ANDOVER — “Family” is one of those words that’s so elastic it can cover pretty much anything: nuclear families, Mafia families, the family of man, “Family Guy.” Then, when you least expect it, the elastic can snap, and ouches (both conceptual and otherwise) ensue. So a title like “the kids are all right: an exhibition about family and photography” (lower-casing isn’t a typo) is a bit of a cheat. Such a porous construct might as well be called “The Way We Live Now in These United States,” which would work just as well (maybe even better). Looking at the way we live now is certainly useful, and as with any show what matters is the quality of the images. Some here are very good indeed.
The show, which runs through Jan. 5 at the Addison Gallery of American Art, at Phillips Academy, includes nearly 70 photographs, two videos, a slide show, and an installation consisting of more than 300 small photographs. Those photographs are drawn from the daily portraits Betsy Schneider took of her daughter, from her birth to her 11th birthday. Would that all mothers were as devoted — and all artistic regimens as straightforward.
There are 38 photographers in the show, most of them young or youngish. The only name you’d likely recognize belongs to Catherine Opie. She has one picture in the show, a nude self-portrait of her breast-feeding. Managing to be both traditional and transgressive (it’s the tattoos), the image sets a tone for the show as a whole.
Most of the photographs are in color, and most are large. Both of those facts contribute to a certain staginess being often evident. The self-awareness that can come with that staginess is apparent in Julie Mack’s two photographs. “Self-Portrait With Family in Minivan, Michigan” presents five people watching themselves being watched (through a windshield, no less). The sight is a bit unnerving, albeit in a good way. With “TV: Academy Awards Night, NYC,” there’s very much a sense of the viewers performing for the camera no less than the Oscar presenters must have been.
Certain standard familial activities or events figure in the show: nursing (as with Opie), weddings, meals (formal and otherwise), holiday gatherings, hospital visits, and so on. There’s nothing standard about Lucas Foglia’s “Rita and Cora Aiming, Tennessee,” one of five photographs in the show from Foglia’s “Re-Wilding: Southeastern United States” series. We see two women in old-fashioned garb standing in some woods peering down the barrel of a rifle. Fortunately, the viewer is perpendicular to the gun.
Perpendicular is how the man in Justin Kirchoff’s “Burning Tree” faces the title object. A small evergreen, it has a distinctly Christmas-tree look, which makes the whoosh of flame and smoke enveloping it all the more alarming. It also makes for a startling, if unintended, echo of the actual, heavily decorated Christmas tree in Deana Lawson’s “Coulson Family.” Conversely, the distant trees in “Asher on Belle Chase” make the emptiness of the field the little boy is standing in (he’s the son of the photographer, Kathleen Robbins) all the starker.
There’s humor in “the kids are all right,” but always with a twist. Janine Antoni’s “Inhabit” is hilarious and horrific all at once. Antoni is in her daughter’s room. It’s filled with toys and other colorful objects. What’s peculiar is that Antoni is suspended from ropes, like a marionette or a creature caught in a web, and she’s “wearing” her daughter’s dollhouse. The structure is part skirt, part prison. Much funnier, if less effective, is Guy Ben-Ner’s “Stealing Beauty” video. He and his ex-wife have snuck into an Ikea display room and started behaving as they would in their own home. Sort of brilliant and sort of awful, it’s more than a little self-involved. Of course what performance art isn’t?
A distinct sense of disconnection informs much of the show, as well as a frequent affectlessness that can be a bit creepy. There’s a fair amount of nakedness, too, though not of the emotional sort. One of the few things that pretty much every type of family generates is heat. So it’s odd that “the kids are all right" feels so cold. You don’t need to have a Norman Rockwell, traditional-values view of family to feel a bit put off by the show. Cool and shorn can mislead as much as warm and fuzzy.