Category Archives: museums

Susan Meiselas

Finally getting to this post after a long break of blogging about museums. The same day I went to Pier 24 I also walked over to SFMOMA. I chose not to see the fancy Magritte show* but did walk through the large Susan Meiselas exhibition.

*I’m opposed to paying surcharges to see traveling shows of big-name artists since they frequently emphasize “here are his most-famous works” and “here’s merchandise featuring his most famous works” and rarely offer good insights about the artist himself. Yes I’m using “him” on purpose. Yes this felt like a total FAMSF show.

One of the reason’s I’ve not blogged about this yet is that I’ve been struggling with what angle to take. The Meiselas show is good and interesting but not necessarily in a way that I always like. And I’m not saying I have to like it, just that in figuring out my critiques I have to figure out what exactly rubs me the wrong way and that was kind of hard.

 

First off, her early work is very good and demonstrates a lot of the things that we don’t get with the typical documentary photography. The photos of Little Italy are wonderful in that kids growing up way. Meiselas is at home and photographing people who trust her and it’s just a great unguarded—or as unguarded as possible— view of adolescence.

The especially great thing seeing these is recognizing the difference in comfort around the camera and photographer that the subjects show. I’ve seen way too many photographs by men where it’s clear that things are a little creepy. None of that is going on here.

The Carnival Strippers series take this a step further. It’s great to see a series like this without the male gaze. There’s no leering going on and the images concentrate on the lives of the women. Yes there’s a lot of skin on display but it’s more nakedness and exhausted vulnerability instead of nudity.

Susan Meiselas. Sandinistas at the walls of the Estelí National Guard headquarters, “Molotov Man,” Estelí, Nicaragua, July 16, 1979.

Susan Meiselas.
Sandinistas at the walls of the Estelí National Guard headquarters, “Molotov Man,” Estelí, Nicaragua, July 16, 1979.

Where her early work is pretty much straight documentary photography, her subsequent work, starting with El Salvador and Nicaragua, gets more interesting the more you divorce it from photojournalism.  Not that it’s not photojournalism—it very much is—just that what seems to interest Meiselas is the life of the image itself.

There’s a reason her work was featured in Princeton’s Itinerant Language of Photography show. Where most exhibitions show just prints and have a small case showing how they were originally published in magazines, Meiselas is putting her prints on the wall with the magazines and other publications so we can compare how they’ve been used.

It’s conceptual art about how photography exists in the world and the ways we use the images. I enjoy seeing it—both in a how the sausage is made way and in the way that it shows Meiselas thinking about the life of her images while she works. She’s appearing on campus this week and I’m looking forward to seeing the conversations.

Susan Meiselas. Widow at mass grave found in Koreme, Northern Iraq, 1992.

Susan Meiselas.
Widow at mass grave found in Koreme, Northern Iraq, 1992.

Her work in Iraq documenting the Kurds moves even further away from straight photography and is as much about the history of the entire region rather than just what was happening while she was there. In addition to her photos there are archival images and maps which document western involvement in the area as well as the refugee diaspora.

How much of this is western responsibility? The archive photos show England getting involved in Kurdish politics in 1914. All too often photojourmalism feeds a narrative of awful things happening right now without considering the background of why people are suffering. Why they’re fighting. Why they’re fleeing. Why it’s impossible for the West to disassociate itself from the consequences of what’s going on.

All too often looking back into the history of the region—even just the photographic history—reveals our (“our” meaning “The West’s”) involvement in the area decades ago followed by decades of neglect after we destabilized the area. This lack of awareness makes it easy to claim that we have no responsibility for the current state of things and lay the blame at the people who we left holding the bag after we messed things up.

It’s a shame this kind of photojournalism seems more at home in museums than any current media. But it’s exciting to see photoland grappling with these issues.

The exhibition ends with a couple works where Meiselas is working collaboratively with her subjects. These two pieces are the primary cause for the delay in posting since I couldn’t wrap my head around my feelings about them.

The first one documents abuse in the UK. This is an important piece which is perfectly timed to hit at a moment when society has had a much-needed shift in its perception and framing of abuse and whose stories matter. Taking “portraits” of survivors’ rooms and letting their words hold equal weight to the image is a powerful way of centering their stories and making the point at both how important it is to listen to what victims say and how long-lasting the emotional and mental trauma from abuse can last.

At the same time, I got some weird vibes from this room in that I couldn’t escape the impression that this issue was an immigrant, refugee, non-white problem rather than a universal one. It’s hard. Small sample sizes like this are tough to handle and can produce inadvertent framing issues. I don’t know if by balancing for racial diversity meant we ended up with a mostly-immigrant one. Or maybe this is just the demographics of the refuge that Meiselas was working with. I just know that something felt off to me.

Twenty Dirhams or One Photo is another one that just doesn’t sit right with me. I do like some of the concept—especially the idea of trying to acknowledge the power issues which are at the core of most photography but especially haunt photojournalism and the way it’s frequently intertwined with colonialism. I like the idea of compensating sitters. I like the idea of considering whether or not people want you to take their photo. I like the idea of giving the sitters agency over whether or not to publish the photos. But something about the nature of this transaction still felt off to me.

One big thing is that the price feels like it’s something which is substantial enough to be tempting to the sitters but isn’t a big deal at all for Meiselas. Rather than a fair transaction, it’s more of a game where power is always with the photographer. This game aspect also gets triggered by the whole “decide before I take your photo” thing in the setup and how, while there’s agency in whether or not the photo gets published, I’m still wondering what brought the women into the studio to begin with. I’ve been a parent long enough to recognize how someone with power can offer the appearance of choice by controlling the options available to choose from.

Aside from the weirdness I felt about the experimental aspect of the piece,it is worth commenting on how the portraits themselves are quite nice. They show a wonderful variety of attire and age and really give a sense of the vitality of the market population.

So yeah. It’s been a couple months since I saw this show and the fact that I’m still grappling with conflicted feelings is ultimately a good thing. Even if I end up deciding I don’t like some parts, the fact that I had to think about it is great and even a failed experiment has value in what we can learn from it.

Other comments

One of the most frustrating things about this show is how aggressively SFMOMA enforced the “no photography” rule. I’m not complaining about not being allowed to take photos but if you’re going to have your guards shout at people whenever they take out their iPhone and point it at the wall, you’d better not have wall text that tells you to open the SFMOMA app and scan the code. I even pointed out the mixed messages to a guard and he just shrugged.

Anyway if my phone was new enough to run the app I’d’ve considered squeaky wheeling it and seeing how often I could get yelled at for following the directions that the curator had written. As it is I just took it as another example of the new SFMOMA no longer knowing what it wants to be.

Along with this sense of SFMOMA incompetence, nothing was translated even though Meiselas is very good about including what the locals call places in her captions. My notes show that I was particularly indignant about how a location Meiselas called “cuesta de plomo” (hill of lead) is merely listed as an assacicination location.

Coyote Point

Our annual summer trip to Coyote Point and CuriOdyssey. The boys are kind of outgrowing the zoo although the fact that the animals were easily visible and very active this trip helped assuage that. But they’re liking the exhibits more and are starting to make connections to stuff they’re learning in school. This is encouraging. I remember going to the Exploratorium at least once every year when I was a kid* and I don’t remember ever paying attention to the science behind the exhibits.

*Usually on both a school fieldtrip and a summer camp field trip.

We also did our usual thing of hitting the Magic Mountain playground for a bit of fun on the gigantic slide. Then I took the boys up the road a bit to Burlingame for It’s-Its. It was, after all, National Ice Cream Sandwich Day.

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This Land is Whose Land

It’s kind of funny. I had to move away from the Bay Area in order to find the time to visit Pier 24. Before I moved I could never get into the city for a visit. Something about the weekday-only hours and having to reserve an appointment made it something that was just way too much work to fit into my schedule. Now that I live in New Jersey, it’s been relatively straightforward to include it on my itinerary when I return to California on a vacation. I’ve been three times in five years.

The current exhibition focuses on recent work documenting the United States. It’s not all photos of people but everything on display depicts elements of society and how it’s changed in the past decade. For me, as someone who’s spent the last decade paying a lot of attention to photography—especially new photography—many of these photos are not new to me. I’ve seen them online, in galleries, and at other museums. I haven’t seen them put together like this though as a depiction of, and conversation about, the current US social climate.

I got through two rooms before I had to stop and write down in my note book, “How white is this show going to be?”

This is not a dig at those two rooms* but rather a recognition that I had walked into the photoland equivalent of the endless media profiles of Trump Country which focus on “economic anxiety” and center the plight of poor white people.

*One was the entry room featuring photos by Katy Grannan and Richard Misrach. The other was a room of Alec Soth’s Songbook. Yes I’ve seen all of those before. Yes I even like many of them.

Bryan Schutmaat

Bryan Schutmaat

Heck, this is not a dig at any of the rooms. Rather it’s how Photoland missed—and misrepresented—the same things that the general media does. Any one of these photo projects is fine. Seeing them all together though just reinforces the tropes about who we consider to be American and who we’re expected to sympathize with.

It’s bad enough that I’m tempted to view a lot of this as Ruin Porn. It’s not the same as the luscious-surface-texture ruin porn that we saw in the beginning of the decade. In this case the themes and emotions represent the same easily-identifiable tropes of an alienated white middle and working class. We get that golden light of sunset and see the decline of towns and the isolation of the people who live there.

We don’t get a sense of why things are the way they are. We don’t get to see other communities and demographics. We don’t really get to learn anything from these. As well-crafted as these images are they also feel like the same story and same people over and over again. And as a result my brain just registers objections.

The Pier 24 no-context thing definitely hurts here too. Many of the images are ones where I want to know more about where they were taken and who used the structures. If the first round of ruin porn just involved us appreciating the way ruins look, this second round is about indulging in how the ruins represent people’s dreams. Not knowing whose dreams we’re looking at is a problem.

Highlights

Corine Vermeulen

Corine Vermeulen

Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey

It’s not all bad though. A few artists in particular stood out as saying something beyond just photographing the decay of white America.

Corine Vermeulen’s photos of Detroit are exceptional in how they celebrates perseverance and survival rather than limiting themselves to only portraying decline. Yes there are images in there of empty lots and abandoned buildings. But they’re outnumbered by images of life. Diverse images. All different ages. All different races. Individuals, couples, groups.

Have things sucked? Yes. Are things still hard? Also yes. Are things hopeless? No. Vermeulen’s work is optimistic and points at where we can go.

Dawoud Bey’s photographs of gentrifying Harlem meanwhile are wonderfully subtle—almost too subtle given the obviousness of the tropes at play in most of the other galleries. The images are often familiar but the focus is intentionally off from what I’d expect to be in focus.

The result is a set of images which is quietly about development and change. It turns the lens on the gentrifiers but in a way which never neglects to include an aspect of the old neighborhood also in the frame. Because of the focusing choices I was forced to really look at the photos and notice how details that are often used as background texture are in fact the lifeblood of the neighborhood being displaced.

An-My Lê’s photographs of New Orleans are another fabulously subtle collection* which gets into how history and myth interact—specifically in The South where the subtext of the Civil War and Slavery is everywhere. Her work feels especially relevant now as the whole country has had to grapple with these myths and where remembering history crosses over into glorifying atrocities.

*Yes I like subtle photographic themes in general but in this particular show where so many of the galleries are filled with unsubtle tropes I was particularly taken with the ones that encouraged me to stop and think.

The power of her photographs is such that when I can’t readily make the historical connection I find my brain suggesting plausible possibilities. Which means that her photo of that one solitary tree remains deeply disturbing to me weeks after I’ve seen it.

Lowlights

Paolo Pellegrin

Paolo Pellegrin

As much as I found a lot of the rooms to be over-troped, very few of them were what I’d call outright bad either. Paolo Pellegrin’s Rochester photos though really bugged me. Aside from my remembering his captioning controversy, the whole set just rubbed me the wrong way with a grittiness that felt like I was looking at clickbait.

My biggest problem is that it feels like the entire set is pro-police propaganda which shows all the “low lifes” they have to deal with now. The way Pier 24 hung the images caused me to see all of them as through this perspective. Even the photos which weren’t actually police-related. The tropes are so strong and this gallery leans so strongly into them that just a photo of kids running through a field ends up feeling like a police chase.

Given how much we all know now about how police interact with black communities, seeing these photos displayed like this really gave me hives.

Notes

Brian Ulrich

Brian Ulrich

A few notes about specific projects that caught my eye. I enjoyed Alessandra Sanguibetti’s work as a window into how a foreigner perceives America. Also the concept of photography as pre-emptive preservation for eventual death is pretty cool.

I also love Brian Ulrich’s deserted malls. A little bit of Todd Hido’s House Hunting. A little bit of Lewis Baltz. A little bit of Camilo José Vergara. There’s the suggestion that all old industry models are now dead in these.

James Nares’s slow-motion movie is a very interesting concept that just didn’t work for me. The big thing is that I feel like it needs more depth of field since I couldn’t help but watch it for photographic moments—many of which occurred in the out of focus areas. It is nice that this was as diverse as it was but it’s also yet another New York street photography project.

Daniel Postaer’s photos of San Francisco are fun because they’re of San Francisco and I recognize the locations. They also point out one of the weaknesses of good photographic practice and searching for nice light. All that wonderful golden light not only makes everything look the same but is literally the least San Francisco looking light possible.

Crossroads

Across the landing from House Imaginary in the old museum building was a small collection of government funded prints of the “American Scene.” This is not something I consider myself to be interested in but I always take a walk through all the galleries just in case.

I’m glad I did so. I don’t like most of these but I love what they made me think of.

First off, San José is making the argument that Federal support of the arts is not just a good thing but it’s an inherently American thing. These are important colors to nail to the mast. The importance of art, sustaining that art, and for the rest of the public to access that art is something that we’ve abandoned today. At the same time I recognize the nature of this public art and how it functions as propaganda.

Thomas Hart Benton Cradling Wheat, 1939

Thomas Hart Benton
Cradling Wheat, 1939

The specific images in the exhibition focus on American life and locations. I found them especially interesting to compare with the Mexican Modernism prints which are roughly contemporary and frequently depict similar subject matter yet feel completely different. Where the Mexican prints are explicitly anti-capitalist in their celebration of manual labor and the common worker, the American ones don’t have that edge.

Yes, they celebrate manual labor and the common worker as much as, if not more than, the Communist prints did. But the framing is one of nostalgia. Pastoral scenes have that rosy Grant Wood* idyllic pre-industrial feel. Rather than critique the way that way of life is changing the goal seems to be comfort and reassurance.

*Many of his prints are on display here.

Leon Gilmour.
Cement Finishers.

The industrial and urban prints do better. They’re frequently grittier and show a wider spectrum of life in ways that remind me of 1930s photography. The artists are clearly inspired by many of the same industrialscapes that attract photographers and the social justice cause of humanizing the laborers is also something that occurs frequently in photography of this time. Showing people living and working in the hustle and bustle of the city is a new avenue of investigation.

I’m still intrigued by the subtle differences in how some labor images read “Communist” while others read as “Capitalist.” I’m certainly aware that a lot of the federally-funded artists had communist sympathies but while I can certainly view many of these as being pro-labor, pro-communist images, they’re subtle enough that I don’t have to and, without the museum framing things this way, it’s very easy to see them as pro-development instead.

Anyway I wasn’t expecting  to have these thoughts about this show and I’m pleasantly surprised that I did.

Leon Gilmour.
Pinnacles.

The last section of the room involved landscapes and nature studies. I really liked these in part because how much they reminded me of photography and paralleled the emergence of group ƒ/64. There’s that same sense of deep crisp focus and the seduction of contrasty light. There’s the awareness of how natural views can function as abstract imagery.

I’m curious whether one medium influenced the other or if there was just something in the air at the time which resulted in everyone seeing things in similar ways.

House Imaginary

Upstairs from Rise Up and California Dreamin’ is a large exhibition about housing. Given how housing is one of the most-pressing issues in the area, this is one of the most-topical shows that San José could do.

The works on display demonstrate interesting combination of “house” and “neighborhood.” While the two concepts are obviously linked, I can’t think of any of the pieces which actually bridge both and investigate that link. If anything, California Dreamin’ comes closer than anything actually in the show with the way it evokes both the architecture of apartment housing and the feeling of being in those neighborhoods.

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Zarina

The works which investigate the concept of “house” frequently touch on how home is what you make of it. There’s photography like Bill Owens’s images of 1970s Bay Area suburbia or Larry Sultan’s images of his parents’ retirement community. There are wonderfully personal images like Claire Rojas’s small, wonderfully-detailed paintings, Carmen Garza’s comfortable family scenes, and Gertrude Bleiberg’s sketches.

As much as the theme of the exhibition is housing, these works are specifically about the concept of home. The nature of the housing is ancillary to the fact that it exists. It’s what we do with, and inside, that housing where the real meaning gets created.

My favorite piece in the show was Zarina’s collection of floorplans of all the houses she’s lived in. These aren’t architectural blueprints; they’re sketches of the floorplans based on her memories. I love the concept since it ends up being about the house itself, it’s use, and the way the artist is remembering her life there.

Looking at all the floorplans together is fantastic. I can imagine how the rooms were used and think about how life must’ve been in each home. I can compare the floorplans from different parts of the world and get a sense of how differently (or similarly) buildings are built in each place. Do I want to know about the neighborhoods these homes are in? Absolutely. But more than any other piece in the exhibition this one gets at how many different levels housing leaves its mark on us.

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An Te Liu

The neighborhood side of the show is also not just any neighborhood; it’s almost always about planned communities—usually suburbs but there is some work about company towns in here. Lots of photography again from Todd Hido’s wonderful night photos of suburban light to Robert Isaacs’s photos of Daly City to David Maisel‘s aerial photos of suburban sprawl.

My favorite piece from this section of the show is An Te Liu’s selection of Levittown-inspired fabric prints which take delight in the patterns of development and the effect that row-upon-row of like-looking houses creates when abstracted just slightly. It’s both a lot of fun and wonderfully clever.

Looking at all these images of surburbia though made me realize that none of the artworks on hand were actually prepared to deal with the situation of how to fit a massive amount of housing into an area where there’s no open land to build on.

All the new housing development I’m seeing in the Bay Area hasn’t quite figured this out either. There’s not enough room to build single family homes but everything still has to have vestigial trappings of a yard or a porch. Every home is accessed via a two-lane street lined with endless two-car garages on each side. The supposed front doors can only be accessed by a alley which is so narrow that sunlight only reaches the ground at noon. The streets and sidewalks in these developments are not public land so you can’t actually walk along them unless you live there.

We‘re trying to build forms of housing on land that can no longer accommodate that form. And we‘re selling a myth of home use that doesn’t appear to exist anymore.

This was a tricky show to do. I liked it but it also made me sad because so much of it is looking into the past at our memories of what home was. I appreciate that San José is trying to address a topical issue but looking into our emotional memories of what home was is merely the beginning. Too much of this exhibition treats that concept as the end of the discussion.

California Dreamin

In the gallery right next to Rise Up was an installation of Won Ju Lim’s work—in particular her lightboxes and lighted rooms which evoke the dreamy nature of nocturnal cityscapes.

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Won Ju Lim California Dreamin’, 2002

California Dreamin’ is a gallery-sized piece where images of sunsets with silhouetted palm trees are projected through a structure of foamcore and acrylic. It’s extremely Los Angeles. This isn’t a knock on it since it’s supposed to be Los Angeles but it risks feeling out of place in San José. As a native Bay Arean, I always kept LA a bit at arms length—in large part because of how often LA’s identity seemed to subsume the rest of California’s.

It was only after moving to New Jersey that LA began to feel like home. Now, with the way the Bay Area has changed so all the strip malls that used to house mom and pop shops and restaurants have been replaced with up-market food chains and luxury condos, LA often feels more like the Bay Area I remember. Yes the geography and vegetation are different. But the sense of the place and even the sense of the neighborhoods feels like what I want home to feel like.

I stayed in this gallery a long time. Took a nice slow walk around the entire structure. Let my eyes get accustomed to the light levels so I could really take it in. There’s something about that late-sunset time when the sky is still light but everything else is dark that I love. It’s time to finish up work and go home in winter. It’s time to finish dinner and get ready for the night in summer. There’s something calming about it not being night yet but definitely not being day.

The structure in the center of the installation suggested housing styles which are uniquely suited for this time of day. On the east coast, you’re not going to be hanging out on a balcony or walking around the street at this time. The weather is rarely amenable to it and homes aren’t built to accommodate this kind of thing.

On the west coast, this is peak go out and take a moment for yourself time. I haven’t done enough of that this summer but this installation reminded me of that joy.

Won Ju Lim Memory Palace, Terrace 49 #1, 2003

Won Ju Lim
Memory Palace, Terrace 49 #1, 2003

The Terrace installations have a similar feeling except that rather than being in a room which reminds you of being outside, these suggest the feeling of looking out your window and seeing the neighborhood wake up as the sun goes down. I love these pieces a lot too. They‘re still very LA but the foliage is different enough that they also remind me of the Bay Area and being out at night in the Peninsula or the East Bay where there’s just enough elevation to make things layered.

That cloudiness of the layers of acrylic also suggests a bit of fog is an added bonus. There’s nothing like a bit of marine layer to remind me of home.

Rise Up!

I finally took my annual trip to the San José Museum of Art late last month. I’d like to go more often but I’m only in town in the summer. I’ve been very pleased though that amidst all the changes in the Bay Area over the five years since I’ve left that San José has kept the quality up and is still presenting art that is relevant to the Bay Area rather than falling into the trap of chasing those blockbuster traveling shows.

Robert Arneson. Five Times for Harvey, 1982.

Robert Arneson.
Five Times for Harvey, 1982.

The main show this time is Rise Up. It’s a collector-based show but rather than featuring the same name-brand artists, it features a collector who actually has his own taste and vision. He started collecting by acquiring Robert Arneson’s Five Times for Harvey and then just took off in acquiring art from all kinds of under-represented artists.

The Arneson origin story of the collection is why things are framed as “social justice.” Most of the rest of the works on display though are not about outright protest or responding to a current event. Instead the central theme is one of representation. That they’re so relevant to today’s issues is a demonstration of how rarely we see these voices in mass media.

In some ways I’m annoyed by this mischaracterization. In other ways I really like it. Arneson may be the only white male artist in the show but by using the protest art framing, San José avoids making this a Race™ exhibition. We should be used to galleries full of art by people who aren’t white men. These artworks should also be presented as universal. And that’s exactly what San José quietly does here.

This show also blows up the idea that the silver lining to Trump would be that “at least we’ll get some good art.” The pieces on display go back more than three decades and speak about the pride and perseverance it takes to survive in this country as an underrepresented group. It’s art that typically doesn’t make it into mainstream collections but the sentiments of life and survival are as appropriate now as they were then.

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Wangechi Mutu

Of special note in this exhibition is the wonderful selection of artwork by Black women. Kara Walker, Mickalene Thomas, Sadie Barnette, Alison Saar, and Wangechi Mutu are all on display and their work in particular shows how limited the mainstream representations of black womanhood is.

The expressions of who they are, how society has treated them, how they feel about themselves. and what gives them strength confirm that the best way to break stereotypes and see people as human is to have a multitude of representations available. Not one artist on display or one character in a movie. Many of them, each with their own character and point of view.

The art is also frequently moving without the othering gaze that so-often occurs when I see these subjects in a museum. I just wish this were the standard for what art is without having to come up with some kind of hook for why it’s appropriate today.