Category Archives: review

Also at MCNY

There was a lot of other stuff at MCNY besides Aids at Home. I spent the most time in the NY at its Core rooms familiarizing myself with the city’s history and the way it’s chosen to present itself.

It’s clear to me that in addition to the city’s myths the museum is actively addressing the blind spots in those myths. This is especially true in the first half of the exhibition which focuses on the growth of New York as a port city. So while I get to see all the big names I remember from my history books—Henry Hudson to Alexander Hamilton to Boss Tweed—I also get to read about the original Lenape inhabitants and how, by being a port city, New York was also integral to slave trading.

It’s also very interesting to see how small New York was—both geographically and by population—and how recent its growth and development into New York™ actually is. The exhibition chronicles the advancement of the grid across Manhattan, the transformation from farming to housing and skyscrapers, and the way that New York (before consolidation) wanted to emulate Brooklyn by building large public parks.

It’s good that the museum notes how New York only became THE American city after the Civil War and THE world city after World War 2. It’s important to be aware of how external events have benefitted New York, especially once we get close to the end of the 20th century and the museum gets to cover both New York’s decline and September 11.

Robert Gerhardt. Children Playing Cricket in the Park, Brooklyn, NY, 2011

Robert Gerhardt. Children Playing Cricket in the Park, Brooklyn, NY, 2011

There was a small exhibition of photographs around the subject of being Muslim in New York. These were good in how they reference a lot of the tropes of New York photography while updating them to reflect Muslims as everyday New Yorkers. Cricket instead of stickball. Halal street vendors instead of Hebrew National or Sabrett stands. These photos don’t challenge stereotypes as much as they treat Muslims as the everyday people they are, showing them working, praying, playing, and growing up.

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There was also a gallery of World War I posters. I don’t have much to say about these except that, while I’ve seen many of them in books and online, it’s always nice to see them in person and get a sense of what their actual sizes and colors are.

I particularly enjoy looking at how these are printed. This information which was sadly lacking in the wall text but I really like being able to distinguish between lithographs and silkscreens and trying to figure out how many inks were used and how certain effects were achieved.

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One wall was full of multi-lingual posters. It was weird for me to not see Spanish among them but the wall served as a reminder that, while one of the myths about America is that it’s an English-only country, we’ve had to deal with multiple languages for a long time.

Todd Webb. Mr. Perkin's Pierce Arrow, New York, 1946.

Todd Webb. Mr. Perkin’s Pierce Arrow, New York, 1946.

The last room I checked out was a gallery of Todd Webb’s photographs. I’d seen these before as part of one of The Online Photographer’s book sales* but the photos, while nice enough, didn’t really grab me. I liked them much better the second time around because the museum did a wonderful job of locating them within the city.

*One I jumped on because of Dorothea Lange and George N. Barnard.

I’m not a New Yorker. I’ll never be a New Yorker. And for me, the appeal of most of Webb’s photos required a level of knowledge of the city which I just didn’t have. So it was great fun to get, in essence, a tour of the city through this photos.

AIDS at Home

Between visiting the Polo Grounds and going to The Met I ducked into the Museum of the City of New York. I’d never been before and while I planned to see the the permanent exhibition, I couldn’t help but go straight to the special ones.

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Of particular interest was the AIDS at Home show. As someone who grew up in the Bay Area during the 1980s, my sense of the epidemic is very much centered on the way that it ripped out the heart of the San Francisco gay community. It’s not a sense that the Bay Area owns the trauma, just that the sheer number of stories I grew up with—and still hear—about friends my parents lost, as well as all the similarly heartbreaking community stories make this a subject which I’m particularly sensitive to.

This is one of the first shows I’ve seen which actually addresses the role art plays in responding to the epidemic. I’d thought about this previously but while one of the critiques of modern art is that it’s often too academic, the AIDS epidemic resulted in art which is intensely personal as it dealt with personal fear and loss and anger.

With every piece I found myself checking first to see whether the artist was still alive.

Much of the art in particular—especially in the earlier rooms which deal with the beginning of the epidemic—is focused on care taking and support. The artists in this case are recording the way that end of life care works or just saving the last precious moments with loved ones. While the horror of AIDS is especially awful, much of the artwork also serves as an indictment of the general quality of both American medical care and the way we treat our elderly and infirm.

People get cut off and alienated from society. Medicine is a beacon of hope which few people can either afford or access. Thirty years later I’m still outraged by the idea that much of America ignored this issue because gays “deserved” it. Thirty years later I’m even more incensed to see the logic used to ignore AIDS being applied to all medical care.

As much as it angers me, where this exhibition is strongest is in how it ties the community response to AIDS to the current struggles to make America support its marginalized and victimized communities in general. It’s explicit in making this connection—especially in terms of gay rights and expanding the definitions of family and marriage.

The true tragedy of the AIDS epidemic is in how many people got cut off from everyone who they thought the could trust. The silver lining is that the resulting fights—which I know didn’t start in the epidemic but certainly came to a head because of the for letting partners be added to leases and medical benefits and the legal ability to make decisions for each other paved a lot of the way for the advanced we’ve made today. And while things aren’t there yet. We have made advances which, while worth celebrating, need to be defended and improved upon as well.

Of note

A few specific items caught my attention. I enjoyed the dive into the AIDS Quilt and framing it as nostalgia and an extension of the previous artworks about caregiving and housing rights. While that’s not how the project frames itself, I love the idea that the quilt, in addition to being a patchwork celebration of everyone who we’ve lost to AIDS, also reflects the sense of comfort and home and caregiving that any homemade quilt represents.

And Kia Labeija’s photography is worth a special shout out. For a show which has to deal with so much loss, it’s important to see what the following generation—in this case an artist who was born infected with AIDS—is dealing with too. Her project of photos with her moms stuff is both a powerful statement about survival as well as a remembrance of her mother—both in terms of loss and dealing with the fact that what her mother left her goes beyond material items.

Also at The Met

The main reason I went to The Met was to see Irving Penn. But once I was inside and after I finished with the Penn show I wandered around and checked out a few other exhibitions before I got too tired. This isn’t a comprehensive round-up but rather listing a few of the other highlights of my trip

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The Burdick Collection—specifically the baseball cards—is the first place I head in the museum. It’s still off in a remote corner of the American Wing where it gets very little traffic. This is both disappointing and wonderful. I want more people to see these but I also enjoy having the whole gallery to myself.

I stand by my comments in last year’s Met post in that it’s especially interesting to look at print ephemera as art. While many of the baseball cards on display didn’t fit into last month’s photography history through being more paintings than photographs, they’re still part of our visual culture and language.

Baseball cards in particular are fascinating in how they represent a direct connection from the early days of cardomania to the modern trading card. The cards in the current hang cover the first half of the 20th century—from ~1910 lithographed tobacco cards to offset-printed Topps cards from 1959—which represents a period where many of the other subjects of cardomania disappeared* and the modern standard trading card format developed.

*Yes there are obviously non-sports trading cards for this entire time period, but the rise of movie and movie-star memorabilia resulted in a very different kind of mass-culture ephemera collecting. Instead of trading cards we had posters and lobby cards and promotional stills related to specific films and releases. Also, while I get hives from the current Allen & Ginter retro-revival brand, I have been finding myself intrigued by its non-sport choices and what those say about our national myths and nostalgia for other kinds of collecting.

As fun as it is to see cards from Topps series which I own, it’s the weirdness between the World Wars where cards became more and more kid-focused and tied in with gum and candy instead of tobacco which fascinates me. No standards—the sizes and artwork are wildly variable—yet there’s a certain “baseball cardness” to all of them. Only the rise of good color photography really puts and end to all of this and, while I enjoy the photography, I do kind of miss the wild-west nature of things which came before.

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The big fashion show this year was Rei Kawakubo. I liked it, but for all of its cleverness in blurring categories and dualities in fashion, it all felt a little too similar to me. Still, it’s always good to be reminded at how the entire point of fashion is to mess with the human silhouette. And recognizing the dualities in how we approach any art form is a great exercise in questioning and being aware of what our assumptions are.

The standout items for me were the clothes which were intended to be worn by multiple people at once and her approach to the male/female duality. I don’t have much to say or add to the multiple-person clothing except that I wish there were a video of it on the runway.

The male/female clothes though were very interesting—especially in how they were displayed. Kawakubo’s male clothing for women includes extremely wide-legged trousers. Looking at the catalog it’s apparent that these were intended to be worn as shorts* but in the exhibition, the dress forms suggest that they could also be worn as a miniskirt with the other leg kind of behaving like the front panel of a kilt.

*the last photo on The Met’s image page.

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The Early Photography in Italy exhibition, while small, was also a lot of fun. I’ve not see so many salt prints in one place before and this show was fascinating in the mix of different photography techniques. Paper negatives, glass negatives, salt prints, albumen prints in all possible combinations. And that’s not even getting into the daguerrotypes and colorized cartes de visite. I wish there was more about the processes in this show because I really wanted to note and compare the differences.

As much fun as albumen printing is, there’s something even more evocative in salt printing which feels less like a photograph and more like an illustration in terms of how certain details and contrasts get fuzzed out. This also holds with the negatives as the glass collodion negatives hold a lot more sharpness and detail (at the cost of being a lot more work to travel with).

But the photos themselves also represent a very important moment in history. It’s tempting to view these as being tourist prints and imagery from the early days of casual tourism. And they are. But the fact that tourist imagery is inherently tied up with national identity is important to remember. Where tourists travel and how a country markets itself are intimately connected and feed off of each other. That Italy at this point is uniting as a single country means that many of these images—especially the Gustave Le Gray photos of Garibaldi and the “new ruins” resulting from his campaigns—in addition to selling “Italy” to the world are also selling it to Italians themselves.

Irving Penn

After viewing the Met’s Irving Penn Centennial, I can’t remember ever having had to reevaluate my understanding of an artist to this degree. This is different than recognizing that someone who I hadn’t paid attention to is actually a legit talent;* I knew and respected Irving Penn’s work as a portraitist and the Met’s show made me completely reconsider whether that was what he was.

*e.g. Ai Weiwei

Irving Penn. Joe Louis, New York.

Joe Louis, New York

Irving Penn. Pablo Picasso at La Californie, Cannes.

Pablo Picasso at La Californie, Cannes

Don’t get me wrong, Penn’s portraits are great and there’s a reason I conceived of him as a portraitist first. I especially love the corner portraits in how the constraint of the set gives the sitters things to do—suggesting certain poses and postures, offering places to put their arms—which don’t involve props but allow people who may not be used to posing ways of finding their angles. It’s a fantastically simple idea which more people should steal.

His later portraits are also wonderful in that they’re very clearly collaborations with the sitters and as such are often beautifully tight and intimate*—often just a face and a hand being constrained by the edges of Penn’s viewfinder in the same way he used the tight corner to constrain his sitters a decade earlier.

*I also love that the Met has his backdrop on display—even if it’s being used as selfie-bait.

Irving Penn. Salad Ingredients, New York.

Salad Ingredients, New York

But at heart he’s clearly a still life photographer. The Met makes this point by both starting and ending the exhibition with his still lifes—the implication being that they’re both his first love and the thing which has kept him sane through decades of commercial photography.

I’m not usually a still life guy* but these are wonderful in their restraint and attention to detail. Every small thing matters. Every detail is considered. If a still life is an opportunity to essentially brag about how good you are at your craft, Penn is indeed a master.

*It doesn’t matter what genre or medium we’re talking about. I very rarely find myself interested in still lifes.

But there’s more to it than that. Penn, as a photographer, is extremely interested in doing the most with the least and making sure that the few details we can see not only adequately describe everything which we don’t see but also overwhelm us with their textures and tones so we feel like we don’t even need to see anything else.

Irving Penn. Balenciaga Sleeve (Régine Debrise), Paris.

Balenciaga Sleeve (Régine Debrise), Paris

It’s this sensibility which makes Penn such a fantastic fashion photographer. We don’t need to see the full garment—let alone the entire look. Just a sleeve will suffice. Or a hat. Or the ruffle of a collar.

He understands how fashion works—how clothing works. It’s not about looking pretty, it’s about the structure and construction and the little details and textures which distinguish one garment from another—not only giving them character but also suggesting what events or occasions they could be used for.

Clothing, even at it’s most impractical extreme, is functional. It’s always doing something whether it’s merely protecting the body or making a statement about the wearer.

Irving Penn. Marchande de Ballons, Paris.

Marchande de Ballons, Paris

Irving Penn. Garçon de Café.

Garçon de Café

There’s no reason why this approach should be limited to high fashion and indeed, Penn does not limit himself to that world either. His small trades series is fantastic as an August Sanderesque approach to functional clothing.

I love his Small Trades series so much. We’re invited to look—really look—at the different ways that tradesmen dress in order to do their jobs. How they need to present or protect themselves. Where their clothing gets worn out or reinforced. Every photo is a reminder of how clothing works and is intimately connected to what the person wearing it is doing.

That so many of these trades are blue-collar jobs which we—or at least the people who visit the Met—are no longer familiar with adds an extra layer of interest to these photos. I overheard a number of people trying to figure out what jobs like “blast furnace tender” were before settling on things like “the guy who takes care of the heating in your apartment building.”

Most of the jobs still exist somewhere in the world but to us these photos also serve as a memorial to a more physical world as seen through the clothing of the people who worked in it.

Irving Penn. Cuzco Father and Son with Eggs.

Cuzco Father and Son with Eggs

Which brings us to Penn’s ethnographic work. In another setting this would’ve deserved a massive amount of side-eye but here, it’s not only enjoying the context of the fashion and trades photography, it’s a continuation of that photography.

The Met does a great job at flagging how the idea of documenting indigenous cultures before they disappear is a dated concept.* But it’s not really necessary here. Penn isn’t really doing ethnographic work. He’s making the same photos he always does—treating the Peruvian clothing with the same respect and reverence he treats all clothing whether it’s a Balenciaga gown or a dirty apron.

*Sadly not as dated as it should be but at least new projects which continue to reduce cultures to an artificially-imposed appearance of “authenticity” receive the criticism they deserve.

For Penn everything is Balenciaga.

So we get to see the clothing in whatever view best presents the clothing. Maybe it’s a typical model shot which also works as a portrait of the villagers. Or maybe it’s a pose where the villager’s is looking at the ground so we can appreciate the full glory of her hat.

Irving Penn. Two Women in Black with Bread, Morocco.

Two Women in Black with Bread, Morocco

He skirts very close to reducing culture to appearance but, for me, he steers clear of that pitfall and winds up in a much more interesting place. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his photographs of the Moroccan women still wearing their veils.

Again, Penn approaches the veils like he approaches all clothing. But because of the austere nature of these garments and the way that the women wearing them are posing, instead of looking at the fabric and construction details, we see how the garments themselves are worn. How they’re tucked and folded. Where they hit on the body and where they drape.

We get a sense of character through the different ways each women carries herself in the photo. There’s a wonderful video showing how Penn took these photos in a mobile tent with wind swirling all over the place. The degree of cooperation and trust between him and the veiled women is also readily apparent.

Irving Penn. Cigarette No. 98, New York.

Cigarette No. 98, New York

Irving Penn. Nude No. 105.

Nude No. 105

I also enjoy the sense that Penn grappled with the morality of his work as a fashion photographer. In addition to being a still-life photographer at heart, the way his personal work serves as a way for him to sort of rebel against his commercial work is very interesting. That he chose decidedly non-fashion-figure women for his nude photography is great. And I love his cigarette photography and the way it reflects his pathos over glamorizing it.

The photos are beautiful but ugly with strong recognizable branding that’s burned and trash. 40 years later I’m amazed at how I recognize the brands even though I don’t think Pall Mall, Lucky Strike, and Chesterfield even existed while I was alive.

This was a good show as it was just based on the content on display. Lots of good photos and every period covered well. But the way it balanced Penn’s personal work with his commercial work in terms of both who he is as a photographer and what he felt about the photos he was paid to make makes it a great show.

On Process

Irving Penn. Man with Pink Face, New Guinea. Irving Penn. Man with Pink Face, New Guinea.

There’s not a lot of information on Penn’s process but what there is is fascinating. One of the long-running jokes we have online is the color vs black and white debate and how a number of people on the web trot out the axiom that photographing in color is photographing clothes. That much of Penn’s work involves shooting on color slide film then printing in black and white repeatedly made me chuckle since Penn essentially specialized in taking pictures of clothes.

I found myself wondering a lot about how Penn converted his slide film to black and white prints. There’s a lot of information about Penn’s Platinum printing but  precious little about everything leading up to the printmaking itself. Is the internegative an enlargement made in the darkroom? Did he do any color filtering while making the enlargement?

The Platinum Printing information on the other hand is very interesting in how Penn created registration pins and repeatedly coated and exposed the paper so as to have more control over the final print. It’s a pretty interesting refinement on standard contact printing which definitely appeals to my background working in a printshop.

"Christmas at Cuzco," Vogue

“Christmas at Cuzco,” Vogue

"America, Inc.," Vogue

“America, Inc.,” Vogue

At the same time, I didn’t like a lot of his Platinum prints and—I readily admit how blasphemous this is—often preferred the halftoned prints in Vogue. I felt like Penn may have been a bit too seduced by what he could do with his fancy pin-registration contact-printing rig and, while I like the photos, found a lot of the details to be unnecessarily muddy.

And I say unnecessarily because the magazines were on display and the details were clearer there—as if someone in Vogue’s prepress recognized that shadows would block up on press and opened everything up so that would print nicely.

The magazines on display also included many more color prints of photos which were only black and white on the walls. It’s great to see both and see how Penn reimagined the scene in black and white.

Mana Contemporary

I went to Jersey City specifically to see the Han Youngsoo exhibit. But since ICP at Mana is part of Mana Contemporary, I figured I should budget enough time to see everything else which Mana had to offer. I’m glad I did.

Mana isn’t a museum per se. It’s an art center which offers everything from studio space to storage to crating service. The only way to see it is via a guided tour which takes you through the old tobacco factory, its industrial freight elevators, and other machinery remnants.

Most of the art in display is the collection of the Ayn Foundation. Very much like Pier 24 and the Pilara Foundation, Mana’s exhibitions are a way of taking art which would normally be hidden in storage and putting it on some level of public view. Ayn and Pilara are actually very similar in how their collections are extensive and show complete sets of a series rather than a single piece. It’s fantastic to be able to see how an artist worked through a concept and the more collections and installations I see which do this kind of thing the more annoyed and distrustful I am of exhibitions which feature a single piece without context.

The bad side of the similarities—aside from having hours which make it nigh-impossible for anyone who works a real job to be able visit—is how there’s a similar lack of context and explanation both in the scholarly content of the shows and in the reason why the collector purchased the pieces. As a viewer I have to bring a lot of my own knowledge to the exhibitions and make my own connections. This can be wonderful and freeing but I really do like to learn about why things are being displayed the way they are.

The tour though is good. Because of the nature of the space I suspect that it’ll always be a small group (just me and one other person plus our guide) and as such it’s not a docent “let me describe this” kind of tour but instead a “let’s check out this space and I’ll give you a brief intro and feel free to ask me any questions as you take as much time as you want” thing. There’s still a bit of external pressure to keep things moving so, while I did get to check out Han Youngsoo on the tour, I went back later* to go through a second time at my own pace.

*ICP has independent hours from the rest of Mana and does not require a tour.

Arnulf Rainer

Arnulf Rainer, Helles Morgenkreuz (Bright Morning Cross), 1987.

Arnulf Rainer, Helles Morgenkreuz (Bright Morning Cross), 1987.

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The Arnulf Rainer pieces are either vibrantly-overpainted religious images or cross-shaped canvases with similar painting. My tour guide insisted that Rainer didn’t see them as inherently religious but I’m not sure I completely buy it.  They are a lot fun but the real draw is the room. It’s a huge space which, based on the overhead crane, used to be for loading and unloading. Now, with the white gallery walls and high ceiling, it feels like a chapel.

Aside from the lack of light, the pieces work perfectly in the space. Yes, they’re religiousish but here they also suggest how the language of religion works architecturally to suggest that we should be pensive and quiet and respectful.

Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol, Sunset, 1972

Andy Warhol, Sunset, 1972

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The Warhol room was a ton of silkscreen prints—many of which are the iconic ones of Marilyn Monroe, Mao, and the Flowers. It was wonderful to see so many prints from the same series together. All too often there’s only one or two; here there are like nine or ten.

As a print geek I loved being able to closely study how he changed things between editions. It’s not just playing with color. Sometimes a screen will be double struck. Other times a screen is omitted. Othertimes it’s flipped or rotated. Seeing the different combinations is a joy and reminded me of what Vlisco was doing. I wish that I knew the order in which they were printed because it would be awesome to learn how Warhol progressed through color and screen variations.

This exhibition also included a number of Warhol prints which I’d never seen before. His darker material—not just the skulls but the Sing Sing electric chair—was particularly striking. And his most-recent prints of the sunsets as well as his abstract diamond dust shadow prints were also unlike any other Warhol’s I’d seen. The diamond dust ones in particular play with texture in a way that expanded my understanding of silkscreening. Many of the prints include solid color sections which consist of three or four different hits of the same color of ink. Not all the hits use the same screen though and the different thicknesses of ink create a textures surface to the print.

John Chamberlain

John Chamberlain, Untitled, 1989-2002, from the Widelux series

John Chamberlain, Untitled, 1989-2002, from the Widelux series

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I’m familiar with John Chamberlain’s sculptures of twisted metal. I had no idea about his photography. He’s a Widelux junkie* and his photos are just a ton of fun. A lot of them are playing with the distortion capabilities of the swing lens. While this is the kind of thing which could easily become a trite gimmick, in Chamberlain’s hands the resulting images look a lot like his sculptures.

*The most famous of which may be Jeff Bridges. God damn do I want a book of his photos.

His series of vertical selfies meanwhile is goofy and a good reminder that panoramas don’t have to be horizontal. They suggest a more casual project and are a nice reminder that not everything an artist works on has to be high-concept.

The worst part of this room is that now I want a Widelux—or at least a Horizon—more than ever.

Surface

Matthias Brown, Falling Faces, 2017.

Matthias Brown, Falling Faces, 2017.

In the basement of the Mana building are a ton of artist studios as well as a number of artist residencies. The result is a casual art/work space with a number of improvised exhibition spaces. Surface was one such exhibition and consisted of taking GIF artists and giving them the opportunity to create animations for a gallery setting.

The results are interesting—some hits and, as you have to expect with contemporary art, some misses—but the whole show is quite charming. These are artists who typically do not make physical things and so seeing their first forays into a physical, interactive space reminded me of being in school and experiencing the joy of making your first physical art object.

I particularly liked creating a whirlpool with a spinning stir magnet instead of screwing around with pumps and plumbing. I also enjoyed how Matthias Brown’s piece involved projected animation interacting with static images which he’d painted on the screen itself.

Mana BSMT

Apostrophe NYC

Apostrophe NYC

Another residency/exhibition is Apostrophe NYC* in the Mana BSMT. This is a dozen or so artists working together, making their own art, but also sharing a space and bouncing ideas off of each other. While their art is neat, I most-enjoyed poking my head into their studio spaces, seeing how they create things, and what kinds of random stuff they have up on their own walls.

*Who got a bit of press last year for their guerrilla Whitney show.

It’s been a long time—too long—since I’ve been in a space like this* and I’m glad I had the opportunity to take the tour. I’ll definitely be looking forward to future ICP shows as an excuse to head back to Mana. And who knows, maybe Mana will put a show together which could drag me out there as well.

*The Product Design loft at Stanford was a similar space—as was the machine shop where we all made our projects.

Han Youngsoo

Han Youngsoo, Han Youngsoo: Photographs of Seoul 1956–63.
Han Youngsoo, Han Youngsoo: Photographs of Seoul 1956–63.
Han Youngsoo, Han Youngsoo: Photographs of Seoul 1956–63.
Han Youngsoo, Han Youngsoo: Photographs of Seoul 1956–63.

I saw tweets about ICP’s Han Youngsoo show at Mana Contemporary and the photos looked good enough to pique my interest. So I made my way up to Jersey City just to visit ICP and had my fingers crossed that the show would be worth the trip.

It totally was.

It’s not a huge show but what’s on display are examples of how fantastic good street photography can be.* The photos are strongly composed and beautifully seen. The prints blow away all the digital images on the web. Most of the images are strong on their own accord but, when seen as a collective they have a distinct point of view and narrative.

*I have a mixed relationship with street photography. On the web it’s become a bit of a bad brand where—typically—men have chosen to emulate the alpha-male “I have a right to photograph anything in public” mentality and much of what’s presented is a reflection of the photographer’s “daring.” At the same time, street photos are one of the hardest things to do well because of the ever-changing unexpected dynamic on the street and I can’t help but admire people’s ability to get wonderful spontaneous images and capture strangers in what appear to be completely-honest expressive portraits.

They’re beautiful and clever. I love the way that the overhead street car wires end up looking like birds. I love the way the men in the shadows inside the butcher shop mirror the expressions on the pig heads outside. I love the perfect timing in capturing gestures and posture as people walk down the street or gaze at shop windows. I love the textures in the snow that the footprints on the frozen river leave.*

*I couldn’t help but think of Max Desfor’s Pulitzer-winning photo here though.

I love how beautiful Seoul ends up looking despite the ruins and overcrowdedness. At their most-basic level these photos are about a place rather than the people in it. It’s clear that, rather than being photos of people, the actual subject in each photo is Seoul. There’s a palpable sense of love and romance. Seoul is home and Han Youngsoo is sharing how he sees it—what he feels about it—with us.

And it’s a Seoul in transition. The Korean War ended in 1953. These photos cover the period between 1956 and 1963. The city is in the midst of rebuilding as well as westernizing and modernizing. There are still some ruins visible—a shattered roofline here or there but never as the focus of the image. There are english-language signs all over the place. Infrastructure is in a state of flux where streets—when they’re paved—are shared between handcarts and electric trollies. The trajectory is clear.

It’s with the women though—especially their clothing—where the photos tell their most interesting history. These aren’t Winogrand-like photos of women, they’re just conscious of how the changing nature of the city is impacting women in particular. They wear clothing which ranges from hanbok to cutting-edge 1960s fashion. The advertisements and street displays and magazines are all peddling western fashions. Only in one crowded street market is traditional clothing still available.

It’s clear that with the changing fashions that the women’s roles are also changing toward a more middle class direction. And that the city itself is becoming a consumer-based city* of shops and merchants.

*The men don’t show this narrative at all. They all wear western clothing and none of the shops or new consumer goods are marketed for men’s consumption.

I love a great photo as much as anyone but with street photography much of the appeal is how it can document a specific time and place—whether it captures a city and its population in a specific window of time or manages to document how they change. Han Youngsoo’s photos are beautiful but the history and changes he documents is even better

 

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.