Category Archives: museums
So I was back in the Princeton Museum and found that when they changed the galleries they hung more photographs related to their Revealing Pictures show. the show itself is the same, but there are more photos in the surrounding galleries which are now part of it. The new photos are almost all by non-white or non-western photographers and completely change—on a good way—my reaction to the show.
Initially I had mixed feelings. I convinced myself to like it but still found a lot of it to emphasize trauma as being the easiest context in which to understand photographs. It’s nice to see photos from the non-western world but a main narrative of poverty or trauma or suffering indulges Western stereotypes about the rest of the world.
The additional photos are much more representative, both in terms of their subject matter and in terms of the contexts they exist within. They’re photographers photographing themselves and their own communities and, while they require us to understand what else is going on, challenge the western gaze in ways that the original set of photos did not.
I especially liked Deana Lawson and Leonce Raphael Abbodjelou here in terms of how their images feel like inside jobs where the connection between the photographer and the subject is one of being a trusted member of the community. Through this trust we’re allowed to learn about the conditions of the photo and that context is an additional educational experience.
Abbodjelou in particular stood out to me because he reminded me of color Keïta or Sibide work. I realized that I hadn’t made the Vlisco connection with Keïta’s work and, while still in awe of the beauty in his photographs, I kind of want to know what color they were now. Also, knowing the stories behind the fabrics in his backdrops makes me appreciate them even more.
A lot of the new photos also reminded me of Ragnar Kjartansson in how they’re both the evidence of performance or conceptual art pieces and photos which are their own works of art by themselves. Sheng Qi and Zhang Huan* stand out here in how their photos both document their performances and make us viscerally react to the concepts once we read about the context.
*Whose work I saw in San José years ago too.
Also at the Princeton Museum
While not part of the Revealing Pictures show, the Princeton Museum was also showing off its recent acquisition of Susan Meiselas’s Life of an Image. I blogged about is a few years ago and I’m so happy I got to see it live. I don’t have much to add over my Itinerant Languages post but it is indeed very cool to see a collection which shows how a photo has basically become a meme. We live in a remix culture and the more museums and artists embrace this and bring it into the galleries the better our visual literacy will get.
Wandering around The Mall during the same daytrip I saw Ragnar Kjartansson, Horace Poolaw, and Nation to Nation. Kind of a surreal time to visit because Trump Inauguration infrastructure was being built while holiday infrastructure was still in place.
I went to Jersey City specifically to see the Han Youngsoo exhibit. But since ICP at Mana is part of Mana Contemporary, I figured I should budget enough time to see everything else which Mana had to offer. I’m glad I did.
Mana isn’t a museum per se. It’s an art center which offers everything from studio space to storage to crating service. The only way to see it is via a guided tour which takes you through the old tobacco factory, its industrial freight elevators, and other machinery remnants.
Most of the art in display is the collection of the Ayn Foundation. Very much like Pier 24 and the Pilara Foundation, Mana’s exhibitions are a way of taking art which would normally be hidden in storage and putting it on some level of public view. Ayn and Pilara are actually very similar in how their collections are extensive and show complete sets of a series rather than a single piece. It’s fantastic to be able to see how an artist worked through a concept and the more collections and installations I see which do this kind of thing the more annoyed and distrustful I am of exhibitions which feature a single piece without context.
The bad side of the similarities—aside from having hours which make it nigh-impossible for anyone who works a real job to be able visit—is how there’s a similar lack of context and explanation both in the scholarly content of the shows and in the reason why the collector purchased the pieces. As a viewer I have to bring a lot of my own knowledge to the exhibitions and make my own connections. This can be wonderful and freeing but I really do like to learn about why things are being displayed the way they are.
The tour though is good. Because of the nature of the space I suspect that it’ll always be a small group (just me and one other person plus our guide) and as such it’s not a docent “let me describe this” kind of tour but instead a “let’s check out this space and I’ll give you a brief intro and feel free to ask me any questions as you take as much time as you want” thing. There’s still a bit of external pressure to keep things moving so, while I did get to check out Han Youngsoo on the tour, I went back later* to go through a second time at my own pace.
*ICP has independent hours from the rest of Mana and does not require a tour.
The Arnulf Rainer pieces are either vibrantly-overpainted religious images or cross-shaped canvases with similar painting. My tour guide insisted that Rainer didn’t see them as inherently religious but I’m not sure I completely buy it. They are a lot fun but the real draw is the room. It’s a huge space which, based on the overhead crane, used to be for loading and unloading. Now, with the white gallery walls and high ceiling, it feels like a chapel.
Aside from the lack of light, the pieces work perfectly in the space. Yes, they’re religiousish but here they also suggest how the language of religion works architecturally to suggest that we should be pensive and quiet and respectful.
The Warhol room was a ton of silkscreen prints—many of which are the iconic ones of Marilyn Monroe, Mao, and the Flowers. It was wonderful to see so many prints from the same series together. All too often there’s only one or two; here there are like nine or ten.
As a print geek I loved being able to closely study how he changed things between editions. It’s not just playing with color. Sometimes a screen will be double struck. Other times a screen is omitted. Othertimes it’s flipped or rotated. Seeing the different combinations is a joy and reminded me of what Vlisco was doing. I wish that I knew the order in which they were printed because it would be awesome to learn how Warhol progressed through color and screen variations.
This exhibition also included a number of Warhol prints which I’d never seen before. His darker material—not just the skulls but the Sing Sing electric chair—was particularly striking. And his most-recent prints of the sunsets as well as his abstract diamond dust shadow prints were also unlike any other Warhol’s I’d seen. The diamond dust ones in particular play with texture in a way that expanded my understanding of silkscreening. Many of the prints include solid color sections which consist of three or four different hits of the same color of ink. Not all the hits use the same screen though and the different thicknesses of ink create a textures surface to the print.
I’m familiar with John Chamberlain’s sculptures of twisted metal. I had no idea about his photography. He’s a Widelux junkie* and his photos are just a ton of fun. A lot of them are playing with the distortion capabilities of the swing lens. While this is the kind of thing which could easily become a trite gimmick, in Chamberlain’s hands the resulting images look a lot like his sculptures.
*The most famous of which may be Jeff Bridges. God damn do I want a book of his photos.
His series of vertical selfies meanwhile is goofy and a good reminder that panoramas don’t have to be horizontal. They suggest a more casual project and are a nice reminder that not everything an artist works on has to be high-concept.
The worst part of this room is that now I want a Widelux—or at least a Horizon—more than ever.
In the basement of the Mana building are a ton of artist studios as well as a number of artist residencies. The result is a casual art/work space with a number of improvised exhibition spaces. Surface was one such exhibition and consisted of taking GIF artists and giving them the opportunity to create animations for a gallery setting.
The results are interesting—some hits and, as you have to expect with contemporary art, some misses—but the whole show is quite charming. These are artists who typically do not make physical things and so seeing their first forays into a physical, interactive space reminded me of being in school and experiencing the joy of making your first physical art object.
I particularly liked creating a whirlpool with a spinning stir magnet instead of screwing around with pumps and plumbing. I also enjoyed how Matthias Brown’s piece involved projected animation interacting with static images which he’d painted on the screen itself.
Another residency/exhibition is Apostrophe NYC* in the Mana BSMT. This is a dozen or so artists working together, making their own art, but also sharing a space and bouncing ideas off of each other. While their art is neat, I most-enjoyed poking my head into their studio spaces, seeing how they create things, and what kinds of random stuff they have up on their own walls.
*Who got a bit of press last year for their guerrilla Whitney show.
It’s been a long time—too long—since I’ve been in a space like this* and I’m glad I had the opportunity to take the tour. I’ll definitely be looking forward to future ICP shows as an excuse to head back to Mana. And who knows, maybe Mana will put a show together which could drag me out there as well.
*The Product Design loft at Stanford was a similar space—as was the machine shop where we all made our projects.
I saw tweets about ICP’s Han Youngsoo show at Mana Contemporary and the photos looked good enough to pique my interest. So I made my way up to Jersey City just to visit ICP and had my fingers crossed that the show would be worth the trip.
It totally was.
It’s not a huge show but what’s on display are examples of how fantastic good street photography can be.* The photos are strongly composed and beautifully seen. The prints blow away all the digital images on the web. Most of the images are strong on their own accord but, when seen as a collective they have a distinct point of view and narrative.
*I have a mixed relationship with street photography. On the web it’s become a bit of a bad brand where—typically—men have chosen to emulate the alpha-male “I have a right to photograph anything in public” mentality and much of what’s presented is a reflection of the photographer’s “daring.” At the same time, street photos are one of the hardest things to do well because of the ever-changing unexpected dynamic on the street and I can’t help but admire people’s ability to get wonderful spontaneous images and capture strangers in what appear to be completely-honest expressive portraits.
They’re beautiful and clever. I love the way that the overhead street car wires end up looking like birds. I love the way the men in the shadows inside the butcher shop mirror the expressions on the pig heads outside. I love the perfect timing in capturing gestures and posture as people walk down the street or gaze at shop windows. I love the textures in the snow that the footprints on the frozen river leave.*
*I couldn’t help but think of Max Desfor’s Pulitzer-winning photo here though.
I love how beautiful Seoul ends up looking despite the ruins and overcrowdedness. At their most-basic level these photos are about a place rather than the people in it. It’s clear that, rather than being photos of people, the actual subject in each photo is Seoul. There’s a palpable sense of love and romance. Seoul is home and Han Youngsoo is sharing how he sees it—what he feels about it—with us.
And it’s a Seoul in transition. The Korean War ended in 1953. These photos cover the period between 1956 and 1963. The city is in the midst of rebuilding as well as westernizing and modernizing. There are still some ruins visible—a shattered roofline here or there but never as the focus of the image. There are english-language signs all over the place. Infrastructure is in a state of flux where streets—when they’re paved—are shared between handcarts and electric trollies. The trajectory is clear.
It’s with the women though—especially their clothing—where the photos tell their most interesting history. These aren’t Winogrand-like photos of women, they’re just conscious of how the changing nature of the city is impacting women in particular. They wear clothing which ranges from hanbok to cutting-edge 1960s fashion. The advertisements and street displays and magazines are all peddling western fashions. Only in one crowded street market is traditional clothing still available.
It’s clear that with the changing fashions that the women’s roles are also changing toward a more middle class direction. And that the city itself is becoming a consumer-based city* of shops and merchants.
*The men don’t show this narrative at all. They all wear western clothing and none of the shops or new consumer goods are marketed for men’s consumption.
I love a great photo as much as anyone but with street photography much of the appeal is how it can document a specific time and place—whether it captures a city and its population in a specific window of time or manages to document how they change. Han Youngsoo’s photos are beautiful but the history and changes he documents is even better
I’ve visited the Princeton Art Museum a couple times over the past few months and, while I haven’t had the ganas to write a full post about each exhibition I saw, I did still have some thoughts. So what follows is a quick grab bag post about a handful of exhibitions and installations which caught my eye or provoked a reaction.
Epic Tales from India
The Epic Tales show was super-detailed and, in many ways, was more like seeing an illustrated book than a collection of paintings. This was one of the most narrative-heavy shows I’ve seen and even despite all that I was glad to have a working knowledge of most of the tales on display. There still wasn’t enough room to have proper descriptions of the stories.
The paintings are wonderfully intricate and colorful with lots of small detailwork to inspect as you’re expected to read the story through the images. I particularly like how images from different regions are compared and how you can see distinctions in regional style while still seeing the same story.
I also can’t help but think that it would be very interesting to structure an exhibition of “Epic Tales from Europe” which focused on the narrative and functional aspects of what museums traditionally display as “fine art.” Much of the European tradition of religious art is explicitly about telling the stories in the Bible or the lives of the saints yet those narratives are almost absent from the museums now.*
*I’ve had to explain to people before—particularly with the saints—what it is they’re looking at since the museum texts assume a level of cultural knowledge that no longer (if it ever) existed.
Beading African History
I loved the Beading African History installation. It acknowledges how beads and beading reflected a global trade in beads and supplies and also used the beadwork to compare and contrast art across multiple countries and regions. It’s not as cool as the Vlisco show but it’s working along the same lines.
Given how the Princeton Museum has a tendency to lump all of “Africa” together in the basement where all countries and all time periods get flattened into a generic “tribal” presentation, seeing it embracing a medium which demonstrates the commonalities through the lens of trade and colonialism was a nice change of pace.
Echoes of One Hand Clapping
Ugh. Echoes of One Hand Clapping is one of the laziest exhibitions I’ve ever seen. Yes it’s great to see all of Minor White’s Sound of one Hand Clapping sequence on display. But to use that as a jumping off point for an entire exhibition of “sound in Asian art”? Please.
It’s a cliched title with a surface-level understanding of asianness being used in a way which is directly contradictory to the koan’s meaning. It does a disservice to White’s photos and doesn’t tell us anything about the rest of the artwork on display.
And yes, the ten photos are good and I enjoy the sequencing. It’s always nice to be reminded that photos aren’t supposed to be viewed as single images. I was however far from the proper state of mind when I looked at them. That they’re hung a little high, there’s a small counter in the way so you can’t look closely, and the light is pretty dim didn’t help either.
I had to walk through Revealing Pictures twice. The way the museum has chosen to display the photos gave me an uneasy sense of treating black bodies as a form of ruin porn where an aesthetic appeal is used to gloss over the underlying trauma in the image. This is specifically a problem with the hanging and wall text and is not at all a critique of the images themselves. The installation over-emphasises the underlying trauma and spends a lot of time trumpeting the presence of non-western, non-white subject matter.
The show however is not about this at all and is instead both much simpler and much more my kind of thing.
While there’s no catalog, the small saddlestitched handout includes a short bio of the collector* The bio saves the entire show. He’s not interested in trauma, he’s found himself interested in understated portraits and landscapes which require additional context to understand. And he’s been smart enough to recognize that instead of collecting one image per artist, collecting a handful of images from each series/artist explains the context better than any wall text.
*As well as a picklist for the show which is the kind of awesome thing every museum should hand out.
There’ve been occasional rants in photoland about the increase in conceptual photography and how photos are no longer about just the image. I find myself rolling my eyes at these rants because you can’t escape context no matter how hard you try. This small show makes the case for context in even the most straightforward images and for recognizing how much photography relies on that information for its power.*