Justine Reyes: My Uncle Vinny - Invisible Gallery, NYC

vinny.jpgThe first thing to know about Uncle Vinny is that he has a lot of face – big, heaping gobs of it. He’s not a pretty man, but in a tradition of portraiture that values psychological insight over surface appeal, he’s the perfect model. His features seem to testify to a lifetime of use and abuse. The rich, crinkling folds of flesh under his chin, his bloodshot eyes, his stubble – these things challenge you to look, and keep looking, in the hopes that you can divine the personality that drove
him through so much life.

In her exhibit My Uncle Vinny, Justine Reyes has chosen to photograph her relative along with the objects that he has collected over the course of his life. Her style owes a lot to Richard Avedon – her subjects are presented head-on, against an austere white background – and something to Catholic pop art, in which the objects that surround a saint’s image are supposed to testify to his life and virtues. Vinny’s objects are mostly domestic or religious. A porcelain statue of the Virgin Mary, a crucifix made of seashells, and a stained coffee cup are among the items presented to the camera’s impartial gaze.

The purpose of the show is ostensibly to bring the viewer closer to these subjects. By removing them from their cultural context, the artist encourages us to view them in a new light, and to value them differently than we would if we had encountered them in the course of our everyday lives. However, the meaning of art is determined as much by its context as its content: a crucifix in a church means something different than a crucifix in a gallery. I found myself wondering if it was possible to strip an art object of cultural significance. By exhibiting an old man to a gallery full of young people, religious objects in a secular space, objects collected in earnest to an audience which can only view them as kitsch (check out the sweet Seventies pattern on that coffee cup, or the jewelry holder shaped like a kangaroo), do we re-affirm the boundary between self and other, making the other into something to see, and not someone to know? Instead of acquiring a special significance, the objects on the wall seemed alien and distant. One photograph, in particular, seemed to make this case: a battered plastic water bottle, labeled “Fatima” (a sacred spring). To its owner, it was holy; to me, it was spring water. The value of objects consists of the meaning that we assign to them. In the end, even Vinny remained enigmatic.

I was captivated by the show, but I suspect my reaction wasn’t the one that Reyes would have wanted. An exhibit meant to bring about an encounter with its subject left me feeling that it was nearly impossible to encounter anyone without letting preconceptions get in the way. - Sady O.

My Uncle Vinny is at Invisible NYC, 148 Orchard St., until October 8. For more information, call 212-228-1358.

sadyo.jpg

Ms. Sady O. is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic. She also writes the Brain Porn Culture Blog.

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