Some months ago I was stirred and intrigued by Michael Chavez’s latest exhibit and made a special trip to see his latest work, Ghetto Superstar at Mossgreen Gallery in Melbourne. At first glance I was disappointed. Where were his duplicated images that so strikingly uncover the subjects’ complex, conflicting identities? Where were the fascinating layers of meaning, simultaneously hidden and revealed? For me, those duplications and layers had been the strength and intrigue of Chavez’s previous work, but these new pieces seemed simple, if disturbing. They starkly portray images of unbelievably beautiful women in provocative poses that shout sex-trade -- no doubt of interest to some, but not to me.
But one of the faces was clearly masculine attempting to be feminine, which was intriguing. And nearby there was another face (its defiant lips sucking on a cigarette) that was definitely male as well as female. Then I glimpsed a scar below a breast, indicating implants. But the breasts were too small for that -– unless this person had originally been a man. If three of the images were of men, or rather, people who were simultaneously men and women, what about the others? Could all of these achingly beautiful women be men? or men becoming women? or women who were no longer men? or men becoming, at least in part, beautiful women in order to profit from the sex trade? or persons who were by choice simultaneously men and women? or. . . ? If each of these pieces depicted persons who were both men and women, they did indeed contain Chavez’s signature multi-layered, complex meanings emerging from ambiguous and conflicting identities -- the defensiveness and despair when a false identity is forced upon one by societal expectations or economic necessity as well as the hope that a defiantly self-chosen identity can become as strong, and as true as the identity one was born into.
And there it was – that immensely satisfying “ah ha!” that I search for in every gallery and museum visit, that I count on finding in Michael Chavez’s work. He skillfully provides a visual surprise that blasts me into a new perspective and opens me to an unseen beauty in something I had misunderstood. This latest work is as exciting, as interesting and as profound as his last exhibit. I am very eager to see what he will do next.