Most of us wear our personalities like an old coat: tossed over our shoulders and rarely examined for signs of wear and tear. "Try This On!," the five-show exhibit that opens Saturday at Yerba Buena, questions how social identities are created and influenced by physical presentation. In other words, how does the way we dress or present ourselves define and even dictate our personalities and behavior? By confronting the ways in which we are all ultimately perceived and judged, the exhibit recognizes that while external appearances are essentially superficial facades, they can also represent freedom of choice, an individual decision to define ourselves on our own terms.
One artist who seems to have a limitless supply of personality choices from which to choose is Nikki S. Lee, a Korean-born photographer. Her body of work cleverly illustrates how an entire persona can change depending on a person's appearance (although it doesn't take an artistic genius to notice the differences between Marina residents and Haight denizens, for example). Lee's images follow a single modus operandi: Study and then infiltrate various cultural groups (yuppies, lesbians, senior citizens, and, for this exhibit, skateboarders). Lee adopts various habits, styles of dress, facial gestures, and social codes, transforming herself into one of "them," and then takes snapshots of herself as a member of the group. Art or schizophrenia? You be the judge. A study in assimilation, her work encourages the debate over the melting pot ethos: To what degree should immigrants adopt American customs and at what cost to their native cultures?
Cultural appropriation gets a close examination through the husband-and-wife team of Andrea Robbins and Max Becher. In German Indians, they train their lenses on people who imitate members of other cultures -- in particular, Germans masquerading as Native Americans during the annual Karl May festival in Raedebul, Germany, when the popular 19th-century author's birthday is celebrated. May's popular Wild West novels put Native Americans on a pedestal as noble savages while portraying white Americans as villains. Each year, Germans from all over the country descend upon the town, organized into loosely formed "tribes." During the two-day festival, they re-enact rituals and traditional dances described by May, sleeping in tepees and organizing powwows. Disproving the notion that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the photos reflect the participants' innocent fascination with another culture. At the same time, the images emphasize how the Germans have trivialized a culture by playing dress-up with another people's customs, mixing and matching gaudy headdresses, fringed vests, beads, and tusks, regardless of the specific Indian nations represented.
"Try This On!" also includes work from three other artists who find inspiration in how personal and social identities are fashioned. Those shows -- Laylah Ali's "Paintings From the Greenheads Series," Cameron Jamie's "Backyard Wrestling and Other Projects" (bizarre video footage of Jamie wrestling a Michael Jackson impersonator), and a retrospective of hand-painted photographs from the French artists Pierre et Gilles -- inject a sense of playfulness and irreverence into an otherwise serious subject.