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Unripe 'Peach'; Gender, cultural roles probed by Velazquez using self-portraits

In the El Museo gallery on Allen Street, Eduardo Velazquez is showing a collection of photographs and videos titled "The Bitten Peach."

In each photograph Velazquez appears in drag. His strong-featured face has the slight shading of a man who has just shaved his beard. He wears a long, black wig that covers his ears. His clothes, tight and flirty when he wants to resemble a teenager or mature and formal as an Orthodox Jewish woman, allow him to slip in and out of various gender and cultural roles. His face is always molded in a distant gaze: his mouth is half-open, his eyes half-shut.

In photographs taken on New York City streets and in the Dominican Republic, Velazquez is trying to show the effects of gender and desire in relationships. The centerpiece of the gallery is a collage of a few dozen color photographs, duplicated randomly so that they cover the wall. In the photographs, we find the artist dressed as a woman with a variety of people, on motorcycles and in homes, in pools and walking down busy streets.

Velazquez says that his cross-dressing series is "an investigation of female roles in the current post-identity era." It's a subject that begs to be explored, but feels stagnant as a collection of photography. You get the impression that the experience may have benefited the artist, and it was probably a lot of fun, but viewing these photographs is like smelling food without being able to taste it. They don't seem to tell the whole story.

The characters lack the depth that would bring these photographs to life. In fact they mostly ignore each other in each scene. Velazquez is so stiff and emotionless in these roles that it's easy to lose interest halfway through the show. There is no indication of who is playing who, and on what level.

What we do get out of the show is Velazquez's desire to explore the anxiety and disconnect between people based on gender. I think Velazquez portrays his isolation to show us the loneliness of that anxiety, the feeling of otherness which none of his foils can understand. When he looks toward the camera and seems to ask for empathy, we understand but don't know how to react.

In pieces like "Sea Foam Girls," a video in which a group of women are seated together before a camera, Velazquez sits upright, staring blankly, as if waiting for the video to stop recording. In the short video, the women smile at the camera. One nudges Velazquez as if to ask him to smile, to try and look happy.

Velazquez takes the same approach in the video installation "RRS-Bronx Endemic Beauties 'Yankee Bomber and La Girl.' " Velazquez plays "La Girl," wearing black tights and a pink shirt, sitting on a plastic couch. This character seems to know the man sitting next to her well -- a guy in his mid-20s with a flat-brimmed hat. La Girl is playfully messing around, flirting with him, while he sort of kindly ignores her and instead focuses on his phone.

In this work Velazquez exhibits a subtle playfulness and a seemingly effortless touch that much of the rest of the show lacks. For a moment, we are not preoccupied with his cross-dressing, and this suspension of disbelief allows the scene to work. We can understand the tension of the characters. As a stroller-pushing mom or a teenage girl walking down the street, Velazquez appears to us a typical New Yorker. Strangers don't seem to notice him, nor is it clear why they should. They exist separately, the way strangers do. The way perhaps people will in a post-identity era.

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"The Bitten Peach"    

WHEN: Through May 25    

WHERE: El Museo Francisco Oller y Diego Rivera, 91 Allen St.    

TICKETS: Free    

INFO: 884-9693 or www.elmuseobuffalo.org