Michal Chelbin, How to Dance the Waltz @ClampArt

JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 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 2019. The prints are generally shown in two sizes: 17×17 (in editions of 10+2AP) or 37×37 (in editions of 5+2AP) inches, with two images shown in a special 10×10 inch size (in editions of 30). (Installation shots below.)

A monograph of this body of work has recently been published by Damiani Editore (here). (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: Given the very real emotional roller coaster that teenagers go on during adolescence, it’s not surprising that photographers have long found their struggles a subject worth following. As the active transition point between the relative simplicity of childhood and the harder edged complexities of adult life, adolescence is a time for trying on identities, crafting personas, testing limits, experimenting with new freedoms, and generally test driving different versions of ourselves, in the hopes of finding an equilibrium that feels at least somewhat natural and comfortable. And that anxious personal chaos offers plenty of opportunities for sensitive photographic documentation.

For almost everyone, actually becoming an adult includes an extended period of pretending to be one, where we play the role of a grown man or woman, even thought we may not be entirely ready to do so. And one of the most common ways we signal to others about who we want to be is with our clothing choices, from the brash nonconforming of deliberate fashion extremes to the safer sameness of looking like everyone else.

Michal Chelbin’s newest body of work captures the way teenagers use uniforms and costumes, particularly those that are overtly gendered, to attempt to build identity. Over the course of roughly five years, she followed teens in Spain and Ukraine, watching as they took on more adult roles and swung from vulnerability to confidence and back again. Her pictures document countless moments when dressing up like an adult requires an equivalent transformation of personality, and not every sitter seems entirely ready for that challenge.

In Spain, Chelbin photographed young matadors posing in their traditional costumes decorated with thick gold embroidery and punctuated by bright colors, including pink stockings. Young Francisco looks uneasy but aspirational with his shirt off looking straight into the camera, while Joanjo and Borja sit in a leafy park and play the role with more careful seriousness. Bull fighters embody the epitome of traditional Spanish masculinity, and it’s clear that these young men feel the pressure (and power) of that set of expectations. Chelbin’s group shot of four matadors best finds the point of inherent uncertainty, with the boys posing with feigned toughness and authority but pushed back into a leafy hedge behind them, to the point that they are engulfed and softened by its embrace. Rineke Dijkstra has similarly photographed matadors, but she caught them battered and bloodied after their encounters in the ring, any innocence they once carried brushed away by the intensity of the action.

In Ukraine, Chelbin spent time with cadets at military academies, where the uniforms of army, navy, and other armed forces hang heavily on the shoulders of teens. Sailors Maksim and Vitally seem the most at ease in their new clothes, their berets and striped shirts worn with the muscular confidence of young men who feel their own physical strength. The opposite might be said of young Anatoly who is drowning in his oversized military coat, the arms extending almost to his fingertips; as he stands against a formal orange curtain, he tries to look earnest, but the bulkiness of the coat undermines his credibility. His attempt at exuding sharp male confidence is altogether sympathetic, even though it isn’t convincing.

In other images of cadets, Chelbin twists the gender stereotypes. Kyril and Losha (who might be twins) are photographed in their fatigues and combat boots, but are set against a floral wallpaper wearing matching blue aprons. Bogdan, in his green coat and military hat, melts into a background of white flowers, almost like the wall of greenery is cradling him. And an imposing group of female cadets wear sober black coats, neckties, and sturdy hats as they stand in the forest, transforming the typically drab male garb into something empowering.

When Chelbin turns her camera toward other teenage girls in Ukraine, the results are more self-consciously feminine. Ola and Diana wear elaborate white wedding gown-style party dresses, Aleira and her friends wear frilly aprons that make them look like maids, and Katya seems to have won some kind of pageant, as she sits (incongruously in a doctor’s office) with a printed sash across her pink dress. Only Nastya seems to be interested in measuring herself against her male counterparts, hanging with bare chested Nikita from some gymnastic bars in a flamboyantly canary yellow party dress. With teenage girls as her subject, Chelbin crosses over into territory previously staked out by Hellen van Meene and others, albeit with less idiosyncratic mystery; Chelbin’s images feel slightly more tender, as if the trying-so-hard vulnerability these girls feel might be fully revealed if we inadvertently ask the wrong questions.

Photographic portraiture is always an exercise in trust building, in the hopes of cutting through the awkward artificiality of posing to reach a point of authenticity. Chelbin has largely succeeded in these pictures, finding her way to invisible moments of tenuous balance where the support provided by the trappings of an adult role momentarily holds up and encourages a young person. It’s not the uniforms and costumes in these images that matter so much – it’s the faces of the teenagers, and the conflicted wash of anxiety and emotion that shows through even as they try to act older. Chelbin’s understated portrait of Svet and Liza offers us a window into this backstory – as Liza sits on his lap and they tenderly embrace, it’s clear that even though they may be wearing the uniforms of adulthood, sometimes what they still really need is a hug.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $4000 or $7500, based on size, with the two special edition smaller prints at $800. Chelbin’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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