Leonard Nimoy (yes, that one!) Probes identity in two photographic exhibitions

Suppose the photographer’s name is Nimoy Leonard. Don’t assume any association with a certain pointy-eared sci-fi character. Would his work be the subject of two concurrent exhibitions? May be. Leonard Nimoy has been taking photos since he was 13. There is a picture of his first camera, a Kodak Autographically, in “Leonard Nimoy: A Retrospective”, which runs at the R. Michelson Galleries, Northampton, until October 31. He has published two photography books. And Nimoy has an eye, a visually coherent work, and strong aesthetic ideas, if not particularly original.

Is Nimoy’s photograph the subject of recent and substantial articles in this newspaper and in the New York Times? No. Would it be worth watching it? That’s the question that matters, and the answer may depend on what you think of Monty Hall (or at least Wayne Brady), as well as whether you think art is superior (and different from) the art.

A big idea, identity, defines “Leonard Nimoy: Secret Selves”, which takes place at Mass MoCA until January 2nd. Nimoy asked around 100 Northampton residents to come forward to be photographed as they saw their inner self. Nimoy sought, in his words, “an exploration of the concept of the lost or hidden or phantasmal self.” The inspiration, he said, was Aristophanes’ remark in Plato’s “Symposium” that. ”

It all sounds very grand, as well as vaguely transgressive, not to mention reading the minutes of a Cindy Sherman Fan Club reunion. Yet the most successful of the 26 color portraits in the Mass MoCA are those that seem the most incongruous, if not downright silly (in a good way).

Amanda, a waitress / cosmetologist, looks cheerfully sheepish in a dragon sweatshirt. “My father was a pastor, then. . . I had to be mature. It’s my time. . . play. ” (Each model is identified by first name, with occupation, followed by a sentence or two of secret self-description.) Christopher, an episcopal priest, looks a bit like Castro clone-ish (the genus San Francisco, not Havana). Ira, an advertiser, in wizarding attire, combines a phlegmatic expression and a slight crouch in a rather enchanting way.

There were quite a few people at “Secret Selves” last Monday morning, but most weren’t looking at the photos. They were clustered around a monitor showing a video of Nimoy speaking to his subjects before he photographed them. He looks at a piece of paper. He asks questions. He often says “Uh-huh”. He appears to be nothing more than a game show host interviewing contestants before they compete for cash prizes. In this case, they compete for the attention of a celebrity, the right to be photographed and the possibility of dressing up. Think of “Secret Selves” as a continuation of “Let’s Make a Deal” in other ways.

Fourteen of the “Secret Selves” portraits are in the Northampton exhibition. Most, but not all, are also at the Mass MoCA. The majority of the 40 or so remaining images from the retrospective are in black and white. These come from various projects that Nimoy has undertaken over the past decade. “The Full Body Project” shows a group of plump women in various poses taken from famous paintings or photographs. “Shekhina” invokes Jewish sexuality, religiosity and mysticism. The “Egg” and “Hand” series are self-explanatory. The “Black and White” series consists of female nudes intended to evoke sculpture. Etc.

The work shares a fiery and kitsch commitment to art. There are double exposures, dramatic lighting, soft focus, and skillfully executed overall elevation. “Self-portrait with MRI”, which is exactly what he says, represents a kind of ultra-deep madness. A Assumed the skull on display next to Nimoy is his, but you never know.

Nimoy’s photography is serious and elevated. Self-aware too. It’s quite interesting and one piece. It is certainly not frivolous or lazy. But it’s also inert and pretentious and, like “Secret Selves”, it sounds a lot more impressive than it looks. It is photography which announces itself as an art with a capital “a”. Spelling, as ambitious as it is, does not replace instinct, idiosyncrasy or energy. It happens in a vacuum.

The best thing about the retrospective, like with “Secret Selves”, is the setting. The wonder of the industrial campus of Mass MoCA is well known. The R. Michelson Galleries can be found in what was once the Northampton Savings Bank. The counters and counter are gone, but the vaults remain, as are the stunning proportions of the interior. This is the space with a capital “s”. Except it’s more than that. It is a space full of surprise and vitality. It has syntax and grammar as well as spelling.

Mark Feeney can be contacted at [email protected]

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