Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

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.


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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.


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

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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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ICA Boston

Before I start talking about this exhibition, I want to explain the general rules I stick by on how to view contemporary art.  Contemporary art can be hard; it can break most of the rules of what “art” “should” be.  In many cases, it tows the fine line between ridiculous and deeply insightful.  In fact, I would even venture that it doesn’t tow a line but rather carries both simultaneously; it can depend strongly on the viewer and what the viewer wishes to take out of experiencing the work.  So, I always view this type of art with an open mind but a skeptical eye.  Sometimes a piece just doesn’t work for me, I simply find it silly. At other times a piece will resonate with me by allowing a view of the world slightly different, opening up my eyes to newly see.  What works for me, however, does not necessarily work for other people and vice versa; it’s more of a personal experience than other genres.  The pieces in this exhibit that I believe fell flat may provide more to other viewers and what I found to be moving may not elicit the same response in everyone.

As always, I will highlight a couple of pieces that I found interesting enough to discuss, although there are many more which I encourage the reader to see for him or herself.

The exhibit starts on the first floor, with the first piece, a.k.a, on the right just when you walk into the museum. Horn compiled pictures of herself from when she was young up until the present day.  She has arranged them into pairs, in many cases including a more recent photograph and one from her past.  The photographs allow the viewer to see the passage of time on her features, from the length of her hair to the wrinkles on her face.  It starts off the exhibit nicely by setting the tone; the viewer is ready to see other works within the vein of time, temporal flow, and change, and that it would always be linked very closely and very personally to the artist herself.  Her photographs show up frequently within the exhibit; she seems to be stating outright that they are not only an expression but a part of herself.  Although not inherently a novel concept, the image choices are made with a deeply personal touch, there is not the distance usually associated between a photographer and his subject matter.  I should also add that the artist is not a purist and does not limit herself to photography, but also includes sculpture, drawings and writing.  Her work is unencumbered by the perspective of a single medium; she sees things not as a photographer or a sculptor but rather as a holistic artist.

I found the entrance piece to be thought-provoking but not inherently moving.  It allowed for me to muse on the passage of time, the choices the artist has made over the years and the visual effect it has on her face and body.  Obviously, the ten year old girl has both distinct similarities and distinct differences with  the forty or fifty-year old woman, but beyond that being able to see exactly where and when those differences occurred is fascinating.  The pictures allow for you to see the changes as they happen, gradual in real time but stark in these twenty or so photographs.  Finally, having the artist turn the camera on herself legitimizes her to the viewer.  She has already turned her critical eye on herself, offering herself up entirely to the viewer; thus her portrayal of others seems less exploitive.

The first piece that viewer confronts when walking onto the fourth floor of the museum, which is the ICA’s exhibit space, is You are the Weather from 1995, a grouping of 100 photographs of the same woman as she looks directly into the camera with an unchanging visage.  She appears to be wet, her hair is messily tied into a bun, her lips are slightly pursed, and there appears to be water behind her.  The photographs are in groupings of five to eight and each grouping has a certain color scheme.  One group may be black and white, another may have bright blue water in the background, another may be in color but they are more subdued.  I have to admit that this piece did not really touch me; I found it neither moving nor provoking.  Although I spent the time to see each photograph and experience the work as a whole, it just didn’t seem to do anything.  As I read more about the piece in the accompanying brochure, I learned that the model was bobbing up and down in different hot springs in Iceland.  The intended result was the interaction between the model and the viewer combining the sensuality of the beautiful woman’s face, the water, and the confrontation between the woman and the viewer.  I don’t know, it just didn’t happen for me, I probably can’t explain it any better than that.

As a side note, the museum offers a number different brochures which each describe one or two pieces, along with a packet to carry the eight different brochures.  It’s a nice touch, because the more a museum can offer to make contemporary art more accessible the better.

Horn also includes words in her work, which I want to say emphasizes their visual quality, but again, I don’t really know if I’m sold.  Her work, White Dickenson, ALWAYS BEGIN BY DEGREES, from 2006-7 also failed to move or interest me. It involves the words, “Always begin by degrees” written out in white capital letters on a piece of a rectangular rod of glass that is then leaned up against the museum walls.  I just couldn’t figure out what the point of it was.  Why this particular phrase?  How did it fit into the rest of the exhibition?  For that matter, what was the narrative of this exhibition? Did it even have one?  These were the questions that seemed to erupt from viewing this piece.  Maybe that was the piece captivating me, but I failed to glean the point.  It’s the question I frequently ask myself when viewing contemporary art, or any art for that matter, why did the artist even bother? What are they trying to tell me, or make me do?  I also look for the narrative of the exhibition, what story is the curator trying to tell me?  What am I supposed to get out of this experience?  Sometimes, with works like White Dickenson, I feel as though my already tenuous grasp on the exhibition’s narrative slips.

Despite these complaints, I do not want the reader to believe that I managed to see the entire exhibit without being moved at all.  Sure there was a hokey piece called Ant Farm that, indeed, involved a very large ant farm, but there were others, and one in particular, that resonated with me in a way that I could not have foreseen.

It is called Still Water (The River Thames, for Example) from 1999, and my initial response was, frankly, boredom.  Again it involves a group of photographs, this time close-ups of the Thames in London in which she sprinkled numbers across the picture.  Each number corresponds to a foot note in which she offers her insight into that specific portion of the picture.  These insights range from “water is sexy” and “black water is not sexy” to describing the gelatinous quality of that dot of water or musing on how water never looks like water up close.  I found that I could not stand there and read each footnote in every piece, only managing to skim a couple here and there.  I would maybe find a number on the picture and then find its footnote or catch myself reading the footnotes first and then start searching for their numbers.  In either case, I spent a while amongst these photographs not really feeling anything apart from mild interest.  I thought that it was a novel concept at best.

Fortuitously, the ICA is, if nothing else, spectacular in its location.  It is situated on the south side of Boston Harbor, overlooking the chilly water.  The fourth floor in particular juts out over harbor and is fitted with huge floor to ceiling windows.  It was also a glorious day with bright blue sky and a couple of clouds.  Directly after viewing the pictures of I walked into the front hallway that looks directly over the water.  After spending so much time looking at close up stills of the Thames I found myself transfixed by the waves stretching out in front of me.  The next fifteen minutes or so were spent meditating on the lively bright blue water in front of me, evoking so much character, so many thoughts and musings, in such a small space.  In some ways the pictures were the greatest success a piece of art can be, it altered my thinking and my means of viewing the world, if only for a moment, and allowed me to notice something I would not have otherwise.  In that sense, the work is less about the object itself and more about what it can do for the viewer. By allowing me to take time out of my busy schedule to simply watch the waves roll by, it did wonders for me.


ICA Boston: www.icaboston.org

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Just a couple of quick posts this week. I thought I would make a quick mention of a little discovery I made the other day. I was wandering around Newbury Street trying to figure out what my next blog post would be on, when I happened to notice an enormous sign hanging on the Boston Public Library. It was a standing exhibition of Jules Aarons photographs titled “Into the Street” featuring images of Boston’s neighborhoods from the 50s and 60s.

Thus began an arduous expedition to find the Wiggins Gallery on the third floor of the McKim building, which apparently is the older structure, not the ugly new one.  I’m the first to admit that I lack any sense of direction, so maybe the more orientationally-inclined among you would have no problem, but I would forewarn those with similar failings that while it technically is just up on the third floor following the main staircase on the right, some adventuring may be required.  In either case, due to its location in a library, its quiet and unfrequented, and having the photographs all to myself felt luxurious.

There aren’t many good examples of his work online, so I’ve posted the ones I could find but they weren’t my favorites, which means that I won’t be doing much of an analysis of any pieces.  It’s too bad though, because Jules Aarons does an incredible job of taking the medium of black and white documentary street photography and really making it his own.  He’s not trying to push or question the medium, he simply photographs what he sees around him and creates interesting and thought provoking compositions in the process.

The result is an exhibit that gives the viewer a glimpse into Boston’s past.  Aarons focuses much of his energy on the North End which reflects a much more “hoody” sense of Boston than feel on today’s streets.  He depicts distinct neighborhoods, with distinct social and ethnic groups, who generally stayed within the boundaries of where they lived.  This feel is most prevalent in the images of small mom and pop shops with the proud owner boldly posing out front.  Whether it is a Jewish kosher meat market or an Italian bakery, their open pride grants the nostalgic atmosphere of a forgotten time

In short, there’s value and beauty in the everyday of the past, and I would highly recommend a short visit to the quiet of the Wiggins Gallery to experience some of these photographs for yourself.

Links: http://www.bpl.org/research/print/aarons/index.htm

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