Explore Dizzying Perspectives in Gina Osterloh’s New Solo Show, ‘Mirror Shadow Shape’

In her new show at the Columbus Museum of Art, photographer and Ohio State professor Gina Osterloh explores ideas of otherness and belonging.

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Monthly
Artist Gina Osterloh with photos from her “Holding Zero” (background) and “Drawing for the Camera” (foreground) series

Gina Osterloh was born in Texas but spent her formative years in her father’s home state of Ohio, growing up near Canal Winchester. Her mother immigrated to the United States from the Philippines, which gave Osterloh a dual identity that differed from her peers.

“The racial categories I had to choose never fit any of those boxes on college applications. I couldn’t check a box. It was always the ‘other’ box,” says Osterloh, who was drawn to photography as a way to explore questions of difference. “I was interested in issues of assimilation—refusing to assimilate, refusing to be identified in this erroneous system of limited boxes to check.”

In Osterloh’s 2020 photograph “Mirror Woman,” a figure appears wrapped in shiny reflective tape, obscuring all identifiable markers and traits: eyes, ears, mouth, hair, skin color. “It’s about showing the fallacy of skin as a border, and also the fallacy of national borders and our rigid belief systems. [In 2020], there was also this spike of anti-Asian/Asian American hate crimes, which is still ongoing,” says Osterloh, who also drew on the “notion of the alien—maybe an outer space alien, but also [people] we look at and automatically say they belong or they don’t belong.”

“Mirror Woman,” a 2020 photograph by Gina Osterloh, in which a figure appears wrapped in shiny reflective tape, obscuring all identifiable markers and traits

“Mirror Woman” is part of Osterloh’s new solo exhibition, Mirror Shadow Shape, which opened on Feb. 24 and will remain on view through Oct. 8 at the Columbus Museum of Art. Curated by Anna Lee (formerly at the museum and now at Stanford University Libraries), the show features about 40 of Osterloh’s artworks created between 2005 and 2020.

Many of the images are abstract self-portraits; the “self” aspect is intentional, but also partly out of concern for others. “One reason I use myself a lot in the work is because it’s incredibly uncomfortable,” Osterloh says, describing how her legs went numb while kneeling on the ground as she was covered in black tape for the “Holding Zero” series, which places the artist inside an imperfectly gridded room. “I was thinking about the tape as a protective layer from this gaze that tries to limit or categorize bodies,” she says.

Osterloh, an assistant professor of art at Ohio State University, also welds text-centered sculptures (one reads “I Am Image”) and photographs her own line drawings, but the bulk of the work in Mirror Shadow Shape features rooms she creates out of paper as a way to experiment with how space contains a body. Often, the resulting image creates perspective confusion.

Gina Osterloh, an artist and assistant professor of art at Ohio State University, in her Downtown studio

“I hope there’s a type of disorientation or dizziness or queasiness,” says Osterloh, who normally makes photographs using a large format film camera at her South Wall Street studio Downtown. “There aren’t any Photoshop tricks in my work. I do 99 percent of the work in front of the camera—in reality, in real space.”

While creating recent work, Osterloh began thinking about the indigenous Filipino idea of kapwa, a word she loosely translates as “thinking together”—a type of connectedness or collective care that doesn’t have an exact conceptual match in Western cultures. “I notice it when I’m moving around in the Philippines,” Osterloh says. “You’re always with someone. Someone’s always checking in. You write down the taxi number if a friend goes home in a taxi.”

Works by Gina Osterloh, photographed in her South Wall Street studio in Downtown Columbus

Even when Osterloh’s work might initially seem isolated or insular, that idea of kapwa remains. Turning inward, after all, is one way to face outward. “This intense, inward stillness is part of the process of connecting with human beings, especially with ‘Mirror Woman’ and the works where ... I’m wrapping my body in tape,” she says. “It became a very intense meditation. It’s like a hermetic gesture, like I’m closing off myself, but it was intensely connecting.”

While Osterloh creates out of “my experience as a mixed-race, Asian American woman in the Midwest, I hope my work opens up a space in photography which asks the viewer to question what they see,” she says, “and to also acknowledge the unknown within all of us.”

This story is from the March 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.