Melanie Manchot "Love is a Stranger"
Portland Institute for Contemporary Art
219 NW 12th, 242-1419
Through March 23

London-based, German artist Melanie Manchot sets out to confront viewers with identity politics, issues of intimacy, and canons of beauty. Her mission is, for the most part, accomplished in the exhibit "Love is a Stranger," a selection of video and photographic works at PICA.

Manchot, at her most aggressive, is revealed in the "Gestures of Demarcation." The five large color photographs capture a nude Manchot, standing at attention in front of various urban and rural backdrops. In each photograph, a second figure, who looks away from the camera, pulls on Manchot's bare flesh. They are dramatic and slightly enigmatic scenes. Manchot's expression is one neither of pleasure or pain--in fact, she seems indifferent. Here Manchot has managed to tease out a little discomfort from the viewer, as we consider not only the physical tension involved, but we also wonder about the psychological tension between Manchot and each of her unidentified provocateurs.

"Liminal Portraits" is a series of panoramic color photographs that feature the artist's mother, Margret. In each, the aged model is nude. Manchot utilizes a shallow depth of field here, so the focus is placed on the figure in the foreground. The images are a detailing of flesh and weathered expression. The backgrounds are faded and blurred, ranging from urban settings to the beauty of a rural landscape.

The figure pops in almost a surreal fashion, and the images have the capacity to engulf the viewer with their scale and color intensity. A stellar example is "The Flowerbed with Open Hands" (ABOVE) in which the model towers over a row of flowering plants. Her nude body is exposed, revealing every wrinkle, sag, and bulge. The backdrop is a blue sky, the whispy clouds form a sort of halo around the woman. Her expression is one of concern, and one that seeks revelation and salvation. It is essentially an iconographic image, though not traditional. Instead of looking upward for universal truths, the figure glances downward at her own hands for an answer to appear.

The show-stopper is a video entitled, "For a Moment Between Strangers." For this work, Manchot confronted people on the street and asked each stranger to kiss her. She recorded these interactions by way of a hidden surveillance camera in her jacket. The reactions of the strangers ranged from outright eagerness to utter disgust. The work packs an immediate punch, one guided by comedy for sure, but it also reaches some deeper, sociological nuggets. Middle-aged businessmen almost universally scoffed at Manchot, while a younger generation, both male and female, were entirely game.

The kisses ranged from a polite peck to a few long and deep lovelies. She bravely confronts all fashions of people--even a nervous man of the cloth. There are points where one feels they are with Manchot on the street and as such, one is privy to the same embarrassment and nervousness. One ultimately ends up cheering when a stranger smiles at Manchot and agrees to lock lips.

Conversely, one feels anger and betrayal when folks give Manchot the "Get away from me you dirty whore," look. One of the best moments happens when Manchot approached an elderly woman. The sweet-faced grandma giggled and blushed, but ultimately gave Manchot a quick peck before scurrying off, shaking her head, laughing to herself, and quite possibly uttering, "Crazy artist!"