Category Archives: museums

Philadelphia Zoo

I think this will make it our eighth trip to the Philadelphia Zoo. It was cold so many of the animals were hiding but we did get to see the cats looking all elegant in their winter coats. Also there were baby Red Pandas which were moving way too fast to photograph.

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Natural History Museum

New Jersey schools always have a four-day Veterans Day weekend so this year I took the boys to New York to visit the Natural History Museum and then wander through Central Park. This was also the kindergartner’s first real trip into New York and on the subway so it was fun to see him get the experience. The third grader meanwhile is learning how to navigate subway stations and find signs. This is a steep learning curve considering how we always enter New York via Penn Station.

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Philadelphia Zoo

Starting the new school year off correctly with a trip to the Philadelphia Zoo. We got to be right up close to the lion this time.

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Black Aesthetics

A short post to wrap up my latest visit to the Princeton Art Museum where I also saw Michael Kenna and Clarence H. White. While Princeton’s Making History Visible show is still up, the museum has added a new, related show to the mix.

Where Making History Visible is about the erasure of blackness from how the US represents itself and transgressive it can feel to add Blackness back into the mythology, Black Aesthetics looks forward. Rather than operating in the realm of white comfort and subverting things, it’s about creating forms of expression and a mythology of blackness that don’t have to be concerned with white comfort.

It’s noteworthy how global this show is. There’s a common culture of forced detribalization and the resultant vacuum of mythology across the African diaspora which influences many of the works on display. So we have art from artists across the globe—the US, UK, Cuba, Bahamas, Kenya, etc.—all of which deal in various ways with creating their own identities on their own rather than letting the dominant white colonial cultures dictate that for them.

Seeing the two exhibitions together is informative since it makes the point that both approaches are both valid and necessary. Putting artists like Glenn Ligon in both exhibitions confirms this. There is great value in subverting expectations of white comfort. But it’s just as important to operate completely outside of the white comfort framing.

 

Clarence H. White

The Michael Kenna show is actually intended to supplement Princeton’s current big show of Clarence H. White photographs. The hook is pictorialism and its legacy and, as someone who doesn’t really enjoy pictorialism, by including Kenna’s landscapes in the pictorial tradition offers one explanation for why I don’t like them too much.

Pictorialism for me is a period of photography when the medium hadn’t quite figured out what it was best at. Even though people like Watkins and O’Sullivan had created work which still influences landscape photography, a lot of photograph was having problems escaping from the idea that photos should look like paintings. I enjoy seeing exhibitions of pictorial photographs because I can see the evolution of the craft. I just don’t like the photos themselves.

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It is fun however to see the photos treated as objects rather than images. The wall of pictorial frames is great as are the examples of prints cut into triptychs. While this sort of feeds into the idea that the photos need to be part of a larger art object, it’s an important reminder how even today we need to think of photographs as things rather than just images.

It’s also really interesting to see how photography interplays with illustration. White has a number of commercial works for books as well as gum bichromate prints* and glycerin development.** Oftentimes the photos are reworked by hand after they’re printed in order to give them a more painterly texture. since many of these images are intended to be printed in books and used as illustrations, the mannered pictorial style feels much more appropriate since it’s working in the service of the text.

*Not inherently pictorial but in this show, often used in ways to block up shadows and enhance the surface texture so the photo actually looks like a painting.

**Effectively a resist technique for platinum printing where parts of the paper don’t get get the developer. White then uses developer to paint new details into the undeveloped sections.

The show though is mainly about White’s evolution as a photographer and, more importantly, his influence as a photography instructor. So we can see his growth as he works toward the medium we recognize today and his early fuzzy posed portraits become more assured in their lighting and compositions. The same goes with his students’ work which often demonstrates the medium’s growth into what we recognize as photography today.

Rouge: Michael Kenna

When I first encountered Micheal Kenna’s work I was struck by how beautiful it was. Wonderfully elegant and serene, they were photos the likes of which I could see myself aspiring to. Then I kept seeing his work come across my Tumblr dashboard and found myself getting kind of bored. The images began feeling too perfect and almost sterile. They’re still beautiful but they’re begging for a story or some context.

So I was a little wary when I went to see Princeton’s exhibition of his Rouge series and found myself pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. The photos are all still very much the Kenna™ brand but rather than idealizing nature we’re seeing the elegant beauty of the man-made industrial forms.

Kenna is at his best as a photographer of atmosphere and silhouettes. He’s able to find the bare minimum of a form and abstract it in ways where it becomes two-dimensional at some points. He has a very graphic sensibility which, when applied to industrial objects, turns them into found art.

If his landscape photos are initially appealing in that they’re pretty photos of pretty things, Rouge operates in that wonderful transformative way that the best photography does. The photos are still beautiful, but the beauty is tougher to see and the photos help us recognize it.

The silhouettes of the factory buildings. The way those elements interact with each other visually whether in their repeated forms or how they overlap and intersect. How massive solid shapes disappear in the mist and how their reflected forms disappear in the moving water. The way light gleams when it reflects off well-worn patches of metal. How imposed on the land everything feels—especially when it snows—yet there’s a beauty in how the clean lines of the factory contrasts with the texture of the earth.

I just really enjoyed looking at these.

The exhibition also frames Kenna’s work as a dialog with the earlier photographs—especially Charles Sheeler—and paintings both of Ford’s Rouge plant and with respect to America’s view of industry. Technological utopia versus dystopia is a fine line. Many of Kenna’s compositions directly reference earlier works which show gleaming sunlit structures embracing the power and promise of industry. Kenna though shoots them at night or in the fog, with long exposures that create otherworldly smoke and lighting effects.

The result is a sense of foreboding. The end is coming and the promises of 90 years ago didn’t pan out the way we desired. It’s not going to blow up, it’s just going to gradually wind down and become deserted. We see the echoes of industry in the photos and can picture the ruins that’ll remain once these jobs no longer exist.

That Kenna erases the labor aspect in his photos helps our sense of seeing these as being deserted. There’s still smoke belching from the powerhouse cloud factory but we don’t see the factory workers themselves. At most we get the sense that people have worked here in the past. Machinery is worn, and surfaces are no longer shiny and new.

This is more of a human touch than I’m used to in Kenna’s landscape photos but it’s still in keeping with his standard operating procedure for landscapes. And I found myself questioning the ethics of it. Yes it helps these photos work as elegies to American industrial production but with the times being what they are, I find myself wondering how many people are working and how many of them will be out of work soon.

I also don’t usually do a comparison of the catalog with the exhibition but this shows is the first time I’ve picked up a gallery copy of the catalog and directly compared it to the prints on the wall. My initial interest was print size. Kenna’s prints are all pretty small—around eight inches square*—and I was curious if the book printed them the same size as the prints.

*I’m increasingly used to art photography being printed huge.

I was pleased to see that they are the same size in the catalog and on the wall. I was surprised however to see such a huge difference in contrast. Kenna’s prints are very high contrast with crushed shadows that emphasize the bulk of the factory and the silhouettes of the equipment. The catalog on the other hand has way more shadow detail which suggests that they either come from a different set of prints or that they’re new scans from the negatives.

Neither version looks bad. I feel like the higher contrast look helps set the mood better however.

Hearst Castle

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Since Highway 1 was closed at Big Sur we couldn’t make the drive up the Central Coast. Instead we used Morro Bay as a base/hub for driving up 1 and then coming back.

Our main stop was Hearst Castle—another place I hadn’t been to since I was in 4th grade. We just did the standard tour since it was kind of our first time and we felt that seeing the main rooms and getting the official introduction made the most sense. The quality of the tour seems to depend a lot on the guide, thankfully Carson, our guide, was great. Just the right level of detail into how things were collected and manufactured while maintaining the humor and interest that’s naturally part of the celebrity nature of the place.

Against my expectations I really liked it. Heart Castle hits a lot of art stuff I’m typically allergic to. Rich collectors with a collection which is branded by the collectors’ names. Collections displayed as per the collector’s wishes yet masquerading as a museum. Mixing and matching things from all to create a generic sense of culture. But it works here.

This is partly because Hearst’s collecting is very much specific to his taste and doesn’t look like anything else I’ve seen. Especially his fascination with ceilings and choir lofts and the way that he reuses and repurposes them. That the lofts become wainscotting or panelling and the ceilings are reengineered so they both fit rooms and have the structural strength to support chandeliers turns everything into something new.

Hearst uses his collection so rather than being museum pieces for display only, they have an additional life with how they functioned in the castle. Wonderful furniture pieces are repurposed as storage for cigarettes or condiments and while the new function is different, the object has a different life to it. Even the “fakery” works. It’s not exactly making replicas or faking the original objects but rather creating brand new things out of the replicas.

Nothing’s trying to be “authentic.” It’s all just raw material to be remixed into something new and inspired by the originals. This is fun to see and it’s enjoyable to see it as a result of raiding Europe for a change.

A lot of times—specifically with orientalism and primitivism—we see artwork or ideas get raided from non-white countries and turned into Western, “high” art which conjures up an all-look-same myth about the non-Western source cultures. In situations where the audience doesn’t know better that appropriation is indeed something I’m allergic to. Here though, where we know the cultures that are being sampled, the appropriation and remixing is actually fun to see and, rather than being annoyed at the lack of context, I can enjoy seeing the shoe be on the other foot.

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But we also drove a bit further and checked out some of the coast. And took a walk to see the Elephant Seals.

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