Who are all these people? What are they doing? And why are they here?

Finding out who, what, and why is the name of the game at “Assumed Identities,” a complex, occasionally puzzling exhibition of photographs and videos at the College of New Jersey. In this collection of the unexpected, eight artists become stars in their own productions. Staged at the art gallery in Holman Hall, the assembled works employ a mind-boggling array of captured imagery and juxtaposed symbols that examine popular assumptions and ask challenging and often profound questions about the meaning of it all.

The “cast” of the exhibit includes artists Robert Boyd, Coco Fusco, Jonathon Keats, Diane Nerwen, Michael Oatman, Roxana Perez-Mendez, Dulce Pinzon, and Xiang Yang. To tell their stories, these artists develop new personae, assume alter egos, and take on a variety of roles. In the process, the assembled characters, machinery, and contexts manipulate the familiar to explore popular conceptions and misconceptions and examine conventional meanings. Works address such specific conundra as: can faith and reason can peaceably coexist?, the significance of the unsung hero, and misconceptions regarding identity.

The collection also touches on such deep philosophical areas as the significance of the traces we each leave behind, and examines notions of purity and supremacy. “Assumed Identities” challenges the viewer to decode and interpret often unexpected graphic devices such as continuous tape loops, surprising juxtapositions that include a hooded bridal ensemble, dialog from Yiddish films, the peaked white sheets of KKK regalia, cyanobacteria, and fruit flies. Other devices, translated into larger-than-life graphic dimensions, include a real-life course taught by former US military personnel, prayers from the three major monotheistic religions, assorted costumes drawn from comic strips, segments from Hollywood and German films from the 1930s and ’40s, and a crime scene kit.

While the entertainment value of many of the works is unquestionable and will occasionally bring a smile, this is an exhibition about serious issues that frequently asks profound questions. Robert Boyd fuses an unlikely collection of icons and imagery in the Virgin Collection, with hooded garments associated with the Spanish Nazarenos and those of the KKK; Gap ads; misplaced neo-Nazi references to Pink Floyd; and wedding symbols. Wearing a hooded bridal ensemble the artist employs biting humor and mimicry to question God’s place on the phylogenetic tree and examine notions of purity and supremacy.

In Dulce Pinzon’s series, an immigrant at work is incongruously dressed as a superhero, contrasting the exaggerated stark reality of the work environment with the playful costumes and the wearer’s unacknowledged role in society — a tribute to hard-working, unsung warriors in our culture.

In Relationship Red, a video by Xian Yang, the philosophical differences between Mao Zedong and Kim Jung Il are linked using intricate stitches and long threads that connect the facing surfaces. In this work Yang makes the political inheritance and “reincarnation” between the two Communist leaders literal in a video by showing the metamorphosis from one man to the other.

Roxana Perez-Mendez’s installation, Encantada, is a fictional reconstruction of the tallest hotel in Puerto Rico. A symbol of all things new and shiny, the building’s dreamy facade is penetrated by a a row of doors with peepholes that look in on hotel workers (played by the artist). The piece creates a disturbing mix of voyeurism and surveillance, focusing on another member of the population of “invisible” people who keep things going.

In the Great Yiddish Love, set in Berlin and New York’s Lower East Side, Diane Nerwen examines aspects of Nazi anti-Semitism using film clips starring the self-exiled Marlene Dietrich and her Nazi-endorsed replacement, Zarah Leander. The artist constructs a fictional love affair between the two women using appropriated footage from Hollywood and German Ufa films from the 1930s and 40s, which is overlaid with audio from Yiddish films from the same era.

“Assumed Identities” is part of the College of New Jersey’s academic year-long program, “Religion, Culture and Identity.” The program highlights the evolution of personal and social identity as shaped by different global religions and their cultures, the varied expressions of religious experience in writings, art, film, and music, and its relationship with other cultural, social, and political developments of the past and present.

— Helen Schwartz

Assumed Identities, on view through Wednesday, December 5, College of New Jersey, Art Gallery, Holman Hall, first floor, Ewing. Curated by Sarah Cunningham, the exhibit is part of the college’s academic year-long “Religion, Culture, and Identity” program, which highlights the evolution of personal and social identity as shaped by different global religions and their cultures. Note that the gallery will be closed Wednesday through Sunday, November 21 to 25, for the Thanksgiving holiday. 609-771-2198.

Other events in the “Religion, Culture, and Identity” series include:

“Reincarnation and Eternal Resurrection in Buddhism,” Wednesday, November 14, 5 to 6:30 p.m., Library Auditorium. Public lecture by Zhihua Yao, University of Hong Kong.

Film Weekend, Saturday and Sunday, December 1 and 2, Library Auditorium. “Spirituality and Film, Two Films of 1997.” Saturday, December 1: Screening of “Taste of Cherry,” by Abbas Kiarostami (Iran, 1997), 2:30 to 4 p.m.; screening of “A Walk with Kiarostami,” by Jamsheed Akrami (2005), 4:30 to 6 p.m.; and a public lecture by Jamsheed Akrami, “Iranian Cinema: Reflections of Humanity,” 5 to 6 p.m. Sunday, December 2, screening of “The Apostle,” by Robert Duvall (US, 1997), 2 to 4 p.m. For more information visit www.tcnj.edu/~philos/religion/Fall2007Events.htm or call 609-771-2198.

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