Show Me Yours

The images make you wonder about people. Who needs five huge jars of Vaseline?
Courtesy of Finesilver Gallery

Do you mind if people look in your medicine cabinet? How about if they peer at the contents of your purse? Well, two photographers are doing just that, presenting intimate but anonymous portraits of people through the stuff in their bathrooms and purses. Coke Wisdom O'Neal's "Portraits" and Chuck Ramirez's "Purse Portraits" at Finesilver Gallery are full of nosy and intriguing images.

O'Neal lives in New York and has a day job photographing architecture for a real estate company, a gig that gives him unfettered access to the homes of complete strangers. An inveterate medicine-cabinet peeper, he's channeled it into his art, photographically documenting the objects of his snooping. Prescriptions are turned around to hide people's names O'Neal doesn't want to out but other than that, the cabinets are photographed exactly as he finds them. O'Neal then prints the images life-size, going so far as to buy some of the products in them just to make sure he has the scale correct. The photographs are mounted on the back of Plexiglas, cut in the shape of the medicine chests and hung away from the wall, just like the real thing. He has duplicated the experience of voyeurism just for us.

Looking at the images, you naturally try to picture the person behind each cabinet. So, um, who has five huge jars of Vaseline? An obsessive hoarder? Someone whose recreational activities necessitate vast quantities of the stuff? Another cabinet's stockpile of both hemorrhoid preparations and migraine medications makes you pity its owner. It's easy to pick out the women, as in the cabinet that contains a fanatic excess of 20 Mario Badescu skin care products along with boxes of organic German tampons.


"Coke Wisdom O'Neal: Portraits"

Finesilver Gallery, 3913 Main, 713-524-3733

Through May 13

Other images act as sad still-lifes. A rusty, grungy cabinet contains a closed, locked panel on one side, a crumpled tube of children's toothpaste on the other. The rest of the contents include a box of Nasonex and a Crest spin brush. The Spartan arrangement conjures a lonely existence. And the locked panel becomes just plain creepy. It probably doesn't even have anything in it, but your imagination runs wild.

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The works contain amusing and inadvertent juxtapositions. One medicine cabinet topped with big Hollywood lights features yellowed text cut out and taped inside; it says something about love, but it's hard to tell what exactly, since a tin of athlete's foot powder is obscuring part of it.

Taken together, the photographs become documents of individuals, but also of people in general our flaws, our insecurities, our malfunctioning bodies.

Like O'Neal's medicine cabinets, Chuck Ramirez also explores intimate territory. But Ramirez's portraits of purses and their contents were done with the consent and even collaboration of their owners. Ramirez will allow them to stage their purses if they want to i.e., to remove snotty Kleenexes and half-eaten candy bars. Most go even further, trying to create a more complete, complex portrait of themselves by adding telling objects. Ramirez photographs the purses in lush color against a white background and prints them up to five feet high.

High Times (Rudy) (2005) depicts a "murse," or man-purse. It's a gorgeous leather briefcase containing a copy of High Times magazine, the arts section of The New York Times, a copy of The Economist. There's a rolled-up tie, a Continental OnePass Elite membership card and a tin of "Embarassmints" with the top of Bush's head barely revealed. The contents create a portrait of an affluent, well-traveled, left-wing guy who likes to smoke weed.

A photo of a big black Dr. Martens saddlebag titled My Life with Charles Manson (Anjali) (2005) conjures up the image of an edgy, arty young woman living fast. In her purse, a packet of Emergen C vitamin powder counters a pack of full-strength Camels. There's a sketchbook, a lighter and de rigueur black sunglasses. A Ganesh finger puppet adds multicultural flavor, while a tattered, coverless copy of My Life with Charles Manson, a 1979 memoir of a former Manson family member, imparts a dark twist to the portrait. Meanwhile 5 Euro (Loren) (2005) is all petite, girly and stylish. A lime-green silk clutch contains a bottle of perfume, a gold compact, Dior lip gloss and eyelash adhesive. A five-euro note is added to provide continental dash.

Catch All (Mary) (2005) is less revealing than the rest, offering only a glimpse of a tattered address book, a change purse, some crumpled bills. But what's really striking is that the soft, sumptuous tan leather of the bucket bag looks distinctly fleshy, giving sexual connotations to the barely parted slit of its opening.

Ramirez seems to fluctuate between focusing on the purses' shapes and on their contents, but all the images are intensely colorful. There are little silly furry green bags and fluffy blue pompom bags. There's a red tote of some thin, exotic, reptilian leather that looks like a bright, bizarre creature with snaps for eyes. There are elegant, substantial purses. Ramirez reminds us how much the things we carry say about us. What kind of person am I? Do I let practicality or fashion rule my choices? How much purse can I afford? Dedicated fashionistas will be able to make highly nuanced readings of the purse cavalcade. Ramirez's crowd seems to be a generally well heeled, stylish and savvy lot, in their choice of purses as well as accessories such as photo cell phones and pricey wallets.

Ramirez has some art-world movers and shakers among his subjects. He's not investigating cheap, ugly purses carried by poor women; he likes attractive, stylish things. This isn't a sociological project, but a little socioeconomic diversity might give an interesting twist to the work and make it more multilayered. Though the photographs are well done and appealing, they're wandering over into an Andy Warhol sort of vanity portraiture. I'm not sure that was his intent.

O'Neal and Ramirez make us confront the way we make judgments about people, how we search for clues to the identity of others. We all have some level of immersion in pop and consumer culture that leads us to draw conclusions from these objects about the things people show and the things they hide. Our fluency may vary, but it's a silent language we all speak.

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