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Leonard Nimoy (yes, that one!) probes identity in two exhibits

Leonard Nimoy, ‘‘Self Portrait With Shekhina.’’ Leonard Nimoy, ‘‘Self Portrait With Shekhina.’’
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / August 14, 2010

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Assume the photographer’s name were Nimoy Leonard. Assume no association with a certain pointy-eared science-fiction character. Would his work be the subject of two concurrent shows? Maybe. Leonard Nimoy has been taking pictures since he was 13. There’s a photograph of his first camera, a Kodak Autographic, in “Leonard Nimoy: A Retrospective,’’ which runs at R. Michelson Galleries, in Northampton, through Oct. 31. He’s published two books of photographs. And Nimoy has an eye, a visually coherent body of work, and pronounced, if not especially original, aesthetic ideas.

Would Nimoy’s photography be the subject of recent substantial feature articles in this newspaper and The New York Times? No. Would it be worth looking at it? That’s the question that matters, and the answer may depend on how you feel about Monty Hall (or at least Wayne Brady), as well as whether you think Art is superior to (and different from) art.

One big idea, identity, defines “Leonard Nimoy: Secret Selves,’’ which runs at Mass MoCA through Jan. 2. Nimoy solicited a hundred or so residents of Northampton to present themselves to be photographed as they saw their inner persons to be. Nimoy sought, in his words, “an exploration of the concept of the lost or hidden or fantasy self.’’ The inspiration, he says, was Aristophanes’s remark in Plato’s “Symposium’’ that “human nature was originally one and we were whole.’’

It all sounds very grand, as well as vaguely transgressive, not to mention like reading the minutes from a meeting of the Cindy Sherman Fan Club. Yet the most successful of the 26 color portraits at Mass MoCA are the ones that seem most incongruous, or even outright silly (in a good way).

Amanda, a waitress/cosmetologist, looks cheerfully sheepish in a dragon sweatshirt. “My father was a pastor, so . . . I had to be mature. This is my time . . . to play.’’ (Each sitter is identified by first name, with his or her occupation, followed by a sentence or two of secret-self self-description.) Christopher, an Episcopal priest, looks a bit Castro clone-ish (the San Francisco kind, not the Havana). Ira, an advertising executive, in full wizard regalia, combines phlegmatic expression and slight crouch in a way that’s rather enchanting.

There were a fair number of people at “Secret Selves’’ last Monday morning, but most weren’t looking at the pictures. They were grouped around a monitor showing video of Nimoy talking to his subjects before he photographed them. He consults a piece of paper. He asks questions. He says “Uh-huh’’ a lot. He seems like nothing so much as a game show host interviewing contestants before they compete for cash prizes. In this case, they’re competing for the attention of a celebrity, the right to have their picture taken, and the opportunity to dress up. Think of “Secret Selves’’ as the continuation of “Let’s Make a Deal’’ by other means.

Fourteen of the “Secret Selves’’ portraits are in the Northampton show. Most, though not all, are at Mass MoCA, too. The majority of the remaining 40 or so pictures in the retrospective are in black and white. These come from various projects Nimoy has undertaken over the past decade. “The Full Body Project’’ shows a group of fleshy women in various poses taken from famous paintings or photographs. “Shekhina’’ invokes sexuality, religiosity, and Jewish mysticism. The “Egg’’ and “Hand’’ series are self-explanatory. The “Black and White’’ series consists of female nudes meant to evoke sculpture. And so on.

The work shares an ardent, kitschy commitment to artiness. There are double exposures, dramatic lighting, soft focus, and a general high-mindedness slickly executed. “Self-Portrait with MRI,’’ which is just what it says it is, represents a kind of ne plus ultra deep-think goofiness. One assumes the cranium on display next to Nimoy is his, but you never know.

Nimoy’s photography is earnest and elevated. Self-aware, too. It’s interesting enough and of a piece. It’s certainly not frivolous or lazy. But it’s also inert and pretentious and, like “Secret Selves,’’ sounds a lot more impressive than it looks. This is photography that announces itself as art with a capital “a.’’ Spelling, however ambitious, is no substitute for instinctiveness, idiosyncrasy, or energy. It occurs in a void.

The best thing about the retrospective, as with “Secret Selves,’’ is the setting. The marvelousness of Mass MoCA’s factory campus is well known. The R. Michelson Galleries is in what was once the Northampton Savings Bank. The teller windows and counter are gone, but the vaults remain — as does the interior’s superb proportions. This is space with a capital “s.’’ Except that it’s more than that. It’s space full of surprise and vitality. It’s got syntax and grammar as well as spelling.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

LEONARD NIMOY: Secret Selves At: the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, 1041 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams, through Jan. 2, 2011. Call 413-662-2111 or go to www.massmoca.org.

LEONARD NIMOY: A Retrospective At: R. Michelson Galleries, 132 Main St., Northampton, through Oct. 31. Call 413-586-3964 or go to www.rmichelson.com.