A giant blue tarp hung over the gallery space at Public Functionary before last week's opening of "Creature," a photography exhibit and installation by Izzy Commers. The 20-year-old Minneapolis artist was wearing spectacles, a tank top and a huge smile. It was their first solo exhibit at an art gallery (Commers prefers gender-neutral pronouns).
The 10 images on display explore the body and the self through photography that verges on abstraction, playing with light and color, with the occasional insert of a shadowy body. The tarp, hanging just 6 feet above the floor, along with a sheet of reflective mylar, is intended to make visitors feel as if they're inside a body.
It's also a fun setting for a dance party, which happened Saturday, along with the release of a slender paper 'zine filled with drawings, poetry and photos by young artists from Minneapolis, New York, Atlanta and elsewhere.
Social relationships and connections are, in fact, a driving inspiration for the show. Much of the work, Commers said, is about how to be vulnerable while holding your ground, and to accept change without feeling intense feelings of loss, or like "everything is such a blow."
"I am very sensitive and soft," Commers said. "That's like a thing, figuring out how to be myself — which is just a soft person — but not letting people walk all over me, still being strong while not walking all over other people."
One photo appears to portray a female body, but one that is ripply and reclining, as if floating through space or being seen through the water. Body parts look wavy and abstracted, but not to the point of unrecognizability. This piece has the same name as the show: "Creature."
"You can see that it's a body but it's also distorted," Commers said. "I am looking at myself in a reflection, and I'm like, 'I am a creature, this thing. Like, what am I?' "
Such is the question for any artist, who at some point will take selfies and self-portraits in an attempt to see themselves. While these photos were shot on film with a medium-format camera, Commers came of age on the internet, growing up with a phone, like most people under age 22.
"When I first invested in a film camera, I think I was 14," said Commers. "It was a Nikon DSLR. I loved Tumblr at the time and there were lots of pretty pictures with blurry backgrounds, and you need an expensive camera to do that — to have a nice dreamy feel to things, really soft and stuff."
Identifying as nonbinary factors into the artwork.
"It is definitely an approach to life more than anything, being fluid and not seeing everything as yes/no, right/wrong, black/white."
Previously, their focus was more on other people. Commers shoots photos for St. Paul-based musician Dizzy Fae. They also have photographed musicians like Kevin Abstract and award-winning chef Sean Sherman, aka the Sioux Chef, and directed a music video for the band Su Na.
This show has a more internal approach. Some images, like "Heart," look like gooey insides, a heart lying on its side, while "Expedition" and "Clarity" both have sudden blue flashes across them. In "Curiosity," a watery blue background envelops the silhouette of a body that's floating or swimming.
A recent high school graduate, Commers moved around a bunch but finished their last two years through the Post Secondary Enrollment Options program at Normandale Community College, which allows high school students who demonstrate academic excellence to take college courses. Two years ago the Minneapolis Foundation singled out Commers as a young artist to watch.
"I took a black-and-white film class in high school but I had already been shooting film for a while," Commers said. "I had friends teach me, but then what is self-taught when you have the internet to teach you things?"
The show is very analog, which might surprise visitors who assume all people under 22 are constantly posting away to Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. Commers is protective of their creative work.
"I am not a fan of IG, for me personally. It is really easy to fall into the trap of having all this validation of the likes coming in, and along with that, feeling the absence of those likes affecting your work."
This was especially true for this body of work, which Commers felt was more personal than their previous series of portraits: "This is about me. I need to not have that distraction in my mind. I didn't want to post them to Instagram, where they'd just be eaten by the sharks — people who just, like, copy and paste ideas. With art it is kind of heartbreaking."
Of course, it's also complicated because Commers has met friends through Instagram and Twitter.
"Having friends in other places has been one of the best things of life."