JTF (just the facts): A total of 25 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made between 2015 and 2017. The prints are variously shown in one of three sizes (or reverse): 12×18 (in editions of 8+AP), 20×30 (in editions of 5+2AP), and 30×45 (in editions of 3+AP). (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: One of the most positive byproducts of a more open discussion of the definitions of gender in the past decade or two is that this broad societal dialogue has started to loosen up the binary limits of male/female boundaries. As the labels and categories have moved beyond the separation of physical characteristics and become more considerate of elemental mindsets (both in terms of sexual orientation and overall worldview), more choices and identifications have come forward, creating a spectrum of options for defining who we are or who we want to be. This openness is far more important than simply which bathroom someone should use – it touches on the core principles of how we understand our own identities, project them to others, and are then ultimately accepted by those around us.
When we drop down to examine changing gender roles within the confines of artistic circles, it is certainly the case that gender fluidity is more visible among artists, especially those trying to explore or reconcile their own masculine and feminine impulses. For many, art can be a way to interrogate their own nature, or to inhabit a persona that feels more authentic than the one they typically expose to the outside world.
But the historical artist/muse relationship has largely been confined to a particular gender pairing – a male artist with a female muse, often his wife, lover, or consistent model. A few notable examples of gay/lesbian combinations do exist as well, but they are fewer and farther between. So the collaboration between the female photographer Lissa Rivera and her male model/muse BJ is in several senses an unusual one. In their partnership, not only have they reversed the usual artist/muse setup in terms of gender, they are artistically exploring BJ’s feminine side, creating meticulously staged scenes that are neither drag nor trans, but simply visual manifestations of his personality. Dressed in women’s clothes, BJ poses with overtly androgynous glamour, and Rivera has created images that channel his layered identity, often with a nod to the history of photography. That there is real love between them makes their complex efforts all the more nuanced and risky.
Many of the earliest works in the show (all from 2015) pose BJ against a makeshift hanging cloth and closely crop him down to a tightly framed body. While a few of the images catch him from the back (with surreal colored lighting) or narrow down to just his legs (in fishnet stockings with shiny purple pumps), for the most part, BJ’s facial expressions are an integral part of the portraits – his penetrating stare is full of the vulnerabilities taking place, even when he looks wistfully out of the frame.
With long dirty blond hair and an angled face, BJ has the photogenic presence of a striking runway model, his pale skin and thin body giving him a delicate quality. Feminine accoutrements like a nymph’s flower garland, a black bikini, a strand of pearls, and a red negligee are set off against BJ’s partially nude masculinity, his rangy torso and armpit/pubic hair matched by bright red lipstick. “Male Impersonator” takes these reversals and recombinations one step further, with the male dressed as a female dressed as a male, with a nod to a famous image by Claude Cahun.
A setup of BJ poolside in a white swim cap has a hint of old Hollywood, Esther Williams style, and signals a subtle shift in Rivera’s image making. In subsequent images, he is surrounded by more elaborate staging, with additional symbols, matching color schemes, and fragments of implied narrative broadening the scenes. Rivera begins by giving us motel desperation, sprawled white carpet decadence, and shabby chic courtesan seduction, and her more recent scenes push this stage management further, with each detail controlled with precision.
BJ is an accomplished developer of poses, from his languid confidence laid across three chairs to his soft timidity in a gorgeously flimsy lavender gown that matches the color of a nearby painted armoire. Natural light from adjacent windows brings highlights to his turned look sitting at a desk with a view, and mutes a more fragile moment in a frilly green nightgown set against the stripes and plaids of a 1970s bedroom. His exploration of femininity reaches its limits in an over the top pink bedroom scene, his introspective form decked out in fussy powder blue.
Rivera has made a remarkably consistent set of pictures of BJ, each one an engaging challenge, where beauty tussles and wrestles with societal norms and electric emotions simmer right near the surface. The photographs are both theatrical and personal, without feeling campy or manipulative. BJ is an enthrallingly complicated creature, and Rivera has crafted his various guises with comforting familiarity and brash difference. These pictures grab our attention with undeniable force, and encourage us to see the surface and trappings of gender with more thoughtful nuance.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The 12×18 prints are $1600, the 20×30 prints are $2600 to $3100, and the 30×45 prints are $4000. Rivera’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.