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At Washington Center for Photography to March 2

Like so many king’s men and women come the four artists in “Trace,” an exhibition that posits us all as modern-day Humpty Dumpties, with fractured identities and fragmented egos. More adept than their nursery-rhyme predecessors, however, Keith Cottingham, Michael Brian Foley, Debra Kaufman, and Anne Rowland piece together new, often compelling images of shattered selves through traditional, digital, and photographic collage.

Cottingham, for example, has generated his portraits of imaginary youths wholly from digital samples of skin, hair, and contour. And Foley has cut and pasted the photographs of his subjects to create heavily textured and anxious representations of inner reality.

Although all the artists’ methods are strong, their techniques at times are more interesting than the finished work. The selection of pieces by Foley, Rowland, and Kaufman reveals the artists’ inconsistency in creating images that both stand on their own as art objects and convey the exhibition’s curatorial premise. Stronger editing by curator Michael Baumgart or the inclusion of additional artists mining this rich theme might have prevented the dilution of the show’s impact by its often redundant imagery. And unfortunately for viewers, the Washington Center for Photography (WCP) provides too little supporting material to elucidate the exhibition’s theoretical stance.

The show grabs attention at the beginning with Cottingham’s “Fictitious Portraits” of pre-adolescent boys. The series of three images (a single figure, a pair, and a trio) relies on the appearance of traditional studio photographs—a softly lit figure positioned against a black background—to make the images familiar enough to engage viewers.

Cottingham’s boys, shown nude from the waist up, also share a certain buffed and androgynous appearance we know from fashion advertising. Like Calvin Klein’s CK ads, Cottingham’s portraits combine vulnerability and aggressiveness in a way that keeps our relationship to the figures uncertain. They alternately confront the viewer with their direct gaze and turn away, heads lowered in shyness or shame.

What keeps viewers engaged, however, is not the figures’ beauty but their surreal quality. Heads seem too large for bodies, mouths too wide, the slant and spacing between eyes overexaggerated, and the skin too smooth. The figures are enigmatic, appearing before us in a recognizable format but with combinations of features we cannot explain. The work succeeds precisely because it invites us to buy into the portraits as straight photography, a medium we often naively assume registers reality. But a close look reveals stray lines of digital color that testify to the artist’s hand. The only reality here is the one Cottingham has constructed.

In Foley’s portraits, the constructed quality is literally on the surface. Foley fabricates his images by collaging slices of photographs he makes of his subjects in formal portrait sittings. Like Cottingham, Foley retains some of the formal elements of straight photographic portraiture, including the head-and-shoulders composition and the black background. But backgrounds have simply been painted out, and the faces shattered and put back together, their features generally in the right place but the scars visible.

In A Young Girl, the newest of Foley’s pieces on view, the results are disturbing. The three-quarter view of the face (a classic pose for its traditionally flattering angle), the elegance of the woman’s costume, and the lighting create a portrait circumscribed with nobility. Her heavy-lidded gaze and parted lips convey tranquility, a serenity belied by the diagonal slices in the woman’s cheek from eyebrow to mouth and along her jaw line. The work acts as an unsubtle metaphor for the violent shattering of identity.

Foley contends that his work is about the childlike innocence and turmoil that re-emerge through the cracks in the façade of the unified adult self. On that basis, few of his other portraits succeed as well as Girl. The seven portraits of men that make up Chess Team, St. Nicholas School for Boys simply look like cut-up and re-glued photographs of men. Foley can claim that the resulting images make the sitters more youthful-looking, but that’s an easy argument when few viewers know how old these men are. Besides, in most of these collages, youth takes a back seat to facial deformity, a result that doesn’t reach the metaphysical destination Foley intends.

The most effective of Foley’s portraits are those he coats with resin, encasing and integrating the photographic patches in his work. The resin also provides a warm tone that illuminates the figures from within. It’s an effect well matched to Foley’s ideas of childhood. By comparison, his uncoated images appear unfinished, with raw edges that almost lift off their support. No metaphor there; just a lack of resolution.

Rowland’s work is born of violence and theater. Her series uses forensic photographs of victims who’ve been shot, beaten, raped, and even one gored by a bull. Rowland re-photographs the images onto slides, then projects the slides onto her own face and photographs the resulting superimpositions.

Each image reveals only the artist’s face, emerging from the darkened background as if lit by a flashlight probing a dank cellar. The horror of the injuries advances in Rowland’s expressions. In Rape (Homicide), the victim’s scream is nearly audible, and the gaze in Facial Fracture Including Fracture of the Cheekbone is appropriately chilling.

Rowland is less concerned with identity than with perception and cognition. Her work underscores the contextual nature of information and the truths it conveys. Forensic labels, which provide the dispassionate titles to her images, Rowland says, are “bizarre records of moments gone wrong.” Their brief phrases categorize the violent acts for study, but conceal their terror. Through clear artifice, Rowland aims to resurrect a fuller truth by standing in the victims’ place and parting the veil that scientific analysis can drape over brutality.

Despite the strength of Rowland’s concept, her 10 images in “Trace,” hung in a horizontal line, suffer from redundancy. Instead of establishing a chorus of voices calling attention to the grisly effects of violence, the installation exposes the failings of the weaker images. On the wall with Rape (Homicide), works such as Facial Fractures and Lacerations become Hollywood special effects rather than provocative explorations of the ways truth is dissected and presented.

Unlike Rowland, Debra Kaufman’s work claims that cultural myths of ideal beauty, not science, veil humanity and fragment society into the adored and the despised. In constructing her photomontages, Kaufman often grafts oddity and illness onto figures possessed of classical beauty. Applications of lacquer give the images unified, glossy surfaces and a yellow-green tone that mimics antique photographs.

In Kaufman’s sideshow, an idealized Eve with full, rounded hips and breasts now suffers a grossly disfiguring skin disease that rots her flesh. Similarly, Kaufman pastes the noble profile of an ancient emperor onto a seemingly genderless figure so crippled it walks on all fours.

After 30 years of feminism, critiquing the canon of beauty isn’t new, and Kaufman delivers one-liners when she echoes that theme so obviously. Too many of Kaufman’s images also fail to rise above their cut-and-paste roots. They appear simply as pieces of paper glued together in two-dimensional space. The images don’t need to be seamless to succeed, but without a stronger integration of parts, they fail to carry the iconoclastic burden Kaufman gives them. Nonetheless, certain images, including ones of a child and of a woman’s severed head, possess an unnerving emotional content that surpasses the work’s theoretical base.

Theory is critical to the exhibition. The reinterpretation of self as a contextual rather than universal idea is a core postmodern tenet that artists and other cultural critics have explored for decades. “Trace” demonstrates, too, the postmodern artist’s rejection of discrete categories of art media in favor of mixing up painting, photography, sculpture, and performance. Cottingham follows suit with portraits that include almost painterly lines of color; Foley’s work becomes almost bas-relief, with its varyingly dense layers of photographic paper.

But WCP does a disservice to viewers who are as interested in theory as they are in aesthetics. The current issue of the center’s quarterly magazine, Grain, serves as the exhibition catalog, but its cryptic text does little to elucidate the curatorial intent, the artists’ vision, or even the precise use of media. Captions are superimposed over images in the catalog, and at least in Cottingham’s case, the caption contradicts the artist’s intent. Along the edge of his piece Untitled (single) is the phrase “solidified being.” It’s a term taken wholly out of context from a statement by the artist, who said his work exposes the self “not as a solidified being but as the product of social and interior interaction….”

The catalog also contains a silly and thankfully brief essay with the painfully long title “Laboratory Notes on Future Technologies and the Construction of Humans (or, the Modern Prometheus).” In it, author Grady T. Turner invents a passage from the work of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who dreams of a device “to capture the image of a man.” (Like a camera, maybe?) Frankenstein has in mind a Nazilike eugenics program that photography and computer graphics could advance. Sadly, Turner’s fiction includes a gratuitous anti-Semitic remark that equates Jews with murderers. It’s too short a piece to waste lines on such ideas, even if they aren’t meant seriously. Viewers would get more from an essay that addressed photography’s complicity in creating myths about beauty and identity or from a debate over the ability of straight photography to elucidate the contemporary condition.

If it’s true, as “Trace” claims, that a sense of fragmentation affects our lives daily, then the work here, beyond its aesthetic strength, holds potential significance for every viewer. But with the lack of educational material supporting the exhibition, viewers must sort out on their own the art and conceptual issues. While this may encourage fruitful personal interpretation, it also risks perpetuating art-world elitism, giving the inside track on understanding to viewers already in the know.CP