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As children, we are warned not to talk to strangers. Obviously, our parents had our best interests at heart, but this doesn’t make for the most adventurous encounters or generate many new friends. Stranger Self at Gallery CA, curated by Haley Palmore and Joseph Shaikewitz, presents the work of four artists who examine the idea of ‘the stranger’ (and strangeness) from a variety of angles. Inside this elegant and small space, works by Nancy Daly, Jackie Milad, Benoit Paillé, and Laura Payne are given the opportunity to cross-pollinate and converse, forging an interest and empathy towards the unknown qualities in others.

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Benoit Paillé ‘s photos of random people on the beach are both curious and compelling. The telltale wire to the shutter on his camera, highly visible in each shot, is essential to their success. Not only does it communicate that each subject is a willing partner in the shot, that each photographs themselves as they would like to be seen, but it serves as a literal connection between the unseen photographer and his subjects. The beach seems to be an appropriate spot for brief encounters of oversharing, because the intimate details of bodies, wrinkled, tanned, and tattooed in this case, are already on display.

Obviously, these people find the photographer trustworthy and interesting, or they wouldn’t submit to the experience, no matter how brief or fleeting. The works are strong, but the inclusion of six of these photos, printed at a medium size in luscious, saturated beach color, is too lean. A larger accumulation of photos, even if squeezed into the small space in a tight grid, as well as subjects in different locations and environments, would create a stronger sense of wonder and give a better sense of the artist’s mission, only hinted at in these six.

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At the center of the gallery, Nancy Daley’s white box contraptions with turning cranks invite participation, but I am not sure if I am allowed to interact with them so I do not. Daley’s sculptures borrow text from the “missed connections” on Craigslist, an online hub where people attempt to reunite with those they shared brief and obscure encounters. As you turn the handle, a white, styrafoam substance is forced through the dark, negative shapes of the text, play-dough style, and the words become more and more obscured. Bits of text crack and flay into white shavings on the floor, a metaphor for the ephemerality of such encounters.

The boxes are well constructed and humorous, and also a bit sentimental, which I enjoy. From a formal standpoint, it would be interesting to see them rendered in different sizes or using different metals – at their current size they appear to be boxes sitting on top of metal stools, and, from a distance, could come off as giant music boxes, but could reference something more specific.

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Laura Payne’s photorealistic, yet optically challenging portraits, layer two contrasting images with red and green ‘3-D’ colors. Both paintings depict head shots of women over a certain age (which oddly look a bit like Cindy Sherman), with the before and after images from each’s plastic surgery. Under Payne’s deft hands, the two separate selves coalesce into an odd conundrum of wrinkles and strategically placed hair-do’s, and you are left to ponder the physical and psychological changes that each individual desires for herself. What is interesting about these two pieces is that both appearances, before and after, read like a mask. We never know either figure intimately, although we know their secrets.

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Jackie Milad’s encyclopedia of small, cartoon heads depict a number of different human emotions in a comical way. Although all the figures are bald, they’re not necessarily male or female, old or young. The figures read more as an everyman character, and their generic homogeneity emphasizes the tiny differences between each head. Using the drawings as a starting point in the gallery, Milad provides gallery visitors the opportunity to commune with her characters. Several hand mirrors and tan, plastic bathing caps hang on the wall, not as sculpture but as props for an impromptu performance.

Next to the drawings, a grid of photos depict other participants – men and women wearing the ‘bald head’ cap and making exaggerated expressions. It is rare to have the chance to literally become the a character from a drawing on a wall – and it’s an awkward transaction, but also an appealing one. Milad’s work has the ability to beckon a complete stranger into looking ridiculous in public. It unites strangers visually, and, paradoxically, breaks down the usual barriers of polite appearances expected in an art gallery.

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During most of our life, we walk through the world surrounded by strangers. Even with those who know us the best, we keep the darkest and oddest parts of ourselves hidden, for the most part. Although artists tend to “let their freak flag fly” more than other types of folks, this show is, thankfully, not about this. There are no deep, dark secrets unearthed here. What makes the works in Stranger Self compelling are the unique, elaborate, and oddball methods each artist employs to connect their message to their audience.

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Gallery CA is a contemporary arts space devoted to showcasing local, regional, national and international artists. The gallery also serves as an agent for community engagement by offering regular programming and creating sustainable partnerships with local arts institutions and community organizations. Gallery CA is located on the ground floor of the City Arts building, which houses 69 artist live/work spaces.

Stranger Self, curated by Haley Palmore and Joseph Shaikewitz, is up until March 31 at Gallery CA.

Website: www.galleryca.org.