Sometimes the most interesting art exhibitions are the ones where I don’t have an immediate reaction to the work on display. Beyond the obvious “do I like it?” and “do I agree that this is art?” questions, I keep an open mind when I visit museums. I spent most of my time in SFMoMA’s Francesca Woodman show observing my reactions and trying to decide what I thought. And why I was thinking it.
At the same time, this made the show inherently worth seeing.
Woodman’s work is not boring. Much of it is actually very interesting. What has kept me thinking though is how unfinished and raw so much of it is. In many ways, it reminds me of the Vivian Maier story and the question of editing. While Woodman did edit her work as art while she was alive, most of what was on display in the exhibition was not based on her edits. Instead, SFMoMA presented a completionist retrospective of specimens rather than curation.
Now, there is a lot of editing going on in terms of processing and printing the negatives left behind after her suicide. It’s not clear yet (at least to me) what the critical purpose of that editing is and how it’s being used to serve her work. This may be a case where a more-critical third party proves capable of making a better edit.
Even given the vague feel I got from the curation, there is a lot of artistic vision which comes through. Especially in her earlier, college-based work. I found myself preferring what, for most artists, is considered juvenilia and thinking about how her work should be required viewing for all the teen girls on social media taking fatuous self portraits and soliciting easy “your so pretty” comments* from both peers and sketchy older men.** There are better ways to take self portraits. And you can use the camera for more than cheap self-esteem building.
*That typo is intentional. In case it wasn’t obvious enough.
**I did overhear a few sketchy older men in the exhibition at SFMoMA too. No one spelled out the math but a lot of Woodman’s early nudes are from when she was right around 18 years old. They aren’t erotic, nor are they meant to be, which only made those kinds of comments even more inappropriate and ignorant.
Besides the sense that Woodman was growing up and coming to grips with her own maturity, her college photos showed a fantastic awareness of the kind of thing missing from the ruin porn discussion. Where most people just see the wonderful light and texture of a run-down location, Woodman was able to evoke a sense of the mystery and former human usage of the place through her blurred self portraits. She adds the human element back into the composition.
Her work away from Rhode Island is not as focused and feels unfinished—which it probably is. Lots of experiments. Some very interesting frames which suggest new courses of exploration. Others which evoke past work. But all together, it’s all potential.
Which is why I’ll be digesting this exhibition for a long time.