UPPER WEST SIDE — Laura Swanson's "Resistance" show, which opened this week at the JCC Manhattan, isn't meant to shame viewers about their attitudes towards physical differences.
Instead it uses humor to spark a conversation, she said.
The exhibit, which is free and open to the public, explores how Swanson relates to the world as a 4-foot tall person, and also our notions about dwarfism, through her photography and sculpture.
Visitors have been drawn to the seven faceless mannequins dressed in clothing and uniforms from a variety of time periods and professions that line the eastern wall of the gallery, said Megan Whitman, curator of the Laurie M. Tisch Gallery at the JCC.
Swanson altered the mannequins so that they have her body size and dressed them in custom-made outfits that obscure their faces in some way.
There are three mannequins in professional uniforms with masks — a welder, a beekeeper and a fencer. Three mannequins are outfitted in cultural dress, including one wearing a burqa, another in mourning dress and another in a Shaker cloak. The last mannequin is dressed as a plague doctor from the Middle Ages, wearing a protective mask.
The figures beg the question: "What do we think of these people when they become small?" said Whitman. In this way, Swanson is "playing with our physical preconceptions."
Swanson, 37, an emerging artist hosting her first solo show, said she was interested in exploring privacy and agency through the figures.
"I started thinking about if you see a person of average adult height wearing a uniform they wouldn't judge or question... [however] when something is made smaller in scale does it change the meaning?" Swanson explained.
In other words, do the figures end up "as a visual spectacle?" she asked.
Another part of the exhibit centers around staged photos of herself that Swanson took, which Whitman described as "formally very beautiful."
One photo shows Swanson hiding behind a hotel pillow that's roughly the size of her body. Another shows her completely covered by a coat.
"There's this tension in her life and in her work about the simultaneous desire to be seen and hidden," said Whitman.
Swanson delves into that desire with her portraits, which bring levity to the exhibit, and also with her "anti-selfies."
The series of Instagram photos that are a part of the show also feature Swanson's face obscured from view.
"They're playful and humorous," said Swanson of these Instagram photos. "They're looking at expectations of the selfie and what happens when difference is represented."
The works should be viewed as part of a larger conversation about differences and disability, but also as part of an "innovative" and "incredible" show, apart from those themes, said Whitman.
"It's a brave show. It's very honest. Everything is about her physical body and what she's struggling with," Whitman said.
But because Swanson is being genuine about her struggles that "allows people to respond with warmth," and makes the show accessible, she added.