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Martine Gutierrez Plumbs Perceptions of Identity, Sexuality

Artist takes on different personas in new Stone Gallery show

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A captivating new show on view at the Faye G., Jo, and James Stone Gallery combines fashion photography, music videos, and classic film as ways of exploring the construction of gender and self. The solo exhibition Martine Gutierrez: True Story features work by Brooklyn-based performance artist Martine Gutierrez, whose seductive, gender-bending video and photographic projects have caught the attention of Vogue, New York magazine, and the New York Times.

Curated by Jordan Karney Chaim (GRS’19), a PhD candidate in the Arts & Sciences history of art and architecture department and BU’s Raymond and Margaret Horowitz Foundation Fellow in American Art, the show consists of six videos, two large-scale projections, and four photographic series. In them Gutierrez assumes a variety of roles—pop star, exotic dancer, sex doll, among others. Each work explores concepts of identity and sexuality while underscoring the sense of performance intrinsically bound to them.

Her videos bathe the darkened gallery in an ethereal, bouncing light. Along the walls, monitors with headphones display pieces like Head 2 Toe, where the artist performs original music while taking on a pop star persona. (Gutierrez is also a musician and producer, and her music has been featured in collaborations with such fashion powerhouses as Saint Laurent and Dior.) As she gyrates to the music, scantily clothed and wearing heavy, exaggerated makeup, the artist plays up the tropes of hypersexualized, female-centric music videos.

Head 2 Toe still of female in a jean jacket and jean shorts

Head 2 Toe, 2015, still from color video with sound, by Martine Gutierrez. Courtesy of the artist and Ryan Lee, New York

All of the pieces in the exhibition in some way explore exaggerated constructions of femininity. “Martine has an acute sensitivity to the highly coded nature of the visual languages that inform her work,” says Chaim. “By portraying familiar female types, she illuminates the fabricated nature of such icons of femininity and begins questioning the authenticity not just of these characters, but also of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and love.”

Gutierrez’s work is designed to challenge the viewer to think about notions of what is real and authentic. “I am not interested in giving answers to people,” she said in a 2015 Interview magazine profile. “I would much rather have someone have to process [my work]… Maybe they don’t perceive that anything is not what it seems, and that in itself is interesting to me, that they’re willing to accept it even though there’s definitely aspects of the reality within the image that don’t make any sense.”

“Martine wants the viewer to believe that they know something about these women when they are looking at the work,” Chaim says. “Narrative is what opens the works up to nuance; it’s what raises the stakes.”

Visitors to the exhibition can listen to the audio only by donning headphones, and this intimate setup makes for the immersive, individualized experience of being pulled into the visual narrative Gutierrez has painstakingly crafted. Each piece is highly stylized and emphasizes the act of crafting an image, immediately calling into question what we believe to be true.

Such stylization is particularly apparent in Gutierrez’s photographic series Real Dolls, where she assumes the role of four different sex dolls, posing amid intricate domestic tableaux. In Real Dolls (Raquel 4), her red-headed character lies on the hardwood floor of a sun-washed kitchen, arms stiffly behind her head. Next to her is an open dishwasher full of dishes. The photographs, for all their mannequin-like quality, are made dynamic by the compelling narratives Gutierrez has created.

mannequin wearing a silver dress laying on kitchen floor in front of an open dishwasher

Real Dolls (Raquel 4), 2013; archival inkjet print, by Martine Gutierrez. Courtesy of the artist and Ryan Lee, New York

The star of the Stone Gallery show, however, is the nine-part episodic work Martine, Parts I-IX, the only piece with sound playing throughout the gallery (no headphones needed). The room is filled with fantastical sounds—Gutierrez’s breathy voice, her dreamily composed scores, the hum of nature. Projected on a loop, the episodes show Martine the character in different scenes: climbing the stairs of a monumental building, swaying amidst tropical plants, floating in a crystalline pool. In many scenes, she is clad in a short white crocheted dress with thigh-high socks, in others, she sports a bold drawn-on pencil mustache, and in some she wears enormous headphones, much like the gallery visitors listening to her videos.

Gutierrez’s video series “are just really mesmerizing,” says Lynne Cooney (GRS’10,’16), artistic director of the Boston University Art Galleries. “You’re mesmerized by the music and the lighting…but it’s her, too, and she does that intentionally. She’s always voguing for the camera in some way.”

The work also serves in part as a warning, with Gutierrez repeating a mantra in Martine, Part V, that says, “We are not real. What we are tomorrow is not necessarily what we are today.”

Born Martín Gutierrez, the artist earned a BFA from Rhode Island School of Design in 2012 and has expressed a desire to get away from assigned labels. “For a long time I have been living fluid concepts of gender with an awareness that the space between the binaries is the only place to find complete freedom,” she told Autre magazine in October.

“I thought about how relevant this work is to a university community,” says Chaim. “Not just because it addresses what have become timely issues surrounding gender identity, but because so much of the college experience is about self-discovery and self-fashioning.”

Martine Gutierrez: True Story is on view at the Faye G., Jo, and James Stone Gallery, 855 Commonwealth Ave., through Sunday, December 11. The gallery is open Tuesday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., Thursdays until 8 p.m., closed Monday; free and open to the public.

Mara Sassoon can be reached at msassoon@bu.edu.

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