o_ Man! Exhibit at Silver Eye Center Mixes Color and Commentary

Though o_ Man! at Silver Eye Center for Photography is a show made up of broken-up fragments and pastiche, its biggest strength is its coherence. Any multi-work exhibition comprises of individual artworks with individual lives and identities. But when they appear on a wall together, what makes or breaks a show is their cohesion. o_ Man! is the cohesive vision of Chicago-based Kelli Connell and Seattle-based Natalie Krick, two photographers whose work engages with both the history and the future of the medium. Though they both have work in the collections of legacy institutions—Krick at Museum of Sex, the Museum of Contemporary Photography, and San Francisco Camerawork, and Connell at The Met, the Guggenheim, and the Getty—their interpretation of the medium of photography often questions the historical canon behind it.  

Two Photographer Expressions

Connell “investigates investigates sexuality, gender, identity and photographer / sitter relationships.” Krick “investigates visual perception and pleasure through complicating the act of looking.” The show’s title comes from Connell looking at Edward Steichen’s famous-infamous photographic series at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, The Family of Man, and creating a sort of erasure poem out of it, leaving behind only o_ Man. The Family of Man was instrumental in growing institutional support for photography in museums. But it was heavily criticized for being overly sentimental and simplistic. An entire issue of photography magazine Aperture features essays on Steichen’s show. It’s remained hotly debated more than fifty years after it first debuted, with responses like The Family Of No Man: Re-visioning the world through non-male eyes in Arles in 2018 or Photo Society of America’s Reconsidering the Family of Man in 2012. 

About the Title

The title of Connell’s and Krick’s response show could be a lamented sigh of oh, man, or the underscore could use the literal removal of an f to represent women’s erasure in The Family of Man and the institution of photography as a whole. This is the contextual framework of o_ Man! and the show’s biggest challenge: since it is an erasure/collage show made up of archival pigment prints using imagery directly from The Family of Man, it could rely too heavily on context for a viewer less familiar with the source material. The question for a show of this kind is whether it can stand on its own.  

For o_ Man!, the answer to that query is yes. There are various lenses through which you can view o_ Man!.  I looked into the exhibit more as a commentary on womanhood and the subjugation of female sexuality. Silver Eye offers several catalogues of Family of Man materials for viewers to peruse in order to see where Connell and Krick drew from in the images, text, and design of the pigment prints, but the show does stand on its own. This is what’s subversive about erasure and collage—it creates something new through destruction of the old.  

Beyond the Frame

One of o_ Man!’s biggest strengths is its use of physical space. Connell and Krick used the color scheme of the original installation for The Family of Man at MOMA and created multi-colored vinyl backdrops for different facets of the exhibition. Magenta, ochre yellow, and deep cobalt blue shapes fill the walls in a variety of angled lines. Each print has a differently colored frame, which comes through particularly in And then I Ask, Ask Again (2024), a deep blue with a bright yellow frame.   

Unconventional Use of Space

The most striking example of the exhibition’s unconventional sense of space is in Crystal Ball (2022), which hangs off-kilter at the center of vinyl wallpaper image of an explosion, surrounded on either side by black and white prints of men making decisions . Both Model Holding a Globe, used as the show’s cover image, and Crystal Ball, illustrate a paradox — that women hold immense power but often cannot use it.

All Me (2020) creates a blackout poem that reads “me / me / me / me / All me.” There’s something almost frenetic about o_ Man! When you go beyond some of the thematic commentary and tap into the emotional landscape of the pieces. It accesses an emotion I’ve felt frequently. Existing as a woman in a society that is not for you. Where the structure of professional life and intimate relationships depend on your subjugation.

The saturated pinks and blues aside with the fragmentation give an uncanniness to the images. Curator (2021) uses an image of an infant and a snake. The cyan blue of the doctor’s scrubs and the scarlet of the python create an unsettling composition. Atomic Flowers casts Steichen’s career as a delphinium breeder in an overwhelming pink haze on the vinyl wallpaper, colors that bring to mind the paintings of Alison Blickle or Danielle Muzina 

Inclusivity for All Families

The Family of Man posited that humanity is part of one family, but every family must have a mother to birth it into existence. This is where one of Connell’s stated interests, the “photographer/sitter relationship” comes into play. A repeated line of text in several prints reads I asked him to ask me first. Women don’t ask, they play hard to get. They are are objects, not subjects. What makes Connell’s and Krick’s approach to The Family of Man unique is that by using collage and erasure, they insert themselves into The Family of Man’s narrative when they might have otherwise been excluded from it. Where The Family of Man is black-and-white images, Connell and Krick add flares of color. I come back to Crystal Ball, hanging off-center imperfectly, a glow of beauty at the center of an act of destruction.  

o_ Man! is open through April 13, 2024 at Silver Eye Center for Photography. Kelli Connell and Natalie Krick’s o_ Man! project is at womanmoan.com.

Story by Emma Riva / Photo of Atomic Flowers courtesy of Kelli Connell and Natalie Krick

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