Don't let the name of Edgewood College Gallery's latest exhibition fool you. Art Lesson: The Boston School Considered (through Feb. 24) isn't really about Boston. Some would say these photos are about New York during the birth of punk and the emergence of AIDS, but that's not the whole story either. They're also about in-between places: the couches we crash on while waiting for a more permanent address, the rocks that separate land from sea, the film that lies between a photographer and his subject. These are the spaces where transitions occur, or where something -- or someone -- disappears.
Mark Morrisroe embodied the risks that come with living on the margins. As a teenager, he worked as a prostitute to pay the rent. The Boston Strangler was his mother's landlord. He died of AIDS in 1989, at age 30, after documenting his physical decline on film. Though Art Lesson's other photographers, Nan Goldin and Jack Pierson, achieved more recognition, Morrisroe's contributions are perhaps the most memorable.
Morrisroe, Goldin and Pierson all attended art school in Boston in the late 1970s, and they ran in the same social circles in the early '80s. Pierson and Morrisroe were lovers for a time, back when Pierson was known as Jonathan, not Jack; in fact, he's the subject of several of Morrisroe's photos in Art Lesson. In Untitled (Jonathan), a Polaroid shot from 1980, he's framed in three ways: a white border around the picture's perimeter, a faint rectangle juxtaposed on his face, and the sinewy curve of his own right arm. It's as if Morrisroe is trying to protect him with a series of embraces. Jonathan's face is slightly foggy, like he's drowning in the picture's eerie aqua tint.
Pierson's contributions to Art Lesson explore fragility and temporality from a different angle. In Antibes, a 2010 photo printed on a large sheet of paper, waves break violently on a shore of craggy rocks. The print has been folded several times and then unfolded, creating creases that emphasize the thinness of the paper. The creases are also a form of damage, like scars. In another context, the photo might be considered ruined, but here, the folds seem to suggest perseverence: Like the seaside rocks in the image itself, the paper has been battered but not destroyed.
The rocks and folds return in Brian, South of Spain, a pigment print from 2010, but this time, Pierson presents a more meditative scene. A nude man stands beside a towering rock formation whose shadow shields his lower half from the sun. He bends forward in a dancelike pose as a calm sea washes a distant beach. Though the man appears robust and athletic, the paper's creases emphasize his delicacy. They also explore the concept of framing, especially in relation to memory and storytelling. Refolding the paper could erase the man from the image, changing the story entirely.
Nan Goldin examines another facet of in-betweenness in Jimmy Paulette and Tabboo! Undressing, a dye-destruction print from 1991. Here, drag queens gather in a New York apartment. One performer stands before an unmade bed, framed by a doorway, and another crouches in the corner of the image, framed and reflected in a mirror. The former looks straight at the camera, his ruby-red lips smiling coyly. The latter looks away from the lens, distracted. Each subject exhibits male and female characteristics, one moreso than the other. Goldin documents the process of male-to-female transformation while challenging the notion that gender is fixed. But her subjects don't seem like scientific specimens or evidence in a debate. Instead, her gaze seems loving, even nurturing. The camera is an instrument of empathy and care.
This exhibition is a courageous choice for a new gallery at a tiny Catholic college. Though its nudity and same-sex relationships might ruffle some feathers, curator Paul Baker Prindle isn't courting viewers with shock value. The show's biggest risks are the difficult questions it poses about the ways we perceive others and express ourselves, especially when confronted with editing tools.