Suellen Parker’s “Letting Go,” at Whitespace gallery through November 24, is the nationally recognized artist’s first solo exhibition in Atlanta. More Atlantans know her from her distinctive work’s appearance in The New York Times Magazine than from firsthand experience.
To create her trademark explorations of gender and identity, Parker, a professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design-Atlanta, crafts meticulous clay sculptures of her characters, which she photographs and inserts into backgrounds that are composed in Photoshop from parts of other photographs she has taken.
The photos at Whitespace move into even more ambiguous territory and more levels than before. Male and female markers of identity are inextricably intermingled in the clay figures in these portraits. Parker’s eyes are digitally added to each figure, increasing the overall sense of not-quite-right uncanniness.
The unstably fictitious quality of the portrait echoes the instability of the socially constructed models of gender against which Parker is rebelling. Inevitably, we make mental bets as to the gender and sexual identity of such people as the bald-headed figure sitting atop a craggy peak wearing sandals, pedal pushers and a necklace in “Finding Balance.” Or the one in “Dressing,” who ignores the slew of different feminine costumes behind her as she (?) dresses in conventionally male (actually, these days, more unisex) clothing. The narrative changes enormously depending on what assumptions we project into the available visual evidence.
In “The Tie That Binds,” a business-suited figure sits in a paneled office with a portrait of the Dalai Lama on the wall behind him/her. The piece suggests that Parker is raising other issues in these works: the fondness of certain extremely affluent executives for Tibetan Buddhism is another one of those sociological facts that is, to say the least, question-provoking.
The work with the fewest ambiguities is the tchotchke-surrounded matronly figure in “Moments of Pleasure,” seated in a chair with a can of Modelo beer on the table beside her. But this probably seems unambiguous only because most of us have known prim-looking female relatives who enjoyed their alcohol no matter what their expected social position permitted.
For many decades now, the slightly sappy juxtaposition in the Huntington Library of Thomas Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” portrait with Thomas Lawrence’s similarly composed female portrait of “Pinkie” has constituted a shorthand for childhood gender roles, a shorthand that solidified the association of pink with girls and blue with boys. (It was not always so. In 1918, a trade publication stated that pink was a strong color appropriate to male babies, while blue, as a delicate color, was appropriate for female babies.) Parker’s “Blue Boy” and “Pinkie” meticulously reverse the postures and backgrounds of the relatively new archetypal models for childhood male and female identities.
Different viewers will draw different conclusions from this role reversal. A pink dress remains indisputably feminine, but an 18th-century blue suit looks surprisingly androgynous when combined with the ambiguity of the facial features in Parker’s rendering, which makes the gender more ambiguous than in the painting.
But then real people never quite fit the models imposed by society.