German artist Marianne Wex's challenging show, An Exhibition, is a time capsule of the 1970s, but it retains the power to make us question assumptions about gender circa 2012. From 1972 to 1977, Wex cataloged the body language of men, women and children in the city of Hamburg, Germany, photographing people unawares, then counterposing the photos against images from art history, print ads and TV shows.
Reproduced at YU Contemporary 35 years later, An Exhibition shows us how the sexes comport themselves in different settings. On park benches, men sit in expansive, open-crotched sprawls, while women hold their knees discreetly together or primly crossed. On beaches, men flop themselves on the sand splay-legged, wantonly displaying bulging Speedos and beer bellies while women press their thighs scrupulously close to discourage unwanted stares. In a magazine ad, a businessman stretches, feet up on his desk, arms clasped behind his head; a nude woman is shown in the exact same position, her bare feet and exposed underarms signaling not entrepreneurial self-satisfaction but sexual availability.
In another subseries, Wex has girls and women ape stereotypically male postures, while boys and men replicate stereotypically feminine carriage. The results are intentionally or unintentionally hilarious, leading the viewer to ask why women can look natural in a pose where men look ridiculous. Wex is getting at whether body movements are inborn or learned. Wisely, instead of a polemical viewpoint, she adopts a documentarian remove.
Despite archival feel of dated fashions and black-and-white newsprint, the show poses an evergreen question: Should we celebrate differences between the genders or strive for androgyny?
Despite a promising career, Wex stopped making art in the late 1970s and devoted herself to teaching. What if she had kept at it, updating this thought-provoking body of work each decade? Would she have found lessened gender polarizations, or that we're playing the same old game in a new set of clothes?
SEE IT: An Exhibition is at YU Contemporary, 800 SE 10th Ave., 236-7996, yucontemporary.org. 1-7 pm Thursdays-Saturdays through Dec. 15.