Halfway through Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando, an extraordinary thing happens: he becomes a she. This gender-bending character romps through centuries of shifting cultural and sexual expectations, and an exhibition at Gallery Kayafas through October 11 covers similar terrain. A selection of portraits of women by August Sander, culled from his monumental series Citizens of the Twentieth Century is paired with contemporary photographer Jess T. Dugan’s large color explorations of herself and others enacting carefully constructed masculine identities.
Both photographers dig below the surface of identity to mine instances where body language, clothing, and environment foster a sympathetic connection to the individual. A rich conversation ensues among the photographs, concerning the slippery nature of masculine or feminine archetypes. Dresses were the conventional uniform of the day for Sander’s subject, but his Painter’s Wife defies this norm: she wears a white shirt, trousers, and a tie. Clenching a cigarette between her teeth and striking a match, she exudes an aggressive power without sacrificing any of her female sophistication. Across the room, Dugan’s Self-portrait (muscle shirt) offers another side of the same coin. With muscled arms stretched overhead, Dugan flirts with the camera in a beefcake pose that oozes self-assurance and virility, minus the machismo.
Dugan strives to form an intimate connection with her subjects to present their gentle, introspective sides, and Sander is a worthy teacher. He had an extraordinary knack for eliciting a deep humanity from a wide range of subjects. Two Small town women, classically dressed in white embroidered dresses, are shown sharing tea in their parlor. Details such as tousled hair, bemused expressions and two paintings, one askew that hang on the wall behind them, suggest a little mayhem below the surface of their proper dresses.