Kelli Connell’s Double Life at Stephen Wirtz Gallery
by Anthony Torres
At first glance, Double Life, photographs by Kerri Connell at Stephen Wirtz Gallery, are easy on the eye. The images, at once personal, intimate, and familiar, seem to capture commonplace interactions between two people. Individually, the photographs are reminiscent of film stills, representing isolated private moments displaced from a wider narrative — one suggested though never fully developed.
However, as one lingers among the images in the gallery, it becomes apparent that the two interacting characters in the photographs are the same person. This observation is crucial in contemplating the significance of the images, which despite their deceptive simplicity are both engaging and intellectually challenging.
Connell constructs her dramas by photographing the same model, Kiba Jacobson, a college friend whom she has photographed exclusively for Double Life since its inception in 2002. The individual images of Jacobson, alternately posing as each person in the imaginary relationship, are digitally manipulated to create an illusion of two different women talking, smoking, and being physically intimate. Orchestrated by having Jacobson pose as one woman, then changing clothes, hair, and position to take on the persona of another, Connelly takes multiple shots of her model using a Polaroid camera, cuts and pastes the photographs together, then scans them into her computer, and manipulates the images until they are seamlessly blended together.
Connell describes her work as “an honest representation of the duality or multiplicity of the self.” This statement suggests the photographs are concerned as much with identity construction, as they are with the construction of the implied fictional narratives. In fact, one suspects that the constructed images are physical equivalents for a metaphoric identity construction, or allude to the construction of subjectivity.
If Connell’s tableaux represent the “duality of the self,” they do so through compositional choices and formal structures that place the “people” in the photographs on opposite sides of the image frame — to the right or left of each other; whether across a table, sitting side by side, in and out of a bathtub, or sitting at opposite sides of a window ledge — in a dialectical visual unity.
That the images can be read as private intimate interactions between two close friends or lovers speaks as much to our socialization as viewers as it does to our familiarity with body language and cinematic conventions. Here, intimacy is suggested by casualness of attire, the presentation of the body(s) in space, the props and settings, as well as framing and lighting.
If these images represent the “multiplicity of the self,” they also suggest a projection for a “self” that is formed not by people or images external to it, but rather a longing or desire for an autonomously formed subjectivity that is self-determined.
In this context, one wonders to what extent these images represent an attempt to create fictional melodramas that give women voices, apart from binary gender distinction formed in relation to the equation of man/woman.
Similarly, they lead one to speculate on whether these images should be thought of as interrogating the relationship between the camera, the characters, and the audience, since they render ambivalent who the characters are, and in so doing, who the images are meant for, and thus they function to problematize any settled notion of a unitary singular audience or identification.
In the photographs the fictive characters depicted are the protagonists at the center of the action constructed by Connell, who creates and controls the narrative, her characters’ roles, their gendered fantasies, and by extension to a certain degree herself, via the images she constructs and circulates, and through which she speaks.
It is in and through the fantasy construction evidenced in these images that we see Connell’s projection and construction of a free space for the creation of multiple identities and relationships of choice, while critically distancing her viewers by militating against their being easily seduced by her suggested fictive narratives. Through the use of the same actor to represent different personas or various elements of the self, she disrupts inherited common sense specular logic, which undermines the images as wholly believable — unless, of course, one thinks of the women depicted in the images as incestuous identical twins.
Anthony Torres is an independent scholar, art writer, and art appraiser. He has curated and traveled numerous exhibitions, and published extensively in Artweek, New Art Examiner, Art Papers and others. Additionally he researched and wrote the “Illustrated Chronology” and essay “Negotiating Space: The Sketch Books,” for the book, Frank Lobdell: The Art of Making and Meaning (2003).
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