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anna gaskell's "wonder"

by Robert Mahoney  

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   Anna Gaskell's first show of color photographs, titled "Wonder," offers up a masquerade in which a pair of pretty twins play at being Alice in Wonderland. Dressed in blue pinafores, white tights and black Mary Jane shoes, the girls are posed playing on the grass and exploring in the woods. The colors of the glossy, plastic-coated C prints are fresh and bright, and the images have a sophisticated sense of the polysemic potential of costume and gesture. In her new body of work -- which has sold out to eager collectors -- the 28-year-old artist brings the search for identity to a new pitch of intensity.

The mirror-like clarity of Alice's dream is given figural expression by Gaskell's use of twins. In one picture, they lie serenely on the grass, sunning their identical faces. In another scene, things are more desperate and Alice administers mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to her mirror image. Elsewhere, pictured individually, the girl falls, pulls down her leggings or tumbles through endless semiotic acrobatics. The twin here is visualized as a pure mirror image, the self reflected identically into another. The twin is a dream of self-sufficiency, a perfect source of love and friendship, the erotic component both repressed and emphasized.

Alice's blue and white costume, as Lewis Carroll knew all too well, is suggestive of the compromised innocence of the Virgin Mary. In Gaskell's photographs, in which young women are dressed as prepubescent girls, the sexuality of the sign is sublimated into the surroundings. This perhaps explains the acute light of Gaskell's pictures, a light that nearly cuts at the space and offers the prospect of unearthly security -- a kind of heaven. That is, Gaskell's Alices exist in a virtual place, a field beyond the looking glass, where reality is superimposed upon a template of fantasy and conforms to it, creating the illusion of a crystal clear world where dreams are our waking lives. This is a delightful but ultimately dangerous state of being (the bubble will burst).

Some photos are large, others are small. This simulates the problems of size that bedeviled Alice in Wonderland. It further reminds us that rapid scale-shifting in one's fantasies is taken as evidence of deepening identity problems.

Why have Gaskell's pictures generated such attention so quickly? Perhaps because they posit the classic question of identity, beyond the now-familiar (and unpleasantly vexing) issues of gender and ethnicity: who am I, where am I going, will I live and die alone? With breathtaking economy of means, Gaskell has transformed the Alice in Wonderland story into a touching coming-of-age drama, cool as a music video, as rich in performative ambiguity as Cindy Sherman's best works (though without her Gothic inflection) -- and as new as new art can feel.

Anna Gaskell, "Wonder," Nov. 14-Dec. 20, 1997, at Casey Kaplan, 48 Greene Street, New York, N.Y. 10013.

ROBERT MAHONEY is an art critic.