The Nature of Age Examined 

If we can't tell a person's age by his or her appearance, then what is age?

What is the substance of oldness? If we can't tell an old person by the way they look or act, then what does it mean to be old? Twenty-nine-year-old Nikki S. Lee dressed up as an old woman for her Seniors Project, a photography series in which she dons a gray wig, wire-rimmed glasses, frumpy clothing, and a hunched, arthritic posture. Her photos are displayed as enlarged snapshots, complete with an orange, digitally imprinted date in one corner that gives the work a documentary aura despite the fact that it's all staged. Lee essentially presents a kind of catalogue, or recipe, for old age, and then calls the authenticity of the ingredients into question by making them add up to something unexpected.

The artists in the Berkeley Art Museum's group exhibition "Exhibiting Signs of Age" all treat aging as their primary topic, and all but one focus on old age in particular. The most compelling works in the show can all be classified as self-portraits, though they take dramatically different forms. Chuck Close's daguerreotype, made last year when the artist was 62, shows a close-up view of his unsmiling face. We see the beginnings of wrinkles and a graying goatee -- the physical marks of age -- but Close also evokes the effects of age by varying the focus within the image. His glasses and beard look crisp and sharp, but his ears and nose are indistinct, as if presaging the gradual deterioration of faculties and blurring of memory that inevitably accompany advancing years. The daguerreotype is an early form of photography now considered more or less obsolete; this also, needless to say, recalls something of the emotional experience of aging.

John Coplans' photographs are perhaps the least beautiful but most poignant in the exhibition. Each large-scale black-and-white print shows some isolated part of the artist's own body: a roughened heel, a hairy torso, a lumpy posterior. The prints' large scale and the way they linger over faceless body parts satirizes fashion photography, since this hulking body couldn't be more unlike the typical stick-thin female swimsuit model. Coplans' pictures might even be humorous -- an outright parody intended to make us giggle -- if his figure didn't seem so stoic, so unapologetic. This, he seems to be saying, is what it means to get old, and there is no point in dressing it up or making it into something pretty. That Coplans died just a few months ago only heightens the starkness of his message.

The artists who take a more documentary approach also produce a compelling and moving message, but one that lacks the self-portraits' metaphorical weight. Ed Kashi and Julie Winokur contribute eight images and a few text panels from their enormous documentary undertaking of the last seven years, Aging in America: The Years Ahead. The project took them through a wide range of urban and rural areas in 25 different states -- from geriatric prison wards to the seniors' assembly line at a cosmetics factory -- and culminated in a book and several local exhibitions. Winokur's text articulates a key distinction between the "young-old" and the "old-old": the former are "volunteering to take care of people less fortunate than themselves, running for political office, teaching dance workshops, and revving up their motorcycles. The latter are struggling to remember what they had for breakfast." At the BAM, Kashi and Winokur's presentation trains the spotlight mostly on inspirational stories from the young-old set.

Photographer Jim Goldberg contributes several photographs related to his Nursing Home series, including a group of images that examines everyday nursing-home objects such as pills and dentures. Goldberg's photographs inspire a profound sense of alienation, playing on the universal fear of these kinds of places; they also serve as a kind of counterpoint to Kashi's photographs, plunging us into the realm of the old-old. There's not much comforting about them -- not even an escape into metaphor and symbolism, since the elderly people we're seeing are not the artist, but rather the passive objects of the artist's analytical gaze. What we do feel is a vivid, visceral absence: of loved ones, of hair and teeth and, most important, of individual agency.

The more specific the language, the more universal the sentiment. That's common knowledge among songwriters, and it often holds true in visual art as well -- certainly in the work of Jim Campbell, whose Memory Array constitutes the 208th installment in the Berkeley Art Museum's MATRIX series. Based in San Francisco, Campbell holds degrees in electrical engineering and mathematics, and most of his art utilizes materials that are associated with technology but not exceedingly cutting-edge, like arrays of LED lights, to investigate the nature and limitations of human perception. In Last Day in the Beginning of March, the most elaborate of the three works in Memory Array, Campbell employs light bulbs and custom electronics to communicate sentiments that are simultaneously personal and universal.

Around the darkened room, the artist has situated light bulbs that turn on and off in preprogrammed but seemingly random patterns; viewers stand in the pools of light and read a series of signs mounted on the wall, each of which evokes a particular action or emotion: windshield wipers, telephone calls, "trying to remember not feeling this way." Campbell explains in his artist statement that the signs describe the last day of his brother's life, yet in the next breath he denies that they constitute any kind of truthful documentary; he is simply imagining what his brother might have thought or experienced. Through this very specific-yet-fictional series of ideas, conveniently unhinged from the dull obligations of biography, Campbell invites us to free-associate from our own lives -- and reminds us of our own mortality.

The three photographs on display by Luis Gispert, all large-scale Cibachrome prints, come from the artist's recent Urban Myth Pt 1 series, which features his family members as costumed figures in heavily ornate, theatrically illuminated, hyperrealistic tableaux. Gispert cites the Old Masters and hip-hop culture as his two main influences for these pictures, and the results are, as you might imagine, intensely surreal. In Untitled (Bedroom), a woman clad in heavy brocade clasps her hands and gazes adoringly heavenward; she would be straight out of the 17th century if it wasn't for the huge boom box in the foreground and the room's contemporary decor. Stereo systems float like ghosts in Untitled (Turntable) and loom monolithically in Untitled (Tower), which also features a group of small children reminiscent of Diego Velásquez' Las Meninas.

The meanings of Gispert's photographs seem completely encoded -- totally opaque apart from their obvious art-historical references -- yet his mishmash of cultural allusions, chronological eras, and artistic styles does, in fact, come together in at least two respects. Materialism, long a favorite theme of this artist, oozes from every pore of these pictures. His camera dwells lovingly over every shiny surface, from the gold jewelry to the silvery stereo boxes to the skin and cigars and upholstery, all of which are presented in minute and meticulous detail. Gispert's pictures also function as symbolic representations of quotidian Cuban-American life, which he describes as a similar amalgam of disparate cultures and eras.


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