Curators of multiple shows face a challenge. Should the shows complement each other or be disparate? A lot of one thing can be too much of that thing. Conversely, a variety of things can be too many things. Griffin Museum of Photography executive director Paula Tognarelli, in selecting the four shows currently showing there, has gone the route of complementarity. Each show addresses themes of identity, imagination, and self-presentation. Although the parts may be problematic, the whole is definitely greater than their sum.
“Horace and Agnes — A Love Story” is a collaboration between the photographer Asia Kepka and writer Lynn Dowling. It consists of 35 large color photographs. They’re unmatted, encouraging a sense of the images as continuous rather than discrete. Many of them have extensive captions, like texts in a children’s picture book.
Horace is a horse. Agnes is a squirrel. Or, rather, each is a person (usually garbed in kitschily retro clothes) wearing an animal head. Bullwinkle and Rocky, that better-known pairing of quadruped and squirrel, are friends. Horace and Agnes are a couple. They cohabit and do couple-type things. They picnic, go swimming, do jigsaw puzzles, take a trip to Vegas. When Agnes is away, Horace eats chips and drinks beer in bed. They have animal friends: hippos, various sorts of birds. The decor, like Horace and Agnes’s attire, is raised-eyebrow suburban. The show doubles as installation: There’s the odd piece of furniture, and a dividing wall is covered in wallpaper.
The overall effect is of Beatrix Potter joining forces with Ozzie and Harriet — or else it’s the aftereffect of drinking a mug of Ovaltine laced with acid (and not the kind found in batteries). Clearly, a lot of work went into art-directing this project. Just as clearly, it suffers from a severe case of the cutes.
Two characters also figure in Kepka’s “Bridget and I.” One is Kepka. The other is a mannequin, Bridget. She might best be described (to continue the children’s-book theme of “Horace and Agnes”) as Kepka’s imaginary friend. We see Kepka and Bridget swimming together, lying on a bed of autumn leaves, in a hospital room (a very creepy image). Bridget appears in all but one of the 15 images. That one has just Kepka, though with a porcelain vase in the background. Might it be a Bridget substitute?
Props and costume play a crucial role in both of Kepka’s projects. Props, costume, and the absence of costume are no less important in Lear Levin’s “Burlesque and Cabaret.” Its nine photographs evoke the backstage ambiance of old burlesque venues like Scollay Square’s Old Howard. The rhinestone dazzle of this world holds great appeal for Levin, and there’s a tension between show-biz glitz and the tarty, tawdry reality beneath. Levin’s pictures are a whole lot closer to the Broadway brass of “Gypsy” than they are to the dead-eyed glumness of Susan Meiselas’s “Carnival Strippers” photographs. Levin uses technique to underscore this tension. The color prints are gum dichromate, and the black-and-white ones are platinum/palladium. Both processes have a visual lushness and are rarely used now, which gives the images an anachronistic look befitting the anachronistic milieu.
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence describe themselves as “the sacred clowns of our community.” In their elaborate makeup and attire, they lampoon standard religious orders. Yet the SoPI’s dedication to community service and charitable undertakings parallels their works and deeds. Meg Birnbaum celebrates the Boston branch in “Sisters of the Commonwealth.” Nine color portraits present their subjects in various stages of getting their game face on. Some of the faces are gamer than others. What would Horace and Agnes make of them? (What would they make of Horace and Agnes?)
HORACE AND AGNES — A LOVE STORY
BRIDGET AND I: Photographs by Asia Kepka
BURLESQUE AND CABARET: Photographs by Lear Levin
SISTERS OF THE COMMONWEALTH:
Photographs by Meg Birnbaum
Griffin Museum of Photography, 67 Shore Road, Winchester, through Dec. 4, 781-729-1158, www.griffinmuseum.org