." It was compelling if uneven, with a strong didactic streak running through much of the work. The gallery's current group show, "Me, Myself & I," is also small and uneven, but it's richer, more satisfying.

Assembled by guest curators Paul Laster and Renée Riccardo, the exhibition includes 30 artists, each represented by a single work. There's an emphasis on photography, especially color imagery, although there are also works in oil, acrylic, and tempera and a handful of videos and sculptures.

The simple theme is self-portraiture, in the most expansive sense of the term. Such expansiveness could easily be an invitation to self-indulgence, especially in an academic setting. But W. Rod Faulds, director of FAU's galleries (the campus includes the Ritter as well as the Schmidt), has sidestepped that temptation by bringing in Laster and Riccardo from New York. As Faulds notes in the show's brochure, which folds out into a poster featuring all 30 works, the university occasionally invites "outside curators [with] special knowledge of particular genres of art or art centers such as New York City... to bring our students and the public into contact with emerging and newly established artists through thematic approaches to contemporary art."

A smart move, as the exhibition's diversity demonstrates. Confronted with art history's vast archives of self-portraiture, these artists, not surprisingly, look at themselves through the fractured lens (or lenses) of postmodernism. Even the most seemingly straightforward self-portraits here have a stringent twist of one sort or another.

Take Slater Bradley's My Doppelgänger as Ian Curtis in Charlatan Pose (vertical). Superficially, it's just a plexiglass-mounted C-print portraying a pensive young man leaning into a slender tree. But consider the implications: doppelgänger denotes a ghostly double, while charlatan suggests both fraud and the clown as artist's subject. Add to that the reference to Curtis, singer of the British band Joy Division, who killed himself on the cusp of the group's greatest success, and you have a self-portrait rife with ambiguity. It helps that Bradley really does resemble Curtis.

In her Negress #2, another C-print, Mickalene Thomas applies the charged title word to an iconic image of herself as a proud, flamboyant black woman, provocatively sprawled on a velvety chair and wearing an outrageously loud outfit. Nikki S. Lee slips into the guise of senior citizen and pairs herself with a real elderly woman on a rainy street corner for her Fujiflex color print The Seniors Project (12). Which woman is which? Dave McKenzie casts himself as a little bobblehead doll in the sculpture While Supplies Last. And Guy Richards Smit assumes his performance-artist alter ego as a rock star in the oil Self-Portrait, an image of a man, microphone in hand, clad only in a tiny bikini brief and an open shirt.

Tomoko Sawada ups the ante with ID400, #201-300 (detail), a composite of 100 gelatin silver prints. At first, they look like hundreds of old-fashioned yearbook photos of twins. A closer look reveals each portrait to be a panel of four identical shots. Finally, it becomes evident that each of these 100 "girls" is the photographer herself, hair, makeup, clothing, and facial expressions radically altered. Anthony Goicolea digitally replicates himself for the funny and disturbing C-print Last Supper, which would have been even more effective had he included 13 clones instead of eight.

Other artists transform themselves more drastically, with varying degrees of success. In the acrylic Contrite Heart, Sherry Wong portrays herself as Dante's Beatrice held captive by an anthropomorphic tree -- an intriguing idea not especially well-executed. And the joke falls flat in Can I test drive your vulva? (Variation Scallions), a garish oil in which artist Ken Weaver apparently sees himself literally as a clown when he asks for sex.

There are two graciously self-effacing transformations in which the artists disappear altogether: Jessica Rohrer continues her tradition of painting places where she lives, as in the untitled oil of a Brooklyn building seen here. Josh Smith's Untitled (Long Painting), displayed in the entry area, consists of two dozen oil panels, mounted to form a continuous horizontal strip, each with his name worked into abstract, expressionist-style doodling.

One of the show's standouts is by Mette Tommerup, a young Danish artist now based in Miami whose work was the highlight of the recent "All You Can Eat" exhibition at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood. When she's at her best, which is very good indeed, Tommerup, who studied traditional painting and printmaking before going high-tech, digitally alters her imagery almost beyond recognition before mounting the results, in the form of lambda prints, on plexiglass. That's what she's done with O (Gray), a disk three feet in diameter in which a fleshy form seems to float in a sea of gray. Its elongated features are identifiably human, although beyond that, it's just about impossible to say what's what.

A tiny alcove has been set up to run five videos, ranging from 30 seconds to 1212 minutes in length. The only one that really clicks is Shin-il Kim's Bow, in which the artist has created a minute-and-a-half animation of an outline of himself repeating the title action: simple, elegant, refined. The fascinating video installation Bearing Truth, set up across the gallery, shows artist Carol Irving in various stages of undress while undergoing a polygraph examination, with the printouts framed and displayed above and below the screen; and as in a real lie detector test, the results are open to interpretation.

Three very different pieces strike me as the exhibition's most resonant works, and for very different reasons. Julie Heffernan's Self-Portrait as Thing in the Forest III is an exquisitely detailed oil painted in a style reminiscent of such 18th-century French artists as Boucher and Fragonard, a forest scene anchored by a pair of ghostly twins (perhaps conjoined), surrounded by birds, a small fire, and a large lizard. Nothing is quite what it seems in this loaded image -- it's a tantalizing riddle without a resolution.

Richard Dupont's Self Appointed, on the other hand, is so direct that no ambiguity seems possible. The artist has rendered a roughly life-size sculpture of himself in epoxy and pigmented polyurethane, clothed in blue jeans, black shirt, and shoes. There's nothing out of the ordinary about this skinny white man, or is there? He looks unnervingly serene, especially given that -- and you may notice this only gradually -- he's not just thin but seemingly compressed in subtle ways, and there's something faintly unsettling about his handmade clothes.

The other piece that mesmerized me is the C-print Seeds of Hamburg, by young Chinese artist Zhang Huan. In it, a man lies, corpse-style, in a cage, his nude body covered with seeds, with doves on and around him. I sensed an oblique but unmistakable affinity with A Thousand Years, a controversial 1990 Damien Hirst installation that featured enclosures filled with flies and a disembodied cow's head.

I've since learned that the image is from a series documenting a Huan performance, and from the one sample I've seen, the series has the potential to be a major work. Fortunately for South Florida, a dozen of these large-scale color photographs will debut in a show at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach this month. I can hardly wait.

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Michael Mills

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