When you arrive at “Dismantling Monoliths,” you can sense relief and acceptance moving through the gallery. The exhibition’s six artists are taking apart conventions around identity, culture and power dynamics that have loomed large in art history.  

On view through March 25 at SF Camerawork at Fort Mason Center (the gallery’s new location since September 2022), “Dismantling Monoliths” features photography, mixed-media and video, but its artists are not simply documenting what’s on the other side of the lens. They have a vested interest in revealing another view, even when the imagery is familiar. 

“The inspiration for this exhibition came from thinking critically about the deep desire for cultural changes and social awakening brought us by the Black Lives Matter, LGBTQI+ and #MeToo movements in recent years,” says guest curator Jamil Hellu. “More than ever, artists challenge social traditions, interrogate historical biases and expand the range of identity expression.” 

Tarrah Krajnak, “#1 Self Portrait as Weston/as Bertha Wardell,” 1927/2020 from the series “Master Rituals II: Weston’s Nudes,” 2020, is a reaction to Edward Weston’s famous nude series. (Image courtesy Tarrah Krajnak and Galerie Thomas Zander)

Oregon artist Tarrah Krajnak, originally from Lima, Peru, takes on male-dominated storytelling with “Master Rituals II: Weston’s Nudes,” a series of 18 images that re-enact Edward Weston’s famous nudes. Shot in 1927 and published as a series in 1977, Weston’s “Nudes” are among his most iconic works. He studied the female form, mostly at rest, as an artwork in itself. Weston’s execution and focus on white female beauty are among the traditions this show pushes against. Here, Krajnak stares back at the viewer and controls the shot as model and photographer.   

Arkansas-based artist Aaron Turner redefines the portrait with his abstracted imagery of former slave, writer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The image appears to be cut up and reassembled; studying it inspires all kinds of ideas and concepts. If we are destroyed and put back together, who do we become? If we dismantle a monolith and use our own tiles, colors and shapes to build something new, what will emerge? 

Alanna Fields’ 2019 multimedia work “Untitled (Blue)” leaves viewers with a sense of longing. (Image courtesy Alanna Fields) 

Alanna Fields, a New York-based mixed-media artist also takes us back in time. Fields uses photographic archives to explore Black queer history, and then augments the image, creating a mesmerizing effect that adds movement and texture.  

In “You Lived Here Inside My Mind,” the subject smiles into the camera, frozen in a pose that appears both comfortable and staged. They’re settled, yet on their way somewhere. In “Untitled (Blue),” Fields applied blocks of encaustic material to an archival image of two Black subjects, obscuring parts of their bodies. The images leave behind a sense of longing. We have just enough visual information to connect with Fields’ subjects, and now we want to know more.   

The anonymity of some of the imagery inspires curiosity and wonder.  

Trans visual artist Marcel Pardo Ariza’s photographs add a special intimacy to the show. Born in Colombia and based in Oakland, Pardo Ariza shot their images during the pandemic. The COVID vaccine was available, and people were gathering again “for the first time,” Pardo Ariza recalls.  

Oakland artist Marcel Pardo Ariza’s works — “Lu & HH, 2021” is pictured — invoke a sense of intimacy. (Image courtesy Marcel Pardo Ariza and OCHI)

Pardo Ariza’s naked subjects hold each other against a backdrop of knotted ropes. Most of their subjects’ faces are obscured. Pardo Ariza captures little details that delight our senses. Tiny turquoise beads, tied into florets, rest on the nape of a neck. Another subject wears an old-school digital watch and dangles bondage gear down their back. There is power and vulnerability in the subjects’ poses and props. 

The show is concise, but the impact is sprawling and disruptive.  

“The reactions of the show have been truly amazing and quite positive,” Hellu says. “People have specially commented on how cohesive and intellectually stimulating the exhibition is.”

Hellu and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Assistant Curator of Photography Shana Lopes lead a walkthrough of the show at 2 p.m. March 11; to register click here.

“Dismantling Monoliths” runs through March 25 at SF Camerawork, Fort Mason Center, Building A, 2 Marina Blvd., San Francisco. Hours are noon to 6 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; noon to 8 p.m. Fridays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays. Admission is free. Visit sfcamerawork.org.