Category Archives: review

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.

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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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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.

The Mütter

I learned about the Mütter Museum from Penn and Teller’s How to Play in Traffic. Penn made it sound cool in the same way that magic feeds off of the carnie, Victorian, old-school throwback tradition of entertainment that is both incredibly physical yet also oddly spiritual. I mentally filed it away as a place to check out. It only took me twenty years to cross that item off my list. I should’ve gone sooner.

The Mütter is a museum in which the chief feature is the museum itself. There’s no way to make a museum like this today. That it exists at all is kind of a miracle. It feels like it’s stepped out of one of those Steven Millhauser stories which takes place in the same 19th-century world of magic and carnival where the perspective switches halfway through and the viewer goes from observing to being part of the spectacle. While being in the galleries doesn’t go quite that far, I did find myself constantly reconciling my opposing feelings and reactions.

It’s compelling yet repulsive. I want to gawk and point while at the same time really look and learn. Most of the items on display are literally human and have the gravity of that mana* still. I know that everything used to be human and alive. That it came from a person who had a name and existed on this planet just like I do. And yet they’re now specimens in jars or displayed in wonderful Victorian cabinets with warped glass that constantly reminds you about the display. I’m invited to look even while I don’t want to out of respect. I’m compelled to look even though the grotesque nature of what’s on display makes me want to turn away.

*I briefly touch on this concept in my Totality post.

That so many of the displays feature fetuses or fetal tissue makes things sit right in that grey area too. The regular fetal displays—especially the displays of skeletons all disassembled with just the teeth arrayed in a recognizable formation—are uncanny in that I’m forced to think about what happened in order to get the sample.* But it’s all of the jars and skeletons of non-standard fetal development which really does the trick. I can’t help but see these as confirmation that it’s not a baby until it’s a baby. Yet at the same time I look at them and marvel that they were at some level alive.

*While beautiful in their own right these don’t have the beauty of Lennart Nilsson’s photos nor do they allow you to pretend that the subjects are still alive.

The surprising, and disturbing, thing was finding myself feeling secure in the fact that the non-standard fetuses didn’t survive. As different as they are, they’re still human and I didn’t expect myself to be so relieved by realizing how incapable of living they were.

It’s a rare thing to be really forced to think about what makes someone human but that’s the territory the Mütter lives in. So many of the exhibits operate right there on that level. Whether it’s forcing you to think about monstrous births or the abstraction of when tissue samples become too personal. Or maybe it’s just the shelves and shelves of small multiples—skulls and other bones—which at first glance appear to be an impersonal collection but quickly becomes a set of items to compare and notice differences. Each sample has its own personality.

Carnivals and reliquaries

There are also a number of displays which are about specific people. Many of these tend toward the carnie side of things whether it’s pairing the huge and tiny skeletons* or just putting the gigantic colon** on display. We even have the death cast and conjoined livers of Chang and Eng to make that carnival aspect as obvious as possible.

*I appreciate that we get life stories about the two people whose skeletons are displayed.

**It’s also nice that we have his story. I deeply appreciate using “bucket” as the official unit of volume for feces.

We have a long history of calling these outliers “freaks,” specifically “carnival freaks,” and while that sense is still present in the museum—it’s impossible not to gawk—there’s a lot more going on. The Mütter shows a wider range of human possibilities and so rather than being something abnormal or freaky my takeaway is that I should give the entire spectrum of humanity more credit.

The museum itself is wrestling with a certain amount of this as well. The Soap Lady is one of their prize attractions (Specimens? Displays? Again it seems odd to talk about people this way) yet only recently has the museum started tackling and dismantling the myths which surround her. Much of what the museum thought it knew has turned out to be false—in very much the same way that a carnival story is usually a false history—and it’s now trying to learn the real stories behind her history

The weirdest part about learning the details about the people whose bodies are on display though is how fine the line is between the carnival shows and reliquaries. When what makes the people distinct is something physical then it’s hard not to look at the samples with the carnival show mindset. However when the person (or people) involved is legitimately famous, the reliquary side comes into play as well.

Chang and Eng straddle this line. Einstein on the other hand is solidly into reliquary territory even though it’s only his most-important, distinguishing organ which is on display. Yes his brain is there so we can possibly learn from it. But it’s also there because of who he was and how much mystery there is still in intelligence.

The non-natural

While most of the museum is about things that occur naturally, there are also some exhibits about what humans do to each other or themselves. These make a very interesting comparison with the diverse nature of how people can take forms which are beyond our dreams/nightmares.

The room of Civil War injuries is particularly gruesome and relevant today in how it details the artificial nature of death through violence—specifically gunshots and how destructive they were. Still are. We don’t see these kinds of things today. The photos get cropped or blurred if they’re even published at all. There’s just something gut wrenching in seeing the physical evidence of how bones are just shattered by bullets.

With the way that mechanized death led to embalming and a different understanding of death itself I can’t help but wonder if we need a similar shock today. We’ve gone too long just accepting that guns are an unescapable part of this society.

On a lighter note, there’s also the Chevalier Jackson Collection. Note, this is only lighter in a place like The Mütter. Good lord. I don’t have too much to say about it except that looking through the drawers and drawers of things that people have swallowed or inhaled gave me the willies.

Lisa Nilsson

Lisa Nilsson, Angelico.

There was also one special exhibition of items not in The Mütter’s collection.  It was very cool. Lisa Nilsson’s paper sculptures are amazing both in their craft and in what they show. One of my basic art assignments was to cut a piece of fruit or vegetable in half and then draw a detailed rendering of what I found. The point was to truly examine the inside of the item, see it, learn about it, and finally communicate that understanding through art.

Nilsson is doing that but using rolled strips of paper to communicate what the human body looks like in cross section. It’s a masterclass of craft but it also is a fabulous experiment in showing the beauty that comes from abstracting these things slightly. I know and recognize the body parts. But I’m invited to look closely and can appreciate what I’m seeing in a way that I couldn’t let myself do in the rest of the museum.

I also love the sense of humor in a lot of these where some aspects are rendered in cross section while others—like collars or hair or, my favorite, a halo—are not. There’s a willingness to push these into their own fantasy which both speaks to the renaissance origins of quilling and directly contradicts it in how it puts all objects on the same two-dimensional plane.

 

LACMA

I didn’t just visit The Getty while I was in LA. I also had a chance to wander through LACMA. While I’ve been to special exhibitions I’ve never spent the time to just see what’s in the main collection. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to give it a proper runthrough so I only have what’s in my notes.

The German abstraction stuff is great. Especially the prints which oddly remind me of a lot of the 1970s book illustrations I grew up seeing.

I enjoy the Kandinsky, Klee, and Feininger room. But it really weirds me out the way the galleries are grouped by collector. Seeing that plaque about whose collection in in each gallery immediately makes me think that the museum hasn’t curated anything beyond maybe the wall text. Still as with at SFMOMA, it is nice to have dedicated galleries for each artist. So at least the collectors featured have enough pieces for that to work.

It’s always a joy to see Bay Area Figurative on display outside of the Bay Area. I wish SFMOMA would feature it more in its new building.

I really want to see an exhibition of John Chamberlain’s sculptures get mounted across the street at the Petersen Automotive Museum.

The Oldenburg Pool Balls appear to be a big instagram magnet based on the number of photos I saw people taking of them. I found myself incredibly bothered by how they’re not the correct colors/stripes for actual pool.

I got really confused on the top floor of the Ahmanson building. They had Roman objects installed with 18/19th century French and English objects. Took me wandering through multiple galleries before I realized it was intended to show inspiration. That the modern galleries don’t do anything like this with any of the primitivism pieces really bothers me now.

I do however enjoy the Salon hangs. There’s only so much white cube I can handle.

Also at the Getty

While Chris Killip was the best thing I saw at the Getty there were a few other cool photography exhibitions as well. I don’t have much to say about them but they’re both totally worth mentioning still.

David Hockney

Pearblossom Hwy., 11 - 18th April 1986, #2; David Hockney

Pearblossom Hwy., 11 – 18th April 1986, #2; David Hockney

There was a small, wonderful room of David Hockney Joiners. I’ve loved these for a long time but they’re also things I’ve only ever seen online. As is often the case with art they’re much much much more impressive in person. His earlier ones of just the Polaroid grid are fun en0ugh but as he becomes more virtuosic in his technique and starts layering and zooming with the 4×6 prints they become amazing.

It’s tempting to say they’re paintings or collage rather than photography since they use the photos almost as brush strokes. But they also are profoundly about looking and seeing and how, when we scan a scene, we notice specific details. This is something that any photographer is deeply aware of and looking at a Hockney Joiner feels very similar to the way I asses a scene before taking a photo.

Also, these are huge. They have to be since they’re composed of hundreds of  4×6 prints. But even though I knew this I wasn’t prepared for how big they actually were in person.

Thomas Annan

Close, No. 37 High Street, negative 1868-71; print 1871, Thomas Annan

Close, No. 37 High Street, negative 1868-71; print 1871, Thomas Annan

Right next to the Killip show was a large show of Thomas Annan. It’s a great survey of a photographer about whom I knew nothing. If I were more familiar with Glasgow I suspect I would really really have liked this. It’s a very interesting contrast with Killip’s photos of industrial decline since so much of Annan’s work is about celebrating and demonstrating the rise of industry.

I also enjoy the range of work. We have photographs of tenements and their residents, fancy new buildings, construction projects, and industrial machines. It’s an good reminder that all of these disparate subjects can indeed fit together as a cohesive body of work.