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Deconstructing Binary Gender Norms Through Mutable Self-Portraits

Artist Alex Orellana deconstructs gender with photographs and code.
Images courtesy the artist and Chazen Museum of Art.

Whether transitioning or not, many transgender and non-binary people must undergo a series of personal journeys, both with the self and in the eyes of others. Artist Alex Orellana takes this topic on in their new exhibition, Middle Child: Photographs, now on at the University of Wisconsin's Chazen Museum of Art, which shows how a combination of hormones, clothes, hairstyle, posture, and other subtle cues can determine how Orellana is perceived by others. The photographs in Middle Child essentially hijack society's gender expectations.


The exhibition's centerpiece is a video showing Orellana's face and those of their family members remixed into gender-bending composites. Orellana, who used calculating software to craft these visual mutations, also installed two grids of photos, placed on either side of the projection, allowing viewers to more closely examine the composite images.

'Self as Man', 2016. Archival inkjet print.

Orellana, who started taking hormones in 2015, says traditional genders and the term "transgender" do not accurately encapsulate them. Hormones make their cheeks fuller, skin softer, complexion clearer, muscles smaller, hips and breasts rounder, and gives them freckles when they spend time in the sun. When Orellana actively dresses more masculine or feminine, their appearance is more consistently read or experienced as a man or woman. But when Orellana dresses casually, without "hypermasculine or hyperfeminine cues," then outside perceptions can vary greatly.

A year after starting hormones, Orellana began taking self-portraits, partly inspired by selfies they took daily to compare their change in appearance over time. Orellana's daily life is impacted by androgyny, and since few representations existed that spoke to how an androgynous person navigates a social sphere dominated by binary categories, they decided to create the Middle Child body of work.

Visitor's view "Physiognomies, Print," 2017, (dye-infused aluminum print) at the reception for "Middle Child." Photo by Eric Baillies for the Chazen.

Each portrait in the exhibition features the framing and lighting typically seen in identification photographs. "I used the most standardized, objective framing and lighting available to remove as many variables as possible," says Orellana. "I didn't want to introduce subjectivity in the form, because this is about the opinions people form internally."


'Self Portrait,' 2016. Archival inkjet print.

The project's calculation software angle came about because of Orellana's interest in science and engineering. After discovering that facial analysis software is being used in modern attractiveness studies in the field of psychology, Orellana decided to create composites from corresponding data points on two faces, which was appealing given that it features two people being mixed together.

These composite images intersected with Orellana's interest with their place in their family. The second of three children, Orellana lies aesthetically somewhere between their older brother's square, masculine features and their younger sister's very feminine construction.

'Self as Woman,' 2016. Archival inkjet print.

"I find the mixtures especially compelling when a very masculine person, like my father, is mixed with someone very feminine like my sister," Orellana says. "I still catch myself treating the resulting face differently if I think of them as a masculine woman versus thinking of them as a feminine man. Those biases are taught very thoroughly in our society."

With Middle Child, Orellana hopes that by using the identification photograph, which contain malevolent associations relating to punishment, surveillance, and even racism, they can deconstruct gendered stereotypes. Orellana wants these images to blur the lines between the oversimplifications of the androgynous, trans, or nonbinary demographic.

Visitor's view "Physiognomies, Silhouette," 2017, (cut paper) at the reception for "Middle Child". Photo by Eric Baillies for the Chazen.

"By occupying different genders from the same body, I hope that I can help people see beyond the standardized binary categories," Orellana says. "Underneath my masculinity and femininity I'm just another person."


'Man,' 2016. Archival inkjet print.

'Woman,' 2016. Archival inkjet print.

Click here to see more of Alex Orellana's work.


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