Another school field trip like the one to the New Jersey State Museum. This time the kids visited Guyot Hall to see the fossils and then got a guided tour of the Art Museum where they learned about Laocoön, Arion, ancient Chinese tomb guardians, and Medusa.
Category Archives: Princeton Art Museum
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.
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.*
Baltimore on my Mind
Seeing Princeton’s City Lost and Found show a week before Baltimore blew up* was very interesting timing. It’s weird to be working through my reactions to a show while a real world event unfolds which essentially references everything I’m working through. But this show covers the 1960s and 1970s in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Which means it covers the Harlem riots, Chicago riots, and Watts riots—all of which are extremely relevant to the discussions we’re having today about Baltimore. We still haven’t learned the lessons from 1968.
*I’m really curious to see how that Wiki page changes since the whole riot/protest/rebellion/uprising discussion is also ongoing.
The show isn’t about the riots, but rather the way cities were evolving in the 1960s and 1970s as the demographics and industry changed. A lot of people and industry moving out. And a lot of people and infrastructure being left behind in ways that the powers that be viewed as requiring renewal or fixing or controlling. While the backstory is missing in the show, even the gist of it is enough to get started.
We get to see urban renewal plans, municipal commission documents, documentary photographs, street photographs, photojournalism, investigative art projects, performance art projects, guerrilla art projects, and more, all capturing various ways that the city was in flux and various groups were reacting to the changes, proposed changes, or lack of changes, that were going on. It shows us what the cities were like ~50 years ago and what the primary issues were then. Looking at everything, even before the Baltimore protests erupted, I was struck by how little had really changed since that time period.
The issue between balancing the need to improve aging cities with being fair to the people who still live in the cities* with addressing the injustices that have left many of those people in, or a single catastrophe removed from, poverty is not just a difficult problem we have to solve, it’s the problem we have to solve.
*Whether they’re blacks living in formerly redlined neighborhoods or artists who need affordable housing or immigrants trying to start new lives here.
And the cities do need to be improved and renewed. While urban renewal is frequently code for gentrification or the destruction of existing communities, neglect and non-investment* are just as destructive. The plans all look glorious. Wonderful mixed-use developments. High density—affordable high density—living coupled with urban parks and communal greenspaces. Transportation** accessibility as a key feature of everything. Even a lot of balancing new developments with old architecture by incorporating the old buildings into the design. I look at these plans and wish that they’d built them since they address almost all the issues*** currently afflicting cities.
*Let alone actual theft in the form of subprime mortgages or “buying” homes on contract or the systematic destruction of property and businesses if, against all odds, these areas actually do flourish.
**One of the few things that betrays the age of these plans is how car-focused everything is. Though it is interesting to note that while New York was trying to improve access for cars, the LA plans were trying to improve walkability.
***Public transportation being the notable absence.
A new city built along these lines would be a thing of beauty. The plans still look futuristic because we just can’t do things like this. Part of me wants to tear my hair out because we’ve known that we need to do this for decades. The other part of me looks at the plans and understands why we can’t.
Because I also look at these plans and notice that the ideas for renewal all involve destroying and rebuilding entire swaths of the city. And I know that to do any of this, city government will have to eminent domain the cheapest available land occupied by the least-politically-powerful people. And that the land is cheap because of racist governmental policies and white flight. And that the new growth, even if truly affordable, will not—cannot—replace the former neighborhoods.
And I look at the photos of those neighborhoods and remember the Leonard Freed book in my parents’ house and see that while they look worn down and in need of upgrading, people live their entire lives there and take pride in their neighborhoods.
And this is all ~50 years ago and things are basically the same and this wasn’t a new problem even then and no wonder people are pissed and frustrated and the real wonder is why these kind of demonstrations don’t happen more often.
The reality on the ground and the promised beauty of the plans are two threads that this show is unable to reconcile. This feels like a weakness in the exhibition as much of my time in the galleries involved being frustrated by what felt like the absence of a thesis statement for the exhibition. But this absence also feels honest and when I wasn’t frustrated I was nodding my head in agreement and recognition of this. I want to see an easy answer. We wish there were an easy answer. There is no easy answer.
The only conclusions I can draw from the exhibition require me to think about what I didn’t see there. There are no plans that treat the city as something that needs retrofitting rather than being a complete teardown and rebuild. None that view anything beyond the architectural legacy of the area to be worth considering for selected salvation.* None that involve the communities and give them any agency over what they need. All of these are projects and visions that, if they exist, would live in the disconnect which is on display. I suspect though that they don’t exist, whether 50 years ago or today.
*Not that I disagree with saving architecturally-significant buildings. Just that it says a lot about priorities when it’s only the architecture that’s considered worth saving.
Photography as social document
Aside from the general reactions I had to this show, it’s also very interesting from a photography point of view. While a lot of the photos on display were intended as art photos, they’re not being used as art here—despite being exhibited in an art museum. These are photos as social history, social documents, items that tell us about the place, who lived there, how it’s changing, what life is like on the ground rather than from the planning offices.
It’s not about the photos as objects: Some of them are vintage prints. Some are slides. Some are mechanical prints. Some are halftones in magazines or books. Some—as with the Itinerant Languages of Photography exhibition—are digital prints from scanned negatives. It’s about the photos and the stories they contain.
I still looked at the photos with an eye toward the art side of things. But even as someone who often looks at the social context around the photography* I was even more tuned into this element here. The photos—and the rest of the art in the exhibition—were telling me the stories. I didn’t have to pull them out on my own. And there are too many stories to mention so I’ll just go over the ones that caught my eye.
*cf. my Winogrand writeup.
Danny Lyon and Aaron Rose’s photos of the destruction of lower Manhattan at first have some ruin porn vibes going on except that rather than capturing the superficial beauty of decay and abandonment, these are about change and questioning the idea that progress requires destroying the past. These photos get compared to the photos that show new buildings going up. Same metal frames, same men in hard hats, and the same dust and dirt of power tools. Just a different side of the coin.
The planning commission documents contain essentially photo essays of street photography as a way of understanding that people live in the city. Where street photography often has a bad reputation, these documents show what it does well. It’s not just about the tropes and getting that decisive moment where everything in the frame lines up perfectly. It also captures a sense of place and time in a way that no other kind of photography really can.
There’s plenty of street photography on display just by itself too. Classic black and white work by Garry Winogrand or Leonard Freed. Color work by Helen Levitt or Bruce Davidson. In a different show I’d be appreciating the photos individually. In this show, between the planning commission documents and the magazine photo essays,* I’m fitting the rest of the photos into my own imagined social documents of how the city works and what it’s like to navigate one on foot.
Street photography is a human’s-eye view of the city. Even in the age of the automobile, this perspective is necessary to keep in mind. No matter how much the cities need to be fixed, if they don’t work on the street-level human scale they don’t work at all. And while I appreciate Martha Rosler’s attempts reject the theatricality of traditional street photography, the way she added distance between herself and her subjects resulted in a point of view that felt closer to a car’s-eye view of the city. There’s something about being in the middle of things in the city that’s absolutely necessary.
This is of obvious import in a city like New York but it’s also relevant to Los Angeles. There are a series of photographs by various photographers looking at the demolished but undeveloped Bunker Hill site in downtown Los Angeles. These photos are coupled with images of different redevelopment plans that were attempted over the years. Some were not pedestrian-friendly, others were. Part of the problem with the site is that the less pedestrian-friendly plans were tried first and they just didn’t work. The resulting buildings were not a place anyone wanted to be.
This emphasis on the importance of scale comes up in a lot of the more landscape-like photography in the city too. From Thomas Struth’s super-precise photographs of New York to John Humble’s photos of LA, you can see the contrast between new developments and the way they dwarf the older, human-scale architecture. We need both types of building in the modern city and making sure they work together is the challenge.
I really liked Arthur Tress’s Open Space in the Inner City* in that it felt like one of the few instances where the photography and plans where being discussed at a local level. These were originally mechanical prints rather than fine-art prints and the goal was to discuss locally about reclaiming existing open space into real parks. I’m not sure it ever got past this stage but it’s one of the few examples which even kind of sits in the middle of the divide between planning and local input.
Art Sinsabaugh’s panoramas are also great. I’m kind of a sucker for panoramas in general but I enjoy the way these show the commitment to the automobile. One of the things missing from the New Topographics is focusing on the architecture of the highway system itself. Sinsabaugh’s work is interesting to view with that context in mind.
Hans Haake’s real estate holdings piece isn’t photography per se but does rely on photographs of each location to really make concrete the point about the way so few people control so much of the land. And how labyrinthine the holding companies are so as to obscure who’s actually in charge.
Yasuhiro Ishimoto was a nice discovery for me. His quieter Chicago cityscapes feel a lot closer to the kinds of photographs I enjoy making and I’ll be looking more into his work in the future.
John Divola’s MGM lots are a brilliant addition to the show in that they blur the lines between fictitious and real urban decay and the way it’s presented in the media.The lots are fake creations meant to look like New York or Chicago or anywhere else, but they’re also open space that will eventually be developed into self-contained modern cities with Los Angeles.
Bruce Nauman’s LA Air meanwhile is one of two references in the show to explicit environmental issues in the city.* It’s funny and snarky but also points out one of the things that is an issue now but which wasn’t under consideration ~50 years ago. The environmental movement in the 1970s and 1980s is barely mentioned in this exhibition despite all the grand plans involve improving automobile circulation in the city. While a lot of the race issues would remain the same in a similar exhibit of today’s cities, I’d expect a lot more LEED-certified or Cradle to Cradle ideas in the aspirational city plans.
*The other is Documerica which, while environmental, also feels like a slice of everyday like in the 1970s.
Another blind spot involves non-black ethnic groups in the cities. I understand why the exhibition is so black-focused but other non-white communities are also an important part of the New York, Chicago, and LA experience. I only noticed mentions of these other groups in a few photos by Jonas Dovydenas documenting ethnic enclaves in Chicago, Luis Medina’s photos of Latino gang members in the 1980s, and Asco’s Chicano activist work.
Of those, Asco caught my attention since they combined Latino traditions like mural painting with Chicano activism about how Latinos are mistreated in the city. Asco’s work, by being self-representational, also pointed out how little non-white self-representation was present in the rest of the exhibition.* As with the environmental stuff I’d expect a lot more self-representational work in a modern version of this exhibition.
I would also expect a lot more Asians—both traditional Asian communities under pressure to gentrification and the rich Asian gentrifiers who are displacing a lot of the old-time residents. But that’s for the modern show which also has to include the rush back to the city by booming businesses and young professionals alike.
A brief review of Princeton’s 500 Years of Italian Master Drawings exhibition which I saw last February. I didn’t initially plan on writing about this but I’ve ended up thinking about it more than I expected to.
This was an exhibition about craft and process rather than the final productions. Most of the items on display are either plans for sculptures and paintings or sketches and studies of things being observed. In both cases, these drawings are the first step which takes us from observing and thinking to making and understanding. These drawings are what make all the other arts possible.
They’re wonderful. Besides the linework and technical skill, there is so much gesture and life in these since they are sketches rather than renderings. I’m also a total sucker for drawings using both dark and white pigments on medium-tone paper. Looking at these makes me want to start drawing again.
I ended up thinking about this exhibition more than I expected because I started wondering when these drawings became considered art in their own right. I’ve seen other exhibitions about process but none with pieces as old as these. My understanding from the wall text is that these were collected by specific people even at the time—suggesting that most people would have seen these as process documents only.
This is something I’ve wondered off and on about for a while whenever I see “unfinished” work in museums—especially now since we’ve thoroughly absorbed both the concepts of ruin value and wabi-sabi into a lot of modern art. Things don’t have to be finished perfectly to be complete. Nor do they have to be preserved intact in order to stay complete. And while neither of these is a modern idea, the concepts do seem to have made it into museums relatively recently compared to the age of some of these pieces.
Before Rodin, how were fragments and unfinished pieces like Michelangelo’s Slaves presented? Were they just examples of the artist’s working practice and a way for us to learn how things were made? Or have they always been viewable as complete pieces, finished in their own way.
I’m not enough of an academic to be able to answer this. But whenever I see exhibitions like this where process documents are being displayed as art in their own right, I’ll keep looking and reading and trying to get a better understanding of how it works and when we started seeing them as something more than just a step in the design of something else.
Instead of the top-10 list I did last year, I’m just picking one favorite/best for different categories. Also, I haven’t done a writeup on everything yet so I’ll be updating this post well into 2014 with links to the relevant reviews.
Best exhibition overall: Jay Defeo
Jay DeFeo at SFMOMA was the first thing I saw in 2013 and set the bar so high that I’ve been comparing everything since to this show. Her work is all over the place. In the best way possible. It was fantastic and exciting to see how she jumped from medium to medium, constantly taking on new and different projects while at the same time referencing all her past work and never putting a foot wrong. She deserves to be treated as the master that she was rather than merely as the creator of The Rose.
Other non-photography* shows in the running here: James Turrell at LACMA which blew my mind by making me geek out on color more than I thought possible. Lebbeus Woods at SFMOMA—a show I’m still incapable of writing about because my brain exploded while viewing it. Flesh and Metal at the Cantor Center (by SFMOMA on the Go) which put photography, sculpture, and painting together to force me to see some of my favorite pieces in completely new ways.
*I’m splitting things up this way since I’m finding that I’m viewing them with different mindsets. While DeFeo and Flesh and Metal both involve photography, neither of them are photography exhibitions. I’m basically keeping three categories (photography, non-photography, online) running in parallel. If my best overall was a photography show, I’d have a best non-photography category listed later.
Best Photo Exhibition: Garry Winogrand
Garry Winogrand at SFMOMA, as obvious a choice as this is, is also my favorite photography show I saw this year. Part of this is because I love the photographs and slice of American history they show. But a large part is due to the fact that, more than any other show, Winogrand spurred a lot of discussion about photography, editing, ethics, etc. and anything which gets us all talking like that is a great thing.
Also in the running: Carrie Mae Weems at the Cantor Center providing a much-needed non-white perspective on art, photography, and representation. Itinerant Languages of Photography at Princeton addressing how photos change meaning as their context changes. Richard Misrach at the Cantor Center making us ask serious questions about our modern lifestyle.
Best Online Exhibition: Form and Landscape
The Huntington’s Form and Landscape project represents the kind of thing I’d love to see more of moving forward. The concept of unleashing multiple editors on a single archive and then collecting the results is what the web should be great at. That this exhibition also manages to tell the story of LA as well as explain a lot of the myths of the US is the icing on the cake.
Other noteworthy online exhibitions this year: Flak Photos Making Pictures of People is the latest foray into demonstrating how curation itself is a creative act. SFMOMA’s Rauschenberg Research Project shows how a museum can take its existing holdings online in a ways which not only enhances the collection but also keeps the museum relevant when the collection itself is offline.
Best individual artwork: Let’s Play Ancient Greek Punishment
Pippin Barr’s Let’s Play Ancient Greek Punishment was part of San José Museum of Art’s Swans, Swine, and Sirens show. It’s awesome. The only thing more fun than playing the game is watching other people play, fail, and not get it.
I also enjoyed Christian Jankowski’s Silicon Valley Talks as part of SFMOMA’s Project Los Altos. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry with it though. And sitting inside Turrell’s Breathing Light at LACMA is not an experience I’ll forget.
So my second visit to the Princeton Museum was mainly to see the Itinerant Languages of Photography exhibition. But since I hadn’t gone through all the galleries in my previous trip, I figured I should poke around some more. Especially since I felt like the museum deserved a second chance.
The good news is that most of what I saw was good. I’m not going to review everything. But highlights from my trip were the set of Giovanni Battista Piranesi Carceri d’Invenzione prints in the older European rooms as well as some of the Senese alterpiece paintings.
The Battista Piranesi prints are very cool. I’m a sucker for prints rather than paintings anyway and these are both very evocative in and of themselves as well as reminding me of sketches for movie concepts.
And the alterpiece paintings I just liked. When I’m not looking at modern art or photography, I’m partial to the pre/early renaissance work. I particularly seem to like anything having to do with Siena (I liked these before I saw where they were from).
I was also pleased to see in the late 19th, early 20th century Europe rooms that some of the Asian and African inspirations* for the artists—Toulouse Lautrec and Modigliani in particular—are on display next to the works which quote them. There are more works and styles mentioned in the wall texts as well. I’d like to see those displayed, even if it has to be a reproduction, too.
*It’s interesting though how none of the non-western inspirations ever get mentioned with descriptions of how those cultures came into contact with the West.
But it’s not all good. I went back to the basement just to check whether or not my bad reaction as me having a bad day or something more.
It’s something more. This time the Japanese room was open. All sorts of beautiful scrolls and artifacts nicely displayed with no context and just an indication of what period they date to. My eyebrows raised a bit when I saw some Showa Period pieces. I understand the idea of dating things by period when a culture has had little to no interaction with the outside world. But continuing marking everything created in most of the 20th century in a way which implies that it’s ancient craft rubs me the wrong way.
I also checked the website and found that they also list Heisei Period—aka, right now—on some items as well. Sigh. While I’m tempted to start referring to all Japanese art by imperial period, it would really be a sarcastic joke.