Composing Dwarfism: Reframing Short Stature in Contemporary Photography
Exhibition Run: June 27-July 19
Opening Reception: 7-10PM, June 27
Gallery Hours: 11-4PM, Wednesday-Saturday
Curated by Amanda Cachia
This exhibition explores the work of two contemporary dwarf photographers, Ricardo Gil and Laura Swanson, who use different conceptual and technical methods in order to re-frame the composition of the dwarf subject. The dwarf has often been a marginalized subject in the history of contemporary art and photography, labeled as deviant, pathological, freak and “other,” so this exhibition presents the strategies that Gil and Swanson employ in order to resist reductive meanings, and offer alternative interpretations of the dwarf.
In the last two decades, Ricardo Gil developed a series of photographs where the distinct feature is how they portray they dwarfed viewpoint, for we see the world through the lens of Gil who stands at 3’9” feet tall. The outcome of this means that the subjects of his frames were shaped by his perspective – we will often only see the legs of average-height people (the remainder of their bodies chopped off at the top of the frame), or conversely, we discern Gil’s physical distance upon looking down at a dog or looking up at a girl on the monkey bars. Gil also includes a series of self portraits that range from close facial compositions to full body views of his dwarf frame, where he is juxtaposed against various objects to demonstrate a noticeable size difference, such as Gil’s corpus in contrast to a large boat, or how he lines up (or rather doesn’t line up or fit) with the height of the urinal installed at “average” height on the wall of a male public restroom.
In Laura Swanson’s series entitled Anti-Self-Portraits (2005-2008), in addition to other photos in her oeuvre, the artist has obscured or covered over her face, drawing attention to the fact that she is denying something from her viewers. Through this act of concealing, Swanson is actually revealing her vulnerabilities, fears and frustrations over being judged and stared at, simply because of her atypical embodiment. In Revelation (2009), the artist stands beside her partner, Greg, in a diptych that splits their bodies in half at the torso. Where the left side of the portrait remains ambiguous in any height difference, as their bodies side by side look ostensibly symmetrical, the right side reveals how this symmetry was actually achieved. Swanson thus endeavors to play tricks on our eyes and challenge normative assumptions around symmetry. Finally, the artist also includes a series of selfies displayed on an iPad slideshow. The images were taken quickly as a means to record and capture Swanson’s engagement with objects, architectures and spaces in her everyday environment.
In their strategies of re-directing the gaze of the viewer, privileging the dwarf subject, and more generally re-framing depictions of the short statured embodiment, I suggest that these artists significantly depart from the stigmatized status surrounding the dwarf’s representations in the work of many non-dwarf photographers. Instead, the viewer will be made more aware of the psychology of the dwarf, as a means to encourage the compassionate involvement of the viewer, as opposed to attracting a historically prevalent morbid and reductive curiosity. If we examine the power and agency held by Gil and Swanson in the photography showcased in this exhibition, viewers may come upon different perceptions of dwarfism that have received scant attention in art history and criticism. We also learn to see the dwarf from both behind and in front of the camera, with full knowledge that they are the ones in control of both sides of its lens.
Ricardo Gil, Walking Man and Mannequins, c. 1996, giclée print
This exhibition is sponsored by the Dwarf Artists Coalition for the Little People of America, and is held in conjunction with the annual Little People of America convention (http://www.lpaonline.org/national-conference-2014) hosted by the Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel in downtown San Diego from July 4 – July 10, 2014.
This activity was sponsored by California Arts Council and National Arts and Disability Center at the University of California Los Angeles.
This text is an excerpt from an essay that will appear in a special issue of the Review of Disability Studies journal on Art History and Disability Studies, forthcoming.