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Artists look at themselves in MMoCA's True Self
Keeping up appearances
<i>Young Woman in London</i>, 2007.
Young Woman in London, 2007.
Credit:Cindy Wright

Identity is a notoriously slippery concept. What do we even mean when we talk about it? Some mixture, perhaps, of characteristics we can't change (like age or ethnicity) and things we can (how we dress). Other aspects of identity are not necessarily visible, like religious or political affiliation.

Identity can be a reflection of the things we hold dearest about ourselves, or it can be a guise to cast off or change at will.

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art demonstrates how a range of artists have approached these ideas in True Self: The Search for Identity in Modern and Contemporary Art, now on view in the museum's Henry Street Gallery. The show runs through June 2011.

True Self brings together some of art's biggest names (Diego Rivera, Chuck Close, Jim Dine, Cindy Sherman) with lesser-known ones. As one might expect, the show focuses heavily on portraits and self-portraits, yet it offers some less straightforward explorations of identity and self as well.

Cindy Wright's large painting from 2007, Young Woman in London, is an excellent example of how fashion functions as a shorthand for identity in the public sphere. With her 1940s-style bangs, brightly painted lips and cheeks, and black clothes, Wright's subject looks chic and confident. Her direct gaze and pursed lips add to the effect. Yet, at the same time, these markers of style are also a mask.

Photographer Lorie Novak examines the relationship between ancestry and identity in Self-Portrait (Ellis Island) from 1988. A double exposure layers an image of Novak's face with a doorway leading out of a room at Ellis Island, the place where her European Jewish ancestors once made their entry to America. The effect is melancholy and poignant. To what extent are we shaped by not only the genes, but also the beliefs, hopes and dreams of relatives we never even met?

If Novak's work is moving in its direct sincerity, Cindy Sherman's photographs operate on a completely different level. Sherman, one of the leading figures in contemporary art, is famed for photos in which she adopts various guises, from the mundane to the grotesque.

In a 1979 piece from her celebrated Untitled Film Stills series, Sherman sports a short, dark wig and a wet-looking black eye, as if she's just wiped away tears. Her lip is swollen and her face registers shock and disbelief. While the image evokes a narrative of domestic violence -- among other possibilities -- this seemingly candid moment is, of course, a highly staged and mediated one. Sherman's self, as in countless other photos from her long career, is a fiction.

Jin Lee's Untitled Head (#12) presents its subject's head and shoulders in silhouette, like the paper cutouts that were once popular (though Lee's piece is a type of photo rather than cut paper). Lee's work effectively reveals how we try to categorize people -- to fix their identities -- based on traits like age, gender and race. When these elements are obscured by a lack of visual information, our efforts are frustrated. Yet even with more visual cues, the conclusions we reach may be the wrong ones.

While True Self is a small exhibition, it's enough to jump-start one's thinking about the extent to which our concepts of self and identity are wrapped up in external, visual markers. Are we really who we appear to be?

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