In catching up with events towards the end of last semester, I can’t leave out Alejandra Rubio’s BFA show, “Unfiltered.” I was glad to have Alex in my Advanced Studio class while she was working on the show. She’s a little bit guarded about talking about her work, and I appreciated being able to listen to her think through her choices over a course of months.
In her photos we see people at parties, people at home, people on the street, people hanging out, people shooting up, people at work, people in masks, people clasped to each other in friendship, love, or coital imperative. She arranged her photos in irregular clusters, letting the viewer’s eye bounce from one image to another, free to compare and contrast. You can skip, for example, from a woman in a dusty gas mask at Burning Man to a girl wearing a rubber halloween mask in a department store– or you can compare the long horizontal stretch of a graveyard to an arm outstretched for its needle (I know this last comparison sounds tendentious, but that’s not how the pictures operate; in practice, those two images reach out to each other in formal terms, not propagandistic ones).
Alex didn’t really ant to dig too deep into explaining her organizing principles behind these clusters. I think that’s partly because she works instinctively, partly because she doesn’t want to flatten out all the connections with a tidy thesis statement. In her artist talk, she put it like this: “As individuals, we don’t like to be categorized, so I don’t like to categorize my photos.”
Several photos were taken at the Bunny Ranch — Alex went there many times over a period of months, with the intent of capturing the working girls as they are “offstage,” in their place of employment, not directly engaged in the theater of other people’s desires. Her quest for the authentic (reflected in her title for the show) was complicated by the circumstances of the Bunny Ranch. Sometime when she asked the women to just act natural or to be themselves, they fell into stereotyped poses: the camera, in that world, is something that demands performance. Some of those “posed” photos made the final cut, though the way they’re handled, they’re not particularly glamorous or pornographic. We’re not just aware of the pose, we’re aware of the effort that goes into engineering a pose. Alex’s camera-eye is aware of a certain tired slump of the shoulders, the insistence of a ribcage visible under the skin, the scuffs on the toes of feet that have been forced into shoes that are a bit too small.
Though she’s going for the raw, the “non-glossy” in her photos, there’s a warmth to her work. Her images are documentary images, but they’re documents from the inside of a situation. She’s interested in, as she put it in her talk, “people in their natural habitat.” When asked if the pictures formed a picture of a community, she wasn’t quite satisfied by that definition. “I would like to say it’s a self portrait,” she clarified. “Everything that’s in that room, that’s me.”
The work may be a self-portrait, an autobiography by indirect means, but it’s also more than that, delineated as it is by windows into a variety of other lives, other worlds. There are a number of communities that show up in her flow of images, ones that might only rarely brush up against each other under ordinary circumstances. Many people in the photos showed up for the reception, and there was a funny double-vision of images and lives, corralled into the same space, because Alex’s vision had placed them all there.
All the pictures have stories of course (all pictures have stories). But a lot of these stories are particularly good ones. I like the one behind a shot of a police officer, taking a photo of Alex taking a photo of him. The officer wasn’t taking a friendly snapshot, he was “documenting” Alex because he deemed her suspicious. Alex took her pic surreptitiously, her camera at waist level. Behind the photo that we can see, there’s the invisible flipped version, languishing in an official capacity in the files of the police department, showing Alex with her sly finger on the shutter button. It’s easy to imagine a certain gleam in her eye, in that invisible document.