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When portraits show more than just a face

<b>Caleb Cole</b> “The Teacher”
<b>Caleb Cole</b> “The Teacher”

BEVERLY — With portraits, the subject tries on one face, the artist may capture another, and the viewer may see something else. Your projection, my projection. It’s all dreadfully nebulous, but if it weren’t, it would be pat and dull.

“Observance: As I See You, You See Me,” an exhibition of photographic portraits at Montserrat College of Art’s Montserrat Gallery, examines what these shifting valences tell us about identity and societal assumptions. Many of the artists and subjects, people of color or queer, have experienced the walls strangers throw up based on appearance alone.

“#InHonor,” Ervin A. Johnson’s series, esteems American blackness. For his imposing pieces “Ervin” and “Joshua,” Johnson layered and collaged several photos into one portrait, digitally erased skin color, then reapplied it using solvent and paint, distressing the work’s surface. Presented close-cropped on a large scale with golden, coppery skin, these men seem godlike, yet worn and melancholy.

Woe is a keynote in Caleb Cole’s series “Other People Clothes,” elaborately staged scenes in which the artist creates fictional personae. Cole is small and balding, with a peak of red hair, like Tintin. In “February Is Dental Month,” the artist, surrounded by file folders, looks down at us from behind a large desk. We can find a story here, but the expression tells more: alienation, tenderness, perhaps disdain.

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Juan José Barboza-Gubo and Andrew Mroczek photographed trans women in classical poses in Lima, Peru. The images invoke religious and cultural iconography, bestowing trappings of power on the women, who might not be welcomed in some corners of their city. “Leyla” is vulnerable yet indefatigable, a stunning nude in a white shawl set in a decrepit room — a glory among ruins.

Art about the slipperiness of identity is not new. But “Observance” reminds us how our projections can dominate our fears, and prompts us to try to look past them.

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OBSERVANCE:
As I See You, You See Me

At Montserrat Gallery, Montserrat College of Art, 23 Essex St., Beverly, through April 8. 978-921-4242, www.montserrat.edu/
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Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.