Debra Jan Bibel
Studio Lone Mountain

The Artist as Art Critic


Everyone has an opinion, and while an artist tends to be more tolerant and understanding of other artists, standards are different. I have opted to review  exhibits as a whole; thus the curators have the greater creative responsibility of a uniting theme and quality of individual pieces.



Exhibit Locations:
Frisbie Street Art Space, Oakland, CA



   Published in January 2010 at   [no longer active]

In the days before gas and electric street lights, people reluctantly spent time outdoors in darkness. The throw of a rationed candle would cast shadows around the home and a candle lantern or torch would do little to stem the fear of what may be a short distance ahead....or behind. The home fireplace provided both warmth and a cone of light where family would find a sanctuary from darkness. Darkness held mystery; its moonlit shadows were hallucinatory, where an elevated root becomes a snake and a small sound could become a terror. Sinister characters lurked in darkness. A young child even today takes comfort in a small night light within the room, and adults silently appreciate the lit safety exit signs in the darkness of movie theatres.

With this historic and psychological background, the viewer comes to the Frisbie Street Art Space's show, Illuminating Shadows. Armed with a small flashlight, this curious person enters the darkened gallery, perceiving dark gray objects on or near walls and some lighted sculptures, one of which being the life-sized female form near the door, suggestive of a cyborg or a three-dimensional mystical anatomical painting of Alex Grey. The aloneness of a walk in a deserted nighttime street is indicated by nearby photographs of such locales; a sense of quiet and stillness is perceived. At the opposite corner, a shelf of small photographs of people wearing vampire fangs plays on the association of darkness with witchcraft, the monster, and the occult.  The next room contains a trio of photographs of related interest: life, death, and transformation. The beam of the flashlight encounters the Minotaur, here a person with a bovine skull, which lives in the dark labyrinth of mythology; another person is festooned with a hang rope; and a peculiar fellow is seated against a cavernous wall shadowed by distant light.  A nearby wall sculpture lit from within is in fact a labyrinth spiral.

In addition to darkness, there is the hidden within light: the invisible message that requires an agent to be revealed. In this instance, it is ultra-violet or black light cast upon a sign board that overtly says Truth, but covertly has the commentary. Similarly, a vertical series of small, densely illustrated images are of fluorescent paint, and they glow when the U-V light reaches them. The effect returns the viewer to the 1960s, when such posters and black lights were the common apartment decor. Hanging just off an opposite wall are large black-and-white transparencies of portraits of women. The flashlight beams project the images onto the wall, the size and sharpness varying with distance. Here, too, light is the revealing agent.

Elsewhere, photographs emphasize the role of shadow in relief, in enhancing shape, in contrasting form with emptiness. Sculptures incorporating light, also bring forth schisms, as varying hues break through slits, and on the center floor stands a marine medusa jelly fish, its tentacles radiating outward to touch the walls. These and an aquarium of bright, boldly colored critters and objects suggest the biological use of and defense against darkness: bioluminescence. [Think about the night scenes in the movie Avatar.]

A haunting series of photographs are of female mannequins, situated within shadows of a wire cage. The reference of a Twilight Zone episode involving such mannequins may come to mind, and once again the mystery, the transformation, the magic of darkness is suggested.

The last inner room houses a projector whose cast image (and sound) is a shadowed person against flowing water. Perhaps the viewer may think about the waves or cycles of light and dark and the necessity of opposites or valences for process and change. At least the shadow suggests the hidden form, as the projections in Plato's cave. The shadow is a mystical metaphor.

The artists and curators of this exhibit are to be commended for an extraordinarily worthy and atypical presentation. The varied art thoroughly covers the topic.  The viewer confronts mystery, aloneness, strangeness, and primal fears as well as hope, mystical transformations, and surprises. This conception of interaction and discoveries within darkness is enjoyable. Way cool, folks!








  Published May 2010 at   [no longer active]

A shape emerges through the mist and we detect a human approaching. The very next attribute we perceive is whether it is a man or a woman, but that developing figure may have an entirely different self-perception than ours. Thus, among the first presentations encountered as we enter the Frisbie Street exhibit is Molly Kate Taylor’s photographic grouping of a transgender, cross-dressing man whose self-image is challenging. Carrel Crawford’s backroom cluster of subjective abstractions and an objective photograph epitomize the theme of the show: What I want my body to be; what I feel inside; what I see; what I think others see; and what others actually see. Crawford projects a target metaphor of a large, beautiful, graceful horse, but others see only plain blue jeans.


An adjacent slide show prepared by Elisa Salasin views what people answer to “What weight do you carry?” Weight, a factor in appearance and self-image, is interpreted broadly here, as in Robert Bly’s Jungian bag of shadows or Buddha’s dukkha: social status, expectations, conceptions, pains, secrets, traditions, and other cravings, burdens, and guilts.  To emphasize the focus on weight, scattered about the floors are weighing scales whose readings and marking have been altered. One scale only provides positive outcomes, such as Gorgeous!, or Cutie Pie!, or So Pretty!, or Hot! Hot! Hot! Another scale always reads “0”. Yet another urges resistance to advertising and social forces on what is an appropriate weight, as if genetics has no role whatsoever and Barbie is anatomically correct. Indeed, our self-image, another encumbrance, is socially conditioned, health-related, and age-dependent.


The curators, Lanell Dike, Becky Jaffe, and Carrie-Andrea Kaye, have assembled a thoughtful and sometime whimsical assortment of artistic explorations on what and how we judge ourselves in appearance: Mirror Image: Body (Mis)perceptions. The reasons why are less obvious. It is a daily ritual for many: the weighing on a scale, the view in the mirror, grooming, and cosmetic applications, which is extended to choices in clothing and gadget accouterments. We alter our appearance not only to identify ourselves to others but to conform (or, like many adolescent rebels, not to conform) to social norms and to attract mates, and if we fail, we can suffer. Perhaps that is why Courtney McCutcheon’s photographs of people in masks show us that anonymity provides self-acceptance.


Historically and culturally, what are regarded as beautiful features have varied. Once, a Rubenesque plump figure was keenly attractive. The midriff is sexy in India and the Middle East, but American men zero in on breasts. Becky Jaffe’s introductory section in the front room was an experiment that required patience. She took some 2,000 photos of each volunteer model over 4- to 6-hour sessions and requested a choice of but one that best fits the self-image. Some portraits were nudes, others included prop clothing. Audios were provided of the subjects explaining their choices. The most arresting image was of a Black man in partial theatrical blackface, a visual statement of protest since even among African and Afro-American communities the level of melanin pigmentation has social consequence.


The self-perception of a person in chronic pain or disability is Maia Huang’s study. Other people can observe the changes in appearance that come with pain; often a muscular strain or a melancholy is manifested. For the sufferer, self-image is often negative, and a search arises for transcendence beyond the body. We can also regard scars of mastectomy and accidents as body flaws to overcome.  But then we come to self-inflicted assaults on the body. The photographs of G. M. M. Coghlan of bloody “cutters” ask questions but provide no answers. On the one hand, tattoos and skin inserts are allowed and even encouraged within ritual tribal cultures or urban subcultures, but hair-pulling and nail-biting are inattentive habits of anxiety and compulsion. In anorexia, the delusive perception is as if the person is facing a fun-house mirror that broadens a truly slim body. (Indeed, in an alcove there is a reflective film that twists and bends our mirrored body shape.)  In contrast, long-distance runners and competitive bicyclists can have a gaunt appearance, and a few people who voluntarily consume near starvation but balanced levels of food in pursuit of health and longevity also appear unusually lean. Their self-image is not pathologically distorted.


Age influences our self-perception. Elisa Salasin’s photographs of children in play wearing costumes or in dress-up with parental clothing only begin this discussion. Young children do not have self-image standards or even concerns. Indeed, in play, clothing as a uniform has fetishistic quality, and in their imagination with a cape, the child becomes a superhero. The adolescent, however, is mired in self-image problems, peer expectations, and cultural dictates. Senior citizens have consciously discarded such nonsense. 


These artists and other contributors at the Frisbie Street show place a mirror before us, demanding, “Is this you?” Our self-perception supports our ego and shapes our life and social interactions, but it is in flux, changing day by day and hour by hour. It is also pliable, developmental, soon reduced to “old,” and ultimately meaningless. Once again, the multimedia, multifaceted approach at Frisbie Street has offered a worthy, highly interesting, and evocative exhibit. The universal theme is, of course, psychological but also sociological and biological, and I can envision the exhibit expanded into an interactive presentation at the Exploratorium and similar public scientific venues.



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Last revision: May 30, 2018