Amy Arbus Breaks Down the Fourth Wall

The photographer's fixation on costumes and disguises blurs the line between fiction and reality.

The primacy of form over substantive content is integral to Amy Arbus‘ photography. Her 1986 book No Place Like Home captured weird home environments and kitschy interior-decorating schemes: kitchens with slanty walls and checkerboard Formica floors, houses designed to look like the inside of a tree trunk or aquarium, leafy wallpaper, cubist rug patterns, or ceilings painted to resemble an expansive Day-Glo sky. In The Inconvenience of Being Born (1999), she photographed chubby, Kewpie dolls in raw emotional states: burbling happily and crinkling their fat cheeks, or staring through the page with furrowed brows and wide, wet eyes. Her 2006 anthology On the Street: 1980-1990 celebrated the post-punk and material girl styles of trendsetters and fashionistas in New York, including Joey Arias, Madonna, and the Clash.

In this year’s book, The Fourth Wall, Arbus remains fixated on costumes, disguises, and highly stylized exteriors. In fact, she takes the theme and ratchets it up a notch by photographing actors “fully in character,” but outside of their stage sets. Like On the Street, this book celebrates the constructedness of identity, except it’s less about bringing one’s individuality to the surface. Rather, The Fourth Wall lives up to its title — a phrase swiped from 19th-century realist theater and popularized by 20th-century playwright Bertolt Brecht. In an effort to blur the line between fiction and reality, Arbus puts her actors in random public spaces, but has them do exactly what they do onstage: create a persona and inhabit it.

Thus, Alan Cumming appears dressed as the master of ceremonies from Cabaret, drinking wine in a bathroom furnished with bottles of vitamin E lotion, a hair dryer, and leopard-print upholstery. Patrick Page stands glowering outside the Hilton Theatre on a wet and drizzly day, dressed as the Grinch who stole Christmas. Christine Ebersole is caught in a well-scrubbed public restroom, dressed in the raggedy, safety-pinned costume of “Little” Edie Beale, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ eccentric cousin. Appended to each photograph is a brief play synopsis that offers some background for the character’s psychology: Edie Beale is caught in an acrimonious codependent relationship with her mother; Cabaret‘s MC is a lecherous ne’er-do-well who tries to lure the audience into his seedy nocturnal world; the Grinch is a cranky old Scrooge out to corrupt the Whos of Whoville. Ostensibly, such descriptions exist to provide context and help anchor the viewer. But in reality, they make the accompanying portraits seem even more perplexing.

Amy Arbus will discuss The Fourth Wall and tell the stories behind her images this Friday, April 18, at UC Berkeley’s Sibley Auditorium. 6:30 p.m. $10.


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