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Last week I managed to hike up to Salem to finally see the Peabody Essex Museum, a visit long overdue.  The museum holds an interesting position; it has a large and internationally known and renowned collection, but is situated well outside of a major city, making access to all but locals difficult.  This prohibits many casual visits, and thus prevents it from receiving the same attention or foot traffic that a museum would in Boston proper or Cambridge. Despite the distance though, the newest photography exhibition, Imprints: Photographs by Mark Ruwedel, was worth the trek.

The images stem from a central conceit in photography, the passage of time.  In Ruwedel’s case, he’s captured everything from fossilized dinosaur tracks to ancient desert footpaths worn down over millennia.  The result are subtly rich and dense images that force the viewer to truly look, study, and meditate on the images, reflecting on the camera’s ability to capture a moment in time, the tracks living beings have made over time, and the time spent meditating over these occurrences.

“Klondike Bluffs #15” from 1999 is one of his many depictions of dinosaur tracks, never before displayed.  The tracks are in the foreground, moving steadily into the near distance where they disappear.  Despite the desolate land, the image holds far more than the tracks; it becomes the land upon which the tracks are written. Between the bare rocks and tufts of grass, the bareness couples with an overwhelming sense of desiccation, making the land itself feel ancient.  It seems old in a way that is difficult to fully fathom, like the passage of time in this place is so endless it is impossible to put it into perspective. In some ways this timelessness functions as a reminder that while the dinosaurs have come and gone the land was born before and remains still.  This is heightened by the exemplary printing job (which Ruwedel performed himself for all the works) that managed to keep the faint hills in the far background present; this gives scope to the earth, integrating the depicted eternity in time with an endlessness in space.

Another great example of Ruwedel’s work in this exhibition is “Chocolate Mountain/A Ceremonial Footpath on an Ancient Terrace” from 2004 which demonstrates a certain wry humor.  On the surface, this image is much like the one discussed above; there is a strong physical indicator of the passage of time, a trail that has been used over and over again for so long that it has permanently imprinted itself upon the land.  The Chocolate Mountains, like the Klondike Bluffs, are both ancient and harshly imposing structures vastly tall yet receiving less than four to six inches of rain per year.  Nevertheless, highly noticeable on top of this well-travelled road is a far younger mountain bike path.  Mixed in with the surrounding austerity of the work and the rest of the collection, it’s a bit funny. There is also something reassuring about this more modern presence though.  It seems to speak to some sort of collective humanity, a reason to go up and then down the mountain in some particular fashion; a new on top of an old on top of an ancient.  All paths are subsequently retraced by the photographer himself, adding his own tracks both on the land and through these photographs. At the end of the day, the contemplative viewer walks away feeling that while the intents may have varied, this path represents a journey that has been made again and again, and that in viewing the work they, too, are also partaking.

While I promised this blog would be focused on Boston’s art culture, I wanted to mention a gallery I saw while visiting my family back in San Francisco

San Francisco’s art scene is much more “sceney” than Boston’s.  As much as I do love my hometown, San Francisco is in love with being San Francisco and with that comes a “sceney-ness” that can sometimes fall prey to the allure of supposedly “shocking” art that’s actually just plain old bad art.

In this case, it was the work of Cameron Gray in his solo show, “It’s all Downhill from Here,” at the E6 Gallery in San Francisco.  His work relies on a mosaic of small photographs or paintings that when arranged begin to look like a well known image, ranging from the “Mona Lisa” to Jesus to tomatoes.

The most iconic of these images is “The Pornification of Everything” in which the “Mona Lisa” is comprised of 900 smaller paintings of hard core porn with women (or more appropriately parts of women), making the reward of closer examination somewhat mixed (I guess it just depends on the person looking). I presume it’s supposed to recapture the risqué intent of DaVinci’s famous work for our in time.

The picture of a bunch of carrots is, of course, comprised of various images from the fast food industry: hamburgers, fries, a part of a McDonald’s sign, etc.  Jesus is also junk food but tending towards the sweeter variety.  Overall, I was unimpressed by the majority of the showing; it’s just too gimmicky and not intelligent enough to make it interesting.  I mean, junk food versus nutritious vegetables, really? Am I actually supposed to see that and think “wow what a clashing dichotomy, what a brilliant and unpredictable comparison”? Even the Mona Lisa seemed clichéd at best.

Maybe I’m just cranky because one of my pet peeves is art that makes a big show of being shocking.  I would so much rather an artist do something that is interesting and intellectually provocative than shocking. It just seems like with neither the intimacy of subtlety or the depth of a truly fascinating point of view, they’re peddling to the lowest common denominator. As a woman who is attuned to and interested by the ways in which women are depicted in art and visual culture, I feel as though the conversation is so much richer than what Gray offered in this work.  The use of women, specifically nude women, has always been a staple in art and there has almost always been a very sexual element to these images.  A key component of any of these pictures has always been the act of looking, who sees and who is being seen; what control does the viewer have over the viewed.  Of course the discussion always becomes more interesting when there is a distinct gender difference towards the viewer and the viewed.  It’s an interesting conversation and an important one.  I believe that gender equality is partially based on the equalization of both being able to see and being open to being seen.  In Gray’s work, I just don’t see any conversation happening at that level.

Still, I would like to mention one piece that I think truly benefits from the mosaics.  “What it is” is from a distance an image of a face, which is made up of baby pictures, landscapes, birthday cakes, etc.  To me, I found that it demonstrated how the story of a person’s life both influences a person but is also hidden from the rest of the world.  In some ways, I think that this is the most effective means of his chosen medium, it begins to show what a regular portrait cannot show and allows the viewer to learn something more about the face we are invited to contemplate.  This piece veers distinctly away from gimmicks and instead embraces a basic tenet of humanity, how can you really know a person, and what does a face really tell us about someone?

While spending a rather leisurely Saturday morning in the South End, I decided to stop by Gallery Kayafas and see my friend, Brian Urwin’s, new work. I can’t copy and paste the photographs from the Kayafas website, so follow the link here to see Brian Urwin’s work.

As usual I was pleasantly surprised and delighted by the work shown even other than Brian’s.  In the front gallery, they are showing the work of Robert Knight, who documents the act of sleeping in three to seven hour long exposures.  The large color photographs track the sleepers’ movements, creating ephemeral, ghost-like images.  My favorite of these images is the photographs of his daughter sleeping.  Cocooned beneath layers of blankets, the rise and falls of the sheets, the moonlight across her bed and a bright red night light tucked in next to her give the photograph and suitably dreamlike quality. The red light could almost be a symbol for her beating heart.  The layering transparent images add a level of abstraction, forcing the viewer to really feel out the photograph before being able to even discern what is being shown.  Compositionally, the photograph seems to be organized into layers of color that converge at different areas in the picture: the cold blue light of the moon at the bottom of the bed which is in direct opposition to the warm red of the night let, and then ensconced by the pale yellow of the little girl’s bedding.  Finally, there is the little girl herself, a little brown mound barely peeking out from under her blankets.  It is surprising in how refined  and crafted the work can seem, even though it was completed mostly without the direct influence of the artist; it really manages to demonstrate his love for his daughter, something made all the more meaningful in the ‘organic’ method of creation.

Robert Knight’s exhibition also includes an installation piece involving a large pillow where he projects a black and white movie of his head in bed, beginning before he goes to sleep and ending in the morning as he gets up.  The film also includes a corresponding sound track and a day bed.  Overall, the piece was well executed; as NAC mentioned, the choice to project the images onto a pillow brought a nice sense of realism to the piece.

The next room was shared by Yoav Horesh and Brian Urwin, both of whom are fantastic examples of the black and white, gelatin silver print tradition.  Horesh’s work appears to be a response to the famous Robert Frank photobook, “The Americansm,” in which the Swiss photographer documents America in the post-war period.  In this case, however, it is an Israeli documenting a modern New York in “(My) American Life.”

My favorite piece is “New York, 1997,” a photograph whose strength results from its timelessness.  The photograph appears to be taken from a balcony high up from the city street.  The photographer is facing down and slightly to his left, following the streaming light down a busy New York City street.  The photograph seems to be responding an even earlier form of art and art history as the street disappears at the same point where the light emanates.  From this, the image can be distilled to competing and converging lines: the strong white upwardly diagonal line of the street, punctuated by the lines of small black cars, and the contrasting subtly dark lines of the rising buildings.  Even more subdued are the thin horizontal lines of the street lamps and the cross walks, providing consistent visual interest.  The entire piece exemplifies the power of photography’s roots. There doesn’t need to be innovation in the method, it is a beautiful, strong, moving, black and white photograph.

Finally, Brian Urwin’s work centers around the slowly disintegrating city of Detroit.  Speaking with him, he explained that he uses a wide view camera (see below) which means that each image was not a one-off shot, but that he had to consider what he was photographing before setting up his camera.  The result are images whose graph-like setup belie the erosion the city.

My favorite example of this is “Fisher Building, Detroit,” a massive art deco building that seems grand and triumphant but lonely, with no sign of population.  The photograph itself is quite large, maybe 3×4 ft, encompassing the vision of the viewer.  The print is mostly silvery grays that highlight the strong verticals of the building’s architecture while the horizontal lines are enhanced both through the width of the photograph itself and the fact that the building stretches from edge to edge.  The grid of the industrial structure is broken by certain touches, most noticeably the fading black corners, indicative of the wide view camera, which both adds an antique feel to the photograph, capturing a sense of the by-gone, while also disrupting the rigid geometry.  Finally, the lack of people creates a sad tint to the image.  Such a large and beautiful building should be highly populated, both inside and on the street.  Instead, the lack of humanity makes the image feel like something almost post-apocalyptic (or maybe I’ve just been playing too much Left for Dead…).

Boxed in by the Marathon on Monday I ended up promenading on Moody St in Waltham, where I came upon the Center for Digital Imaging Arts at Boston University. It had a bit of gallery space up front so I decided to take a look.

The collection was eclectic, including published magazine covers and ads, fantastical (and gaudy) synthetic works, and seemingly undoctored B&W photos. To be honest, most of the work didn’t really suit my tastes. As far as photography and art go, I’m not a complete purist; I just want something to be beautiful and interesting without being hokey. My problem with digital photography is that in the wrong hands its malleability can too easily lend itself towards being ridiculous and kitschy. In addition, as far as my own personal tastes go, I just so happen to prefer the look and limitations of analog-style black and white photographs. I think that the simplicity of the color scheme lends itself towards stunning images that resonate with me in a way that color photographs rarely do. That’s not meant to be a critique of color photographs, just an allowance for my personal taste.

It was not surprising, then, that the photograph that caught my eye was a black and white image of a flock of pigeons flying past a large brick building cut off by the photo’s edges. Unfortunately there wasn’t a picture available online, but if you are interested I would certainly check out the gallery space. The power in the image was the stability of the large brick building, with its harsh brick and mortar, sharp edges, and evenly spaced windows cut across by the organic dynamism of the flying birds. The entire composition was fascinating and as NAC pointed out, there was the pervading sentiment of urbanity. As in the best photographs, it caught an everyday moment in the life of a city and made it a beautiful still second of time that entrances the viewer to make them think on that setting and that moment deeper.

The other image that caught my eye was a black and white photograph of an older man leaning on his chair in a doorway. The strength of the image came from the surrounding architecture, grid-like horizontals of the front of the building and the vertical of the street. The man, however, leaning the straight lines of his chair back to rest on a wall of the stoop, cut an intriguing diagonal. Coupled with his old, wrinkled face and bemused expression, it lent itself and aura of whimsy in a rather cut and dried, up and down world.

In the end, as befits my own eye, I was drawn most to those images that benefited the least from being digital (which of course is not meant to devalue these images as well-composed and beautiful images in their own right).

Links:

Center for Digital Imaging Arts, BU: http://www.cdiabu.com/

Photographica 73

For the past couple of weeks,  I’ve been hearing rumors about a photography trade show, put on by the Photographic Historical Society of New England, as a good place to start building a modest collection of 19th century prints, my forte. So NAC, I, and a hundred bucks of spending money made the trek out to Wakefield for Photographica 73.

This is a two-day event that occurs one weekend every six months from 9AM to 3PM, reflecting the median attendee age of 71.  Thus when I arrived at 12:30PM on Sunday I found the place a little picked over, with some booths already closed.  The trade show is not actually devoted to photographs, probably about seventy percent of the merchandise available was old cameras and associated paraphernalia, and so it took a little bit of searching to find booths dedicated to picture sales.

In addition, because it is the Historical Photographic Society, the photographs were mostly of the 19th century variety, which meant that there was a proliferation of daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, carte de visits, Cabinet Cards, and stereographs along with some basic albumen prints.  As a 19th century photography junky I was thrilled, even if being a twenty-something interested in such wares became a curiosity unto itself.

Regardless of the rarity of the venture, if someone is interested in starting a photography or even general art collection, 19th century photography is really a great place to start, especially on a budget.  For about $100, I bought a fascinating albumen print of a group of men working at an oil mill, two tin types, one of a little girl and another of a young woman, a beautiful ambrotype of a stern old woman, and two carte de visits, one of London and the other of Prague.  The daguerreotypes I found to be more expensive than I had hoped with the best ones ranging from $500 to $1,000.  My goal was to find an interesting daguerreotype for about $25, but it wasn’t meant to be.

As far as the quality of the prints, in my opinion, they really varied according to the seller.  At one booth, for example, I found the quality to be extremely high.  The man behind the table was excited to talk about the portion of his 30-year personal collection that he was putting on sale, and even just looking at some of his exquisite daguerreotypes was a pleasure.  At many other tables, however, the photographs were more of a mish-mash, not very well organized or taken care of, and the photographs were markedly less interesting.

It’s hard to judge what makes a portrait interesting (since so many of these early photographs are portraits) but it’s usually something striking about the subject’s demeanor or expression.  Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes are all one-of-a-kind (there were no enlargers at the time, so the plate in the camera is the picture itself), thus there is a certain aura about them (to quote Walter Benjamin); there’s the knowledge that the person shown stood in front of the sensitized piece of glass or metal, creating the one image that you hold in your hand.

Thus, my advice for buying these types of portraits is judge how much that person resonates with you.  Sometimes that means that the daguerreotype itself isn’t in great shape or the ambrotype in the beautiful box can be passed up.

So if you are interested in slowly building up an interesting collection of photographs without breaking the bank, I hear that there will be another one in September, just be sure to stay in Friday night.

Link:

Photographic Historical Society of  New England: http://phsne.org/

Last weekend I indulged with NAC in a pleasant stroll throughout the DeCordova’s museum and grounds, which overlook an idyllic lake and forest vista.

At the moment, there are two major exhibitions, the 2010 Biennial and Out of the Box. For now I’ll speak of the latter, but the eclectic biennial collection, some I found to be fantastic while others moved me less, I plan to touch on them  later.

Out of the Box is quite literally titled, it features photographs from different portfolios in their permanent collection, an interesting meta concept.  Photography portfolios are like books in that they are more of a personal experience than a public one.  The photographs are matted and boxed and meant to be sifted through by a single individual or a small group.  They usually contain a colophon with a table of contents, and sometimes have essays by the photographer, the printer, or someone otherwise tangentially related to the content.  Thus, they have become closer to study materials than exhibition collections, meant more for personal reflection than public perusal. In this exhibition, a few portfolios were represented through selected works.

One of the pieces that I liked (and could find a picture of, there are painfully few on the DeCordova website), is a Larry Fink called Girls on Porch, Martins PA from 1977 from the portfolio “Making Out, 1957-1980” printed in 1980.  Fink captures the actions of teenage girls from rural Pennsylvania and débutantes from New York in two photographs featured in the exhibit. As one would expect, both the dichotomies and similarities are fascinating.  Essentially, both photographs are of girls acting like girls, whether pretending to be grown up and sophisticated or goofing around.

Unfortunately, only the plebian of the pair is featured online, but even on its own it’s a beautiful photograph.  The viewer’s gut reaction is an ineffable feeling of life that seems to be emanating out of the velvety inky blackness that permeates the majority of the image.  In the center is a teenage girl falling towards the camera, filled with light.  Her mouth is wide open and her eyes are closed and her entire face is filled with joy.  It is the kind of ecstatic abandon that can only be reached by a group of teenage girls hanging out on a porch on a hot summer night; there is a lack of care or worry and a pervasive feeling of freedom.  As the eye travels down her outfit, from the zipped-up cropped-top to the shorts, the profusion of skin and flesh down to the belly roll seems to attest to this same joie de vivre.  A skinny girl wouldn’t have worked, it would have had connotations of restraint; this woman takes pleasure in life, and her blind happiness emancipates her from shame.  Hidden in the darkness are two other girls, one is hidden behind the protagonist and another slowly emerges out of the fading black, she is younger than the two in front, probably about ten or so.  There is a smile playing on her lips, but more than anything she’s interested in watching, not completely engaged in the activities of the older girls but proud to be included all the same.

This piece made me curious, and did nothing but make me want to see more.  The photographs chosen were gorgeous on their own, but I would have loved to sit down and looked through the whole portfolio.  It would have offered an interesting experience to compare and contrast the different images and think about their relationships to each other, and the reasons they were included in the collection.  Still, the opportunity to see even just this much is an opportunity to be cherished.

Link:

DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park: http://www.decordova.org

So, for the first time in almost a year I decided to head back to my old stomping grounds, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  I wasn’t sure what to expect since they’ve been undergoing major construction for a new wing for a while now.  For museums, this usually means things are in some state of chaos; the art I want to see is probably in storage and the art that has somehow managed to stay on the walls is off in some other part of the building that I didn’t know how to reach even before all of this nonsense.

This time though, I have to say that even with the changing entrances to the general confusion of all, the MFA has mostly preserved the nature of its displayed work.  It’s still a large museum with a large collection, some of which is middling and some of which is truly fantastic.  The current exhibition, the one that they are really pushing, is Tomb 10A, an excavated Egyptian tomb that some archeologists from Harvard and the MFA discovered in 1915.  The exhibition is really pretty cool, but I won’t get into it here, you can’t really do a visual analysis on it, and I don’t know enough about Egyptian art to actually do a full review. I did however manage to find myself by the adjoining exhibitions of Harry Callahan and Albrecht Durer which were both quite beautiful and interesting, both separately and together.

Harry Callahan, 1912-1999, was a photographer known, curiously enough, for his urban landscapes as well as intimate portraits of his wife and daughter.  The small exhibition featuring his life’s work focuses primarily on those portraits but also includes images of pedestrians on the streets of Chicago and Detroit.

One of the most striking of the images was of his wife, titled Eleanor, 1948.  The image is both moving and fascinating despite its initial simplicity.  The camera looks directly at a bright window puncturing a dark wall.  The wall curves in towards the viewer, flush with the bottom of the window but approaching the camera at the ceiling, creating an overhang of light.  Shuttled off to the right is the back of Eleanor, looking out the window; she is naked, but her dark hair has been carefully bound into a bun.  She is sitting the wrong way on a chair, looking towards another spot of brightness, perhaps another room or window?  The center of Eleanor’s back is dark, like her hair, but each of her sides are highlighted by different windows, making them pop against the dark walls.

What becomes so powerful is the simple compositional construction. Callahan allows for the architecture of the room to frame the image and dictate how we, the viewer, see it.   The eye is immediately drawn to Eleanor, despite her being tucked away in the lower right of the image. It’s due in part to the blocks of light to her right and the pentagonal shape above her head that seems to point directly at her.  It is only afterwards that the eye is drawn to the window in the direct center of the photograph.

Once the viewer sees the major components of the photograph, he is allowed to begin to notice the subtleties that make the picture truly fantastic.  The velvety grays and blacks that slide over the wall reveal inconsistencies in the plasterwork, with the paint above the window peeling. The top two windows are beautiful in their simple design, at home in the polygonal room.

In some ways, both in terms of the era and the construction of the composition, this image reminds me of the color plane paintings of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, although the subtle changes in tone on the wall are more reminiscent of Rothko.  The inclusion of the figural body, however, throws it off; figuration was considered uncouth by the abstract expressionists of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Nevertheless the addition of the body adds not only an incredible amount of visual interest; it also gives soul to the piece.  This is the body of his wife, two years later his daughter, Barbara, will be born, and also show up frequently in his work.  The enclosure is at once purely compositional but also intimate.  It becomes a space for this couple, it allows for a story to evolve behind the scenes.  The viewer begins to wonder, is this where they live?  There appears to be a table next to Eleanor, is that their dinning room table?  Are they poor? Is that why the room seems to be so bare and in such disrepair?  Abstract expressionism becomes a tool that allows Callahan to move away from “pure” painting or photography and show what is truly meaningful to him.

Following the Callahan exhibition, which holds many other photographs of such subtlety and restraint, is the Durer show.  It mostly consists of woodblock prints and engravings, with a few drawings sprinkled in.  Making this transition, an interesting dichotomy in artistic approach appeared. With a camera all detail is available, you only have to show it in the light, while with the pen (or engraving tool as the case may be) nothing is available and everything must be rendered by your hand.  Thus, while Callahan makes a consistent effort to only show certain details, Durer strives to show everything.

Unfortunately, the MFA does not have all of its Durers available to view online. One good and available example, however, is Saint Jerome by the Pollard Window. The engraving features the Saint seated outside on a chair carved from rock, a piece of wood for a desk, a lion, a desk, grass, a brook, there is almost an endless amount of visual information offered up to the viewer.  Partially, it’s due to the medium itself, dry point engraving in which the artist uses a sharp pen-like tool to engrave into metal.  Depending on the frequency of the strokes in a particular area, the artist can render something darker or lighter and give an object a sense of volume.  Thus, the higher the density of the scratches, the darker the area once the ink is rolled onto the metal plate and pressed onto a piece of paper.  Thus, depth and composition are almost necessarily accomplished through increased detail through more abundant and varied strokes.

Coming from the Callahan show the Dürer works appeared almost garish in their incredibly intricate detail; my eyes were overwhelmed.  Like the Callahan photographs, however, these images offer much to the slow meditation of the viewer’s eyes across the picture’s surface.  Unlike the Callahan photographs, they hit you with all of that information on the first perusal, making each engraving seem like more of a commitment.  You feel like you’re obliging yourself to examining each pen stroke.

On further thought, though, I began to see real similarities between, if not through the images themselves, then through the mediums.  Engravings/woodblock prints and photographs are means of mass producing images.  The benefit of either a woodblock print or an engraving is that multiple prints can be made from the woodblock or metal sheet, which can then be placed into books or sold.  They are also tools for disseminating information to a wider audience.  Some of his images include pictures of towns that he visited on his travels.  In some ways, then, his use of incredible detail makes sense, it allows for him to prove to the viewer the veracity of what they are seeing.  In the same vein, by placing too much information into a photograph, it can decrease the force of the image by making the subject less important.

The MFA, as such an expansive art museum, allows for such connections to be made.  The large and rambling display makes a simultaneous perspective on Albrecht Durer and Harry Callahan possible, whether intentional or not.

link to MFA: www.mfa.org

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