FITCHBURG — The artists’ collective Triiibe has a rare conceit: Three of the central members are identical triplets. Alicia, Kelly, and Sara Casilio, now in their 30s, started out as guerrilla performance artists back when they were students at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. They were eye-catching anyway, walking together down the street. Add concepts and costumes, and you had performance art.
The Casilios joined forces with Cary Wolinsky, a longtime National Geographic photographer, and formed Triiibe, a collective that includes a host of other collaborators. “TRIIIBE: same difference,” a retrospective of their photographs and videos of the last decade, is on view at Fitchburg Art Museum.
Out in the world, we’re constantly assessing how alike or different we are from the people we encounter. We often want it both ways: to stand out and to be included. Triiibe’s best pieces land in the tender center of that conflict.
Their signature image, “Fine,” carries all that ambivalence. The three sisters sit on a sofa. The wallpaper, carpeting, upholstery, and their dresses and shoes all feature the same botanical pattern, which becomes a kind of camouflage. They could disappear into it —
Yet each woman has a different haircut, a dress with a different cut, a different shoe. These small declarations of individuality tug them out of the anonymity all the sameness forces upon them. They’re unnervingly poised on the cusp between same and different.
When Triiibe hews close to the forceful notions expressed with such delicacy in “Fine,” they are at their best. In most of their work, they add layers of political and social critique. And why not? The group is perfectly equipped to comment on freighted issues of “us and them,” who belongs and who doesn’t. Yet half the time, their ideas come across as clumsy or scolding.
“Table for Three” has the Casilios dressed as a priest, a rabbi, and an imam. All have the same face, yet it the image seems more like the setup for a joke than a noteworthy piece of art. The composition is humdrum and static, and the point is too obvious: We’re all human, can’t we get along?
“Right to Life” puts a pregnant woman in an electric chair, with a priest and a prison guard behind her — again, all Casilios. This has more edge than “Table for Three,” calling out abortion adversaries who support capital punishment as hypocrites. But the imagery is too explosive, and Triiibe’s own position on the issue seems obvious. Lampooning fraught issues is easy. Art should unpack the nuances.
Still, some of Triiibe’s social activism poignantly hits home, particularly in videos of their public performances made by another Triiibe member, Yari Wolinsky, Cary’s son. “Inch by Inch,” made in 2007, follows the group on a trip to Washington to an anti-war rally.
The sisters dress as a US soldier, a victim of the Sept. 11 attacks, and an Iraqi civilian. Each has written on her forehead a number representing those killed in the conflict triggered by Sept. 11, and carries a length of red cloth that corresponds to that number. The Iraqi woman’s red cloth is enormous and billowing. In a quietly moving performance, they stand still on pedestals as passersby come to grips with their message.
Their installation “In Search of Eden” consists of several large-scale triptychs in the altarpiece format. Initially made for the giant space at Boston University’s 808 Gallery, the seven 10-foot-tall works are installed more intimately in a smaller gallery, and to great effect: They crowd together in the darkened room, towering over you, luminous as angels.
“In Search of Eden” sharply examines the parallels between religion and consumerism. Each piece is named for an apple — a forbidden fruit of knowledge, a.k.a. a trend-setting digital device.
In “McIntosh, Malus Domestica,” the Casilios, bound together with computer cables, are the tree of knowledge, handing out fruit. “Fuji, Malus Domestica” sets a surrealist scene, with the ladies in 1950s-era beachwear lounging atop giant, cut-open apples. “Royal Gala, Malus Domestica” rejiggers Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters,” with the sisters as five humble family members hunched over a fast food meal.
Triiibe skewers how we worship with our money and our short attention spans, and here they do it with sympathy and humor.
Most of the works in this show date from 2006 to 2010. Triiibe hasn’t been making as much art lately. I’m not sure why, although Kelly had a baby, and that can put a kink in other projects. While she was pregnant, she made a tapestry — a knotty, holey thing dripping with tendrils. It’s the subject of the one recent photo in the show.
“Unnamed” wonderfully calls back to “Fine,” and the distillation of Triiibe’s central theme. The tapestry hangs on a wall. Fingers poke through it. Single eyes peer through the holes. A nose emerges. The urge to reveal oneself tenses against the desire to stay hidden and safe.
Triiibe is uniquely positioned to explore this juicy conflict. They should lean less heavily on social commentary, and hone their art down to this one sharp edge.
TRIIIBE: same difference
At Fitchburg Art Museum, 185 Elm St., Fitchburg, through June 5. 978-345-4207, www.fitchburgartmuseum.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.