The idea of family inevitably calls to mind one’s own experiences, which we call “formative” because they powerfully influence not only our lives but also our life’s work. For artists, this influence is usually indirect and sometimes unknowing.
But in the Dorsky Gallery’s current exhibition, “She Was a Film Star Before She Was My Mother,” independent curator Sonel Breslav socks you right between the eyes with family.
She seeks to raise questions about the perceived truth of family by gathering works of photography, video, performance and installation that explicitly arose from the personal family histories of the eight artists.
“In this case, they are expressing their own personal histories, their family histories, as the subject of their art pieces,” said Noah Dorsky, who founded the not-for-profit Long Island City gallery along with two siblings.
Rona Yefman’s installation, “Let It Bleed,” created in collaboration with sibling Gil Yefman, includes a poster that reads, “FAMILY The grey zone. something between gross and beauty.”
One video sequence in the installation takes up the conversation of family with saucily vamping characters who dance through various clothing and accessory changes. Despite outsized wigs and frequent changes of clothing that are clearly coded “female,” neither the actual nor the stage gender of either character is immediately discernible.
It is hard to determine if they are ridiculing or embracing actual, or stereotypical, femininity.
The dancing is reminiscent of teenage boys who sometimes seem to feel the need to ridicule femininity as they begin their journey toward adult manhood.
It is difficult to prove this was what the artist was saying, even unintentionally, but it is also hard to shake the takeaway completely.
Although this may not be the reaction the artist or the installation is trying to provoke, it seems to be precisely the type of response the gallery has in mind for this and other exhibitions.
Dorsky said viewers should be able to understand the pieces by using their own experiences of family as a starting point. The exhibits provide a common ground of family for the general viewer and the creators to start a metaphorical conversation about art and family.
“It doesn’t have to be pretty, you don’t have to like it, and it doesn’t have to be good,” Dorsky said.
It simply needs to provoke a response to the theme.
The works in “Before She Was My Mother” are meant to testify to personal history as something that goes beyond raw facts to include feelings, memory, humor and more.
Bryan Zanisnik’s “Remembrance of Things Past” places two televisions side-by-side, simultaneously playing home movies starring his grandmother. One is a war movie and the other is a gangster flick.
The star wears standard house garb but uses hilariously oversized home-made or found-object props that would be familiar to any underage, work-at-home producer.
Dorsky explained that the movies were made when Zanisnik was 13.
The exhibit also includes works by Guy Ben-Ner, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Simon Fujiwara, AndrÈ KertÈsz, Sally Mann and Marilyn Minter.
“The theme of the current exhibit was planned about a year ago, Dorsky said. “We like the idea that everybody has their personal history, and their personal history is not a factual history,” he said.
Instead, humans construct their histories not only from chronological events and facts but feelings, memories, desires, ambitions, perception and other influences.
“Their personal constructed history informs their present art,” Dorsky said.