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I didn't mean to turn you on: a work in Lillian Mulero's exhibit Mouth Open.

Two Forms of ID
By David Brickman

Ray Felix: Alter I
Lillian Mulero: Mouth Open

Fulton Street Gallery, through March 20

If gender/identity topics in art are not your thing, you may want to skip this review. Then again, they’re not my thing—at all—yet I quite enjoyed the time I spent examining and contemplating the aptly paired shows by Ray Felix of Troy and Lillian Mulero of Albany at Fulton Street Gallery. And, though related in theme, they are clearly conceived and presented as two shows, in separate spaces, rather than as a two-person show.

Felix is the discovery here, in that he is a young photographer who has not shown much before, and his multi-part installation (or multiple installations) fully occupies the long, large front gallery at Fulton Street; meanwhile Mulero—a seasoned area artist with many shows to her credit all over the country—fills the tiny back gallery with a spare presentation of nine small pieces representing an ongoing body of work.

This is neither to equate quantity with quality nor to dismiss Mulero’s very potent art; rather, it is meant to portray the significance of Felix’s accomplishment in what seems to be his solo debut, an understandable hint of greenness notwithstanding.

Alter I is an obvious pun and is actually a series of altars, each evoking a bathroom situation. Felix has assembled a nice collection of medicine cabinets and altered them (he also has three installations that are not medicine cabinets: one with a toilet seat—kind of a cross between Marcel Duchamp and Farrell Bros. Plumbing—one with a sink and one with a mirror and vanity table). His photography appears as self-portraits printed directly on the mirrors, so we confront each scene as if we were Felix seeing himself in the glass.

A variety of getups define the Felix we encounter, all of which present a young, apparently gay man exploring aspects of his identity through appearance. There’s the earnest fellow in glasses and necktie, the Village person with a leather biker cap, a guy putting on lipstick and so on. Inside each cabinet are accoutrements and oddities, some arranged fairly chaotically, as in a normal bathroom, some with a more highly ritualized appearance and content.

A major element of these creations is the transgressive nature of the viewer’s participation—after all, by looking, we are prying—yet our curiosity insists that we look. And Felix encourages this invasion by rewarding it with the intriguing selection and arrangement of the cabinets’ contents. The fact that we have all at one time or another peeked into a friend’s or even a stranger’s medicine cabinet adds to the universal appeal of Felix’s pieces.

Felix’s skill in creating these vignettes is well-honed, but his overall presentation is somewhat wan. The black-and-white color scheme harks back to the techno ’80s, with floor tiles, metal piping and plastic shower curtains added as decor. It is not entirely clear to me if this is simply a style he likes or an intentional reach for a certain form of nostalgia (perhaps to a pre-AIDS gay culture).

Purely in terms of style, the greatest strength of the show is Felix’s photography, which makes the most of the silveriness of the mirrors and works quite well as self-portraiture of the playing dress-up (or undress-up) variety. And the collections he arranges for our voyeuristic pleasure are irresistible.

Mulero also has a particular color scheme to her show but it is more up-to-date. The seven drawings and two paintings she presents, even the walls they hang on, are all bright orange and white. They each depict a woman in some state of nudity, most of them bordering on or actually crossing the border into soft pornography. But the subjects cover a fairly wide range of age, race and physical type, which collectively forms a presence like that of a series of portraits, rather than pictures made individually to turn on the prurient viewer.

Mulero has a deft hand with a pencil and a great feel for portrait, expression and gesture. Compositionally, she adds a bit of intrigue to several of the pictures by including other works of art at their fringes. The titles are women’s names that feel made up, like those of strippers: Cindy, Solange, Carmela, China, Scarlet. After wondering if they were just the subjects’ names, I noticed that one drawing and one painting had the same subject and composition but unmatched names (Cora and Amber), so decided they were in fact titles, not names.

I also couldn’t say for sure whether these images are drawn from life, from photos (perhaps out of porno mags) or elsewise. While it is unnecessary to know the answer, it is important to understand that the work raises these kinds of questions. Are they a comment on stripper and porn culture? Are they honest depictions of women comfortable with their very imperfect bodies? Are they indeed meant to turn us on?

It is impossible for me to speak from the artist’s point of view for this work. She is a heterosexual woman of Puerto Rican descent, past 50, who is known to grapple with themes of feminism and cultural identity. So, I take these pictures as somehow feminist, empowering to women—yet, were these same drawings and paintings made by a hetero male, my interpretation would definitely be different, probably leaning toward a critique of their cheesy and exploitative characteristics.

And this is just fine. Clearly, different viewers will have very different responses to this work, and Mulero knows it. I suspect for her that’s part of the fun—and part of the point.

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