In Marcel Pardo Ariza’s four portraits, in Dismantling Monoliths at SF Camerawork, hung at different heights, the people photographed embrace tenderly and stand side by side. None of them looks at the viewer. 

Ariza wanted it that way. We think of portraiture as showing the whole body, they said, but that’s not necessary. 

“What I’m claiming with my work is that even just allowing people to see gestures of yourself can give you a glimpse of who that person is while still not revealing their face,” they told Hyperallergic. “There’s this idea of the agency of concealment, and how much you decide to show and for whom.”

The photos are part of a series, After Touch, that Ariza made in the summer of 2021, after vaccinations had become available and people were gathering again. 

Marcel Pardo Ariza’s installation in the exhibition Dismantling Monoliths at SF Camerawork (photo Henrik Kam)

“There was this idea that not touching each other for a long time was an act of solidarity, and then we were seeing each other again and sharing this intimacy,” Ariza said. “I had just had top surgery, and I was feeling like this idea of touch for myself had also changed because I felt like I had a new body.”

Jamil Hellu, the curator of Dismantling Monoliths, chose artists like Ariza who he sees as trying to reframe historical legacies. 

“Marcel is bringing to full front a conversation of trans visibility and trans expression in a way that celebrates trans identity,” Hellu told Hyperallergic. “The work is epic. It’s what is needed right now.”

Hellu, who lives in San Francisco and teaches at Stanford University’s art department, says he has seen a change in his students that started with protests over the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in 2020. 

“I find the students have an active voice in ways that I haven’t experienced before,” he said. “It’s how they talk about these issues in the classroom, and the discussions around awareness of the lack of representation of women, not only in the arts, but in general, and the lack of racial representation. They’re really eager to express themselves around the issues of social injustice.”

Installation view of Dismantling Monoliths (photo Henrik Kam)

Dismantling Monoliths includes three Bay Area artists, and another three from other parts of the United States. He said this grouping was meant to “connect local artists with outside conversations.”

Aaron Turner, a photographer and professor at the University of Arkansas’ art department who has work from his Black Alchemy series in the show, appreciates the idea of artistic dialogue with other artists.

“I kind of borrowed this concept of the ‘discursive enterprise’ from Kerry James Marshall who speaks about it in different lectures,” Turner told Hyperallergic. “It’s this whole idea about how we all as artists are connected, in terms of how our work is in conversation with one another. The different ideas that we pursue in the studio environment, it’s all a part of the discursive enterprise.”

Aaron Turner, Meanings of the past (2020) (photo Allyson Huntsman)

One of Turner’s works in the show features two images of Frederick Douglas, reflected in splintered hand mirrors. He expounded on his use of abstraction to examine issues of identity, history, and representation in his work. 

“I use abstraction to speak about race and challenge that notion. I merge abstraction and representation together,” he said. “I use a lot of archival material, and I might have a particular opinion about Malcolm X or a particular opinion about a time in history, but I’m not necessarily trying to win an argument about history. I’m just trying to present it in a meditative way to revisit history and have a conversation about it.”

San Francisco artist Forrest McGarvey is one of the few in this who does not use a camera. Instead, he uses found material and images he finds on sites like Pinterest and Google Images, wanting to find ways to represent himself with images by others. In his series Re:Presentation, he has made collages he says “reflect on the performance of identity” from images about the history of the Pacific, video games, film, and television. 

The artists who spoke with Hyperallergic agreed that photography, now an accessible and immediate medium, is a particularly fitting vehicle to express change in social attitudes.   

“In the education of photography, we’ve talked about the same people over and over again. Even when I was a student, I was just learning about Minor White and Ansel Adams, and all these people,” Ariza said. “I think we’re in a moment where we’re uncovering Black and Brown photographers.” 

Forrest McGarvey, “Untitled (2020) (image courtesy of the Artist)

Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter in San Francisco. She has written stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, California Teacher,...