Colors in the Flag - SAM's 'Only Skin Deep' offers prism on race

Photographs remind us of who we were and who we are. It's the pictures in the family album or piled in a bureau drawer that help mold our self-image and memorialize, for others, our successes and failures. "Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self," currently on exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum, provides the same sort of perceptions and insights, but on a national scale.

We see in its 300 photographs and videos not our personal family but the family of Americans, in all its diversity. This exhibition is about race as a component of our cultural past and our cultural self-image. It depicts the riches brought to our country because of its diversity, just as it portrays the horror caused by our national failure to deal with that diversity.

Anyone who has taken a basic course in biology knows that "race" is a false concept with no basis in science. Humans come in all sizes, shapes, colors and combinations of innate abilities. We have chosen skin color as a social line of demarcation and created enduring myths based on that choice.

The curators of "Only Skin Deep" ask the viewer to consider the issue of race in America through examination of images of Americans. They suggest that our erroneous ideas about race are reinforced by photographs. This is a show "about how photography works to make us 'see' race."

The photos in the exhibit span a century and a half. There are works by well-known photographers and unknowns alike. Some of the images are familiar, some are lovely, some are shocking, some amuse, and some are repellent. The curators have consciously chosen to provide very little information about the pictures. They want you to respond to the images personally, to be provoked, to experience emotions, to reevaluate.

You will find it impossible not to.

The exhibit opens with a series of composite photographs that provide a powerful statement about the changing face of the United States. We see superimposed facial images of the men of Harvard and the women of Harvard Annex, classes of 1887 - two very northern European groups indeed. Close by are different American faces. These are composite images of graduating classes in 1967 and 1988 and a composite cover photo from Time magazine. The photographers have drawn their subjects together just as this exhibit draws all of us together as Americans, citizens in a multicultural society.

Some images reflect true cultural values; others show cultural stereotypes. There's the native Hawaiian girl dancing in her hula outfit. Close by is tiny Shirley Temple dressed and posed in a Hollywood hula. We see Plains Indians from the 19th century hide-clothed and bedecked in traditional chest ornaments of bone. Another photo captures contemporary Anglos playing Indian at a weekend camp-out.

A group of African American mothers and their lovely babies are shown at the conclusion of a beautiful-baby contest. Across the gallery there's a photo of the defiled body of an African American man hanging in a tree. In another image, the beauty of a classical sculpture is mirrored by the alabaster skin of a slender white woman standing close by.

There are pictures from Japanese internment camps during World War II. Particularly compelling is the high-school graduation picture of a young girl whose eyes seem to shine with the promise of her future. And you ask yourself what reason had this Japanese-American detainee to be optimistic?

Dorothea Lange's iconic Great Depression picture of the haggard mother and her children is there. You've seen it before. There is a companion text this time, and you'll find the picture isn't quite what you thought it was. Gordon Parks' picture of Malcolm X holding a large photo of a slain spokesman for civil rights provides an eerie foreshadowing of Malcolm X's own future. There's a beautiful Robert Maplethorpe male nude. And look at all the Cindy Shermans: she's playing black in this set of images. Cindy's career has been one of slipping into the skin of others.

The exhibition is organized around five somewhat arcane themes. With limited wall text and minimalist labels, it's not easy to understand the logic behind the groupings. For the most part, this highly intellectualized approach seems more suited to a classroom discussion than a museum gallery.

Fortunately, SAM has created an extensive series of programs to accompany the show. There are lectures, a film series, performances, workshops, gallery tours, and school and teacher programs. The exhibition serves as a foundation for the discussions and experiences to be found within the programs. Just as we can all find ourselves somewhere in the photos, we should all be able to find a program that interests us. And that's exactly what the museum hopes will happen.

But you don't have to go to a program to appreciate the exhibit. The pictures speak for themselves. Even if their juxtapositions are sometimes puzzling, the power of the images is hard to escape. This photo album of the American family speaks to all of us - about our history, who we are and how we got this way.

"Only Skin Deep" was organized by the International Center of Photography in New York where it was exhibited prior to its showing in Seattle. Lisa Currin, SAM curator of modern and contemporary art, developed the show locally. It will tour throughout the United States after it completes its local run.[[In-content Ad]]