I spent five summers working at a day camp in various capacities, including being a counselor. Working with children surprised me and I was amazed by the somewhat grown-up nature of the things that the children worried about. Some children who I looked after would often reveal worries or hopes to me, stunning me with their candid sincerity.
This led me to wonder how children see the world. Judy Gelles‘ “The Fourth Grade” project offers a window into the mind and heart of a fourth grader. In the project, now on view at Pentimenti Gallery, Gelles interviewed children from schools in the US, India and China and asked them three questions: With whom do you live? What do you wish for? and What do you worry about?
The result is a group of images that is an honest representation of society through the eyes of nine year-olds.
Gelles’s show at Pentimenti includes several series of works by the artist, including the Fourth Grade project, a trailer park series and a series of works on bath houses in Australia. When I entered the gallery, I decided to check out the “Fourth Grade” project first. In each portrait, a single fourth grader stands in the center of the frame. Each child’s uniform and outfit provides instant visual contrast. And though there were no titles provided for any of the portraits, the attitudes of each boy and girl are so strong they allow you to create your own name for the child.
In the back of the gallery, a video installation plays on a loop. The video begins with a loud burst of playground noise; laughter and shouts echo in jubilant cacophony. In this piece, the still portraits of the children flash onto the screen while the words of their answers to Gelles’s questions are presented on the image and surround and outline their bodies. The children’s responses — in audio captured by the artist — can also be heard through the speakers. One child waves a peace sign in the air, while another stands with feet planted apart and her hands on her hips. I felt as though I had absorbed each interaction fully by first seeing the children, then hearing the voices and reading their words.
I shared this show with several of my co-workers and was pleased that the show’s ideas sparked interesting discussion about social issues. Many of my co-workers remarked that despite everything adults do to protect children from worry and fear, children still have to deal with a lot. For example, one child answers that she is excited to visit her father in jail; another girl expresses the hope that all her family will be able to live together in one house. Several children share that they fear being robbed. Many children share worries about money. One boy states that he has three enemies in school who bully him. These issues are all reflective of larger social issues and trends, just seen from a smaller perspective. As I watched the video, I hoped for these children and connected with them. I empathized with those children who spoke of trouble in their family’s lives.
The remainder of the show is comprised of three series of photographs. One series, “After 9/11,” features portraits of Muslim women in traditional clothing with logos of designer fashion companies repeated in a watermark over each image. Another series, “Beach Boxes,” is a set of smaller images that offer a focused view of beach huts in Melbourne, Australia. These huts have been passed down through families and are treasured mementos of the past.
The final series takes the viewer to Melbourne Beach, Florida. Gelles photographed mobile homes in a close-knit community of wintertime beach-goers. The artist shot the scenes in the evening, when everyone is inside. In these smaller works, Gelles creates vivid documentaries of the places, times and traditions.
“I Want to Grow Up Fast,” to Feb. 23. Pentimenti Gallery, 145 N. 2nd St. All images are courtesy of the artist.