Cynthia Greig: Subverting the (un)Conventional – By Gabrielle Pescador
“Subverting the (un)Conventional”, curated by Dick Goody at Oakland University Art Gallery, is a retrospective exhibit of Michigan artist Cynthia Greig’s photography and video works, in which she explores the notion that the photographic image serves as a surrogate, but never a replacement for the actual person, experience or subject being represented. The works, though connected conceptually and thematically, reveal the artist’s openness to experimentation and interest in cross-disciplinary technique. Including painting, drawing and theatrical elements in her photographic works, each communicates an introspective take on issues of gender, sexuality, identity and relationships.
In “Reclining Nudes Revised”, Greig photographed the male nude as a surrogate for the female nude as depicted in Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical paintings. This series of gender-bending portraits do not appear as parody, but objectify the male figure with a surprising, demure eroticism. Greig revisits this idea in “New Eden: The Life and Work of Isabelle Raymond”, a body of work presented as a theatrical tableau of images that appear as relics from the later part of the 19th century. Here Greig’s surrogate, Isabelle Raymond, the portrait photographer and aspiring artist, appears as a woman way ahead of her time with her provocative portraits of gender reversals and “autobiographical” commentary on the sexual repression of the Victorian era. In “Eakins’ Last Class”, for example, Raymond photographed her drawing class with a central nude male model; this break from the social mores of the time resulted in the class being cancelled.
Greig not only plays with the idea of the surrogate with respect to concept or subject matter but also with respect to technique. In the series “Nature Morte”, Greig combines photography, painting and drawing to create still life works where the very life of the subject has been bleached out and reduced to it’s bare linear contours. Greig begins each piece by whitewashing photographed living things, such as fruit, and then outlines the representations with charcoal, and then photographs the revised image, so that the “actual object becomes a surrogate of itself.” What is particularly compelling is that Greig documents this process on video, which relates a cold and eerie path to decay and lifelessness.
In “Growth and Gravity”, a meditation on death and aging, Greig places herself in close proximity to the seasonal changes of botanical life. We see Greig’s head lying on a patch of summer lawn, her face still with eyes closed. Her position does not change as the grass grows, eventually covering her face, going to seed and then yellowing with age. In the end, the grass is mowed and there is no trace left of Greig, her absence a mark of what is in store for us all. In Black Box, she also contemplates death but in terms of loss. In this video of her father soon before he died in a plane crash, Grieg communicates how memory is a poor replacement for what once was. Her father is serenading his friend but the song is unheard. The only sound is of a muffled recording in Spanish of a pilot requesting to make an emergency landing.
“Subverting the (un)Conventional” presents highly conceptualized, layered tableaux with performative elements that communicate deeply personal stories within the scope of memory, fear, fascination and fantasy. Under the masterful curatorial design and commentary of Dick Goody, one can only be engaged throughout this intimate foray into the mind of Cynthia Greig.