Lynn Goldsmith has had a varied, even hectic, career. Over the past four decades, she’s published 10 books of her photographs and done assignments for a wide range of magazines. She’s been a television and documentary film director, a record producer, a songwriter, a recording artist, and the founder of LGI Photo Agency. So she knows her way around a camera and what it means to wear numerous hats.
Both experiences inform “The Looking Glass,” one of three shows at the Griffin Museum of Photography running through Dec. 2. Goldsmith’s consists of 25 large-format color photographs (they’re either 30 inches by 40 inches or 40 inches by 53 inches). She takes her inspiration from display windows. With their heavily art-directed settings as point of departure, she writes, “I catapult myself into the past and future, overturning accepted distinctions between illusion and reality. The point is to fracture the single, solitary sense of self to propose identity as multiple projections of invented selves.”
One person’s artistic catapult is another’s kitsch on stilts. The photographs are garish to the point of vulgarity. At what point does theatricality become (unintended) burlesque? Goldsmith assumes a wide variety of roles (sometimes made up to look like a mannequin, sometimes not): circus ringmaster, prostitutes (several, actually), aristocrat, Aladdin, odalisque. A series of (very) fractured fairy tales feature Goldsmith as Thumbelina, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Rapunzel. In several pictures she appears in multiple incarnations (she’s her own posse). In one she even appears in blackface (or, more accurately, blackface and black upper body).
One inevitably thinks of Cindy Sherman. The engine that drives both women’s work is the mutability of identity. Not that the comparison is fair. Sherman’s work has a cool, acute shrewdness that raises questions about the emptiness of personality and the potency of archetype. Goldsmith’s work has a glossy vacancy that doesn’t so much raise questions as avoid them. Her pictures are like someone playing at dress up. That’s always fun for the dresser-upper, but how interesting is it to watch?
Identity of a much more direct sort is central to the work of Jess T. Dugan. She may be the only artist with photographs in the collections of both the Harvard Art Museums and the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. The dozen color photographs in “Transcendence,” she writes, “portray issues unique to the transgender community while also highlighting the shared experience of being human.”
The color portraits are calm and uninflected. To the extent they make a statement it’s by not doing so. The best argument for Dugan’s “shared experience” approach is that, without knowing the nature of the show, a viewer would likely take these portraits as just being of undifferentiated people of late youth or early middle age. True, a few may be outlandishly tattooed or have dubious preferences in makeup, jewelry, or both. But outside of Congress or the ministry, those qualities aren’t exactly uncommon these days.
Rita Bernstein’s “Undertow” also consists of a dozen photographs. They’re a blurry black and white that conveys a sense of soft, slightly otherworldly anachronism. Bernstein hopes to address “the sorrows as well as the sweetness of family life,” she writes, “and, more generally, the ambivalence that shadows intimate relationships.” She prefers “discovering rather than orchestrating my pictures” (Goldsmith is all orchestration, and heavy on the brass). When Bernstein’s images don’t work, they seem self-conscious and arty. Those that do can be memorable, as with “Joanna, Age 16” and its dangling tangle of Medusa hair.
THE LOOKING GLASS: Photographs by Lynn Goldsmith
TRANSCENDENCE: Photographs by Jess T. Dugan
UNDERTOW: Photographs by Rita Bernstein
At: Griffin Museum of Photography, 67 Shore Road, Winchester, through Dec. 2,