‘Orlando’ Celebrates Virginia Woolf’s Novel About Identity and Gender

Also, Sophie Calle’s curtains and Yarrow Slaps’ paintings take center stage this month.

At last week’s invitation-only opening of the “Orlando” art exhibit in San Francisco, people were murmuring about Tilda Swinton, wondering if the star actress would attend and speak about the show she originally curated for a New York run. Swinton starred in the 1992 movie of the same name, portraying a gender-switching member of British royalty, and the “Orlando” art exhibit also centers on gender switching — this time using photographs from different artists whom Swinton chose in conjunction with Aperture, the New York gallery and publishing concern that specializes in photography and published a special “Orlando” issue last year. 

“I hope she shows up,” said one art-goer of Swinton, speaking amid the crowd of people who came to see “Orlando” at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts. In the end, Swinton was a physical no-show, said to be overseas — either working on another film or at her home in the United Kingdom. But Swinton was essentially present at the San Francisco opening in her choices of photos, and in the essay she wrote that greeted visitors to the exhibit, in which Swinton says she now sees Virginia Woolf’s original Orlando — which inspired the 1992 movie — as being much more than a novel about gender. “I have come to see Orlando,” Swinton says, “as a story about the life and development of a human striving to become liberated entirely from the constructs of prescriptive (tired old binary) gender or social norms of any kind.” 

So class and heredity are subtexts for Swinton, and even ideas around nationality. But it’s gender fluidity that’s the foremost theme in “Orlando,” and the exhibit’s San Francisco run is a chance to see a series of large-format photos featuring Casil McArthur, a young male model who was formerly a woman. Collier Schorr’s photos show McArthur vulnerably in transition — first as a bare-breasted short-haired figure, then as someone with similar short hair but without mammary glands. Schorr photographs McArthur looking at her new male body in the mirror, with deep scars indicating the surgery that excised his breasts. Taken between 2015 and 2018, all seven images have McArthur looking away from the camera, if ever so slightly. The photos’ framing, along with McArthur’s pensive looks, suggest how seamless the transition was — that McArthur, like Swinton in Orlando, has physically transitioned but is otherwise practically the same. “Same person. No difference at all. Just a different sex,” Swinton’s character says in the movie, which she notes in the essay at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts. 

That essay is taken from Swinton’s longer piece in Aperture’s 2019 “Orlando” issue, which ends with a large photo that has seemingly nothing to do with gender: Paul Strand’s 1954 image of remote Scottish islands called the Outer Hebrides. No people are apparent in Strand’s striking black-and-white photo — just sand, grassland, mountains, and a flurry of clouds. Born in London, Swinton lives in Scotland — and has often addressed a mild controversy of whether she considers herself British or Scottish, telling a media outlet in 2018 that “I don’t quite believe the word British. I feel like it’s sort of a strictly for export term. I don’t really know what it means. I think it has something to do with a sort of political attitude.”

Swinton’s public reckoning with her nationality is one reason it’s easy for the actress to link “Orlando” to subjects far beyond gender. And this focus on nationality is seen in the McEvoy exhibit with Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s images of “Moors” — or Africans, who are featured in Woolf’s Orlando as vanquished people of past British colonization efforts. In one “Orlando” photo, Sepuya has fastened Orientalist images of Africans to a window pane, which lets the sun filter through and reduce the images’ clarity. The photo is an almost direct response to the opening line in Woolf’s Orlando, which celebrates gender fluidity but also Britain’s colonial legacy of violence: “He — for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it — was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.” Sepuya, who often does projects around queerness and race, has said Orlando is “one of the most influential writings for me on the nature of portraiture.” 

Woolf’s original book included actual portraits — photos that artist Carmen Winant uses to front bigger photos of Winant at a younger age, in the shower with scratch marks. Like Casil McArthur, Winant reveals her bare flesh and the scratches from her fingernails that indicate a deep vulnerability and a transition to something else. Winant is using Woolf’s work to come to terms with her own issues. There’s an explicit connection here, unlike with other artists in “Orlando,” who leave visitors guessing — just like Swinton did with movie-goers in Sally Potter’s movie rendition of Woolf’s celebrated novel.

Sophie Calle’s Curtained Photos

Curtains are a powerful visual aesthetic. They can be used to ensure privacy (as in hospital rooms), to create the impression of power (as with the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz), and to instill an atmosphere of anticipation (as in Broadway openings). 

At Fraenkel Gallery, French artist Sophie Calle incorporates curtains that work as anticipatory shawls. Over a series of her photos, Calle has placed felt curtains with words that are preludes and set-ups for the images beneath. Because Calle can be funny, some of the photos almost become punchlines — codas to the preceding joke, as in the image of Calle breast-feeding a baby that’s not hers, which follows this curtained wording: “Because I found a seven-word definition of me online: ‘Sophie Calle, artist without child by choice.’ Out of sheer mischief, since one happens to be around.” Each curtained image at Fraenkel begins with the word “Because,” and when you lift up all the curtains — more than a dozen in two rooms — you’re reminded that Calle is always revealing as much about herself as she is about the quirky, poetic world at large. 

Yarrow Slaps Finds His Groove

San Francisco artist Yarrow Slaps has said he paints “portraits of people that most look down on” and paints them “in a glorious peaceful manner,” and it’s true. The men and women who stare out from his canvases — often men and women of color — are going about their lives with both an everydayness and a style that says they’re worth watching. At Guerrero Gallery, Slaps goes beyond this template — applying his colorful paint strokes to lionize such figures as basketball star Allen Iverson and rap artist Nipsey Hussle, who both became cultural icons across races. 

And Slaps turns his attention to the 2018 Lake Merritt incident involving “Barbeque Becky” (whose real name is Jennifer Schulte) and the African-Americans who were grilling in the park — creating not just an interpretive panorama of the afternoon in question but a whole layout preceding the painting, complete with an actual grill, lounge chairs, and a faux grassy area with a path. “Keep Pushin’,” says the start of the path. Like Sophie Calle, Slaps has found a memorable way to build upon a single view. The view alone would have been worth it. But the build-out gives it an oomph — even a darkly funny one — that makes the view even more rewarding. 

“Orlando”

Through May 2 at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, 1150 25th St. Free; 415-580-7605, mcevoyarts.org

“Sophie Calle: Because”

Through March 21 at Fraenkel Gallery, 49 Geary. Free;
415-981-2661, fraenkelgallery.com

“Yarrow Slaps: NA(w)LA(se) nostalgia . . . ancient wunz . . . labor . . . self-exploration”

Through Feb. 22 at Guerrero Gallery, 1465 Custer. Free;
415-400-5168, guerrerogallery.com.

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