21c Museum Hotel, Durham
Thursday, March 24, 6 p.m., free

A society rehearses its behavior through its rituals. They might be as public as a hockey crowd venting anger and joy, as private as the intimacies exchanged in a bed, or as contradictory as the ambivalence of voters during a volatile political transition.

Off-Spring: New Generations, which runs through the fall at Durham’s 21c Museum Hotel after an opening event with artist Angela Ellsworth on Thursday, is thinly held together as a survey of artists’ investigations of ritual. While some artists expose rituals’ inner dynamics, others simply rehash gestures from big-box postmodernism.

This is mostly a photography show with a few sculptures, drawings, and videos. It’s basically a lot of pictures of people, many of them children. Some perform rituals, but many more are merely costumed in cinematic scenes and portraits. “Off-Spring of Cindy Sherman” might have been a better title.

If the show is about any overarching ritual, it’s how photography changes its subject and the power relationship the photographer creates. Some of the artists engage their subject as a unique and present individual, capturing a communication between the selves on either side of the camera. Their images critique reality rather than a false condition or stereotype the artist has imposed.

But other artists replace reality with seamless photo collage, creating fantastic, exaggerated scenes that exempt artificial subjects from purely conditional critiques. Still others objectify their subjects in order to point out their objectification. No matter how beautifully made, these are bad pictures.

Typically, sheer size tries to distract from ethcial faults. Portraits of children costumed as adultsa stiff girl in a red prom dress, a pallid boy in a Victorian ruffby artists including Nathalia Edenmont, Gottfried Helnwein, and Adriana Duque dwarf the viewer. Colorful and slightly surreal, they give a quick “whoa” reactionand then, nothing. Instead of implicating the warping effect of contradictory social pressures to be youthful and grown-up at once, they seem to target the children themselves. Proofs retrieved from a Glamour Shots dumpster would offer sounder cultural criticism.

And yet, in a similar format, Dutch artist Hendrik Kerstens delivers a rattling critique. An androgynous child in a bathing cap stares out from a bathtub. The viewer returns that stare in a futile effort to make a definitive emotional reading. Kerstens hasn’t mistaken the costume for the ritual; his objective approach lets the child show vulnerability and powerlessness realer than our fantasies.

Off-Spring does contain plenty of powerful artwork. Anthony Goicolea and Ellen Kooi stitch together composites that depict possible endpoints of real social conditions. Kooi’s work plumbs the complexity of the relationship between safety, anticipation, and human rights in the current context of global terrorism. At least ten feet off the ground, people are wrapped around the trunks of trees overlooking a suburban landscape. Are they staying clear of political violence or are they the aggressors, waiting for their bomb to go off?

Goicolea’s “Fireside” shows a row of seated figures in red hoodies, split by a standing man in a suit, watching two moonlit bonfires. The sense of ritual is palpable but ambiguous. This could be a cult or a high school track team. Goicolea makes you scour for details, adding them up into your own deductive narrative. If you just stroll through while waiting for a table at Counting House, Off-Spring might seem more like an Instagram feed with a big budget. Try resisting the show’s offer to just look, and actually stop to think.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Glamour Shots.”