Category Archives: Princeton Art Museum

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.

 

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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.

Princeton Roundup

A couple of weeks ago I took a quick walk through the Princeton Art Museum. Not enough to do a proper writeup of either of the shows I saw but I can’t let them just go uncommented on either.

Making History Visible

Titus Kapha. Billy Lee: Portrait in Tar, 2016

Titus Kaphar. Billy Lee: Portrait in Tar, 2016.

Making History Visible is a show about American myths and heroes and what’s left out of the standard representations of our history. It’s a small but very good mix of 19-century works with modern interpretations that remix and reframe our understandings of those works.

Titus Kaphar’s work is the clear focal point of the exhibition as his tarred portraits demonstrate how comfortable—especially from a white comfort point of view—the 19th-century works are. The recognizable form serves as shorthand for the setting but the black tar which obscures the portrait facial features is unsettling.

The tar works on so many levels. Aside from the literal implications of tar and blackness it confirms how we never see non-white faces in these kinds of paintings. Even if they’re there we’ve been trained not to notice them. They get cropped out of reproductions or obscured in shadows due to poor lighting. Making us look and notice, even if we can’t see a face is an important-enough intervention. The way that the tar works as hair texture in an Ellen Gallagher kind of way is almost a bonus.

Faith Ringgold’s Declaration of Freedom and Independence is very similar in how it takes a text and form which we’re used to seeing as “americana” and tweaks it so it’s uncomfortably obvious how the comfortable representation is really white america. There are also Glenn Ligon and Kara Walker pieces which do similar things where we’re asked to loo closer and recognize how the artists are subverting the form.

All in all it’s a smart little exhibition which manages to make the white comfort nature of the art museum into a feature and is definitely the kind of subversion that I’d like to see more of in Princeton.

Transient Effects

Howard Russell Butler. Solar Eclipse, 1932, 1932.

Howard Russell Butler.
Solar Eclipse, 1932, 1932.

Transient Effects is a selection of Howard Russell Butler’s eclipse paintings and represents an exhibition which recognizes the artistic merit of science and craft. Butler’s paintings were intended to be observations and records of the eclipses. Accuracy is of the highest importance and much of the exhibition discusses his notes and painting methods.

As a photographer it’s interesting for me to see painting described this way. Photography is so much about observation and seeing and gets criticized both when it’s too obsessed with accuracy and when it “lies.” So much of the endless digital versus film debates are about the process of taking time to “slow down and think” yet for some reason the idea that painting should be in the mix never enters that argument.

The idea of presenting all art as observation and process is fantastic. One of the reasons why I love it when science-related pieces make it into a museum is that issues of use and process are inherently brought with them and I’m reminded how much I miss that information in the rest of the museum. Also, as a design major I recognize that there’s a lot of art in science and engineering which never gets properly recognized unless it’s photographed or painted.

Also, as paintings themselves and having just seen the eclipse this summer, it was especially wonderful to see Butler’s paintings and be reminded all over again of the event. The paintings do capture details like the blackness of the disc and the deep blue of  the sky which I remember but haven’t seen in any photos. It’s also wonderful to see how different each eclipse is and be reminded again about how much I want to see another one.

Art Museum Field Trip

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.

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Revealing Pictures

Leonce Raphael Abbodjelou

Leonce Raphael Abbodjelou

Sheng Qi

Sheng Qi

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.

Princeton Art Museum Grab Bag

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

Aniruddha Is Abducted by Usha’s Handmaiden, Nepal, ca. 1800. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, folio: 37.6 × 55 cm; painting: 33 × 50 cm. The San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd Collection

Aniruddha Is Abducted by Usha’s Handmaiden, Nepal, ca. 1800. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, folio: 37.6 × 55 cm; painting: 33 × 50 cm. The San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd Collection

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

Yoruba artist Ifa Divination Bag (apo ileke), 20th century Colored beads, cloth, and leather bag: h. 25.2 cm., w. 26.9 cm., d. 2.0 cm. (9 15/16 x 10 9/16 x 13/16 in.) strap: l. 94.0 cm. (37 in.) Bequest of John B. Elliott, Class of 1951 Place made: Nigeria 1998-733

Yoruba artist
Ifa Divination Bag (apo ileke), 20th century
Colored beads, cloth, and leather
bag: h. 25.2 cm., w. 26.9 cm., d. 2.0 cm. (9 15/16 x 10 9/16 x 13/16 in.)
strap: l. 94.0 cm. (37 in.)
Bequest of John B. Elliott, Class of 1951
Place made: Nigeria
1998-733

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

Japanese, Meiji period, 1868–1912 Kobayashi Kiyochika 小林清親, 1847–1915 Published by Matsuki Heikichi 松木平吉 Private Onoguchi Tokuji Destroying the Gate at Jinzhou, 1894 Woodblock print (ōban tate-e triptych); ink and color on paper each sheet: 34.9 x 23.5 cm. (13 3/4 x 9 1/4 in.) overall: 34.9 x 70.3 cm. (13 3/4 x 27 11/16 in.) Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Japanese Print Collection Place made: Japan 2008-122 a-c

Japanese, Meiji period, 1868–1912
Kobayashi Kiyochika 小林清親, 1847–1915
Published by Matsuki Heikichi 松木平吉
Private Onoguchi Tokuji Destroying the Gate at Jinzhou, 1894
Woodblock print (ōban tate-e triptych); ink and color on paper
each sheet: 34.9 x 23.5 cm. (13 3/4 x 9 1/4 in.)
overall: 34.9 x 70.3 cm. (13 3/4 x 27 11/16 in.)
Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Japanese Print Collection
Place made: Japan
2008-122 a-c

Minor White. The Sound of One Hand Clapping (Pultneyville, New York) October 10, 1957 Gelatin silver print image: 18.5 × 23 cm (7 5/16 × 9 1/16 in.) sheet: 20.8 × 25.8 cm (8 3/16 × 10 3/16 in.) x1980-3278

Minor White.
The Sound of One Hand Clapping (Pultneyville, New York)
October 10, 1957
Gelatin silver print
image: 18.5 × 23 cm (7 5/16 × 9 1/16 in.)
sheet: 20.8 × 25.8 cm (8 3/16 × 10 3/16 in.)
x1980-3278

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.

Revealing Pictures

Edmund Clarke Negative Publicity #035 (Detail from the kitchen of a man formerly imprisoned in a CIA black site), 2012

Edmund Clarke
Negative Publicity #035 (Detail from the kitchen of a man formerly imprisoned in a CIA black site), 2012

Pieter Hugo Portrait #1, Rwanda, 2014, from the series 1994, 2014-16

Pieter Hugo
Portrait #1, Rwanda, 2014, from the series 1994, 2014-16

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.*

*Two things I’ve thought about before on this blog both in a general sense and in terms of a specific exhibition on context.