I finally took my annual trip to the San José Museum of Art late last month. I’d like to go more often but I’m only in town in the summer. I’ve been very pleased though that amidst all the changes in the Bay Area over the five years since I’ve left that San José has kept the quality up and is still presenting art that is relevant to the Bay Area rather than falling into the trap of chasing those blockbuster traveling shows.
The main show this time is Rise Up. It’s a collector-based show but rather than featuring the same name-brand artists, it features a collector who actually has his own taste and vision. He started collecting by acquiring Robert Arneson’s Five Times for Harvey and then just took off in acquiring art from all kinds of under-represented artists.
The Arneson origin story of the collection is why things are framed as “social justice.” Most of the rest of the works on display though are not about outright protest or responding to a current event. Instead the central theme is one of representation. That they’re so relevant to today’s issues is a demonstration of how rarely we see these voices in mass media.
In some ways I’m annoyed by this mischaracterization. In other ways I really like it. Arneson may be the only white male artist in the show but by using the protest art framing, San José avoids making this a Race™ exhibition. We should be used to galleries full of art by people who aren’t white men. These artworks should also be presented as universal. And that’s exactly what San José quietly does here.
This show also blows up the idea that the silver lining to Trump would be that “at least we’ll get some good art.” The pieces on display go back more than three decades and speak about the pride and perseverance it takes to survive in this country as an underrepresented group. It’s art that typically doesn’t make it into mainstream collections but the sentiments of life and survival are as appropriate now as they were then.
Of special note in this exhibition is the wonderful selection of artwork by Black women. Kara Walker, Mickalene Thomas, Sadie Barnette, Alison Saar, and Wangechi Mutu are all on display and their work in particular shows how limited the mainstream representations of black womanhood is.
The expressions of who they are, how society has treated them, how they feel about themselves. and what gives them strength confirm that the best way to break stereotypes and see people as human is to have a multitude of representations available. Not one artist on display or one character in a movie. Many of them, each with their own character and point of view.
The art is also frequently moving without the othering gaze that so-often occurs when I see these subjects in a museum. I just wish this were the standard for what art is without having to come up with some kind of hook for why it’s appropriate today.
The unexpected benefit of my car dying is that I would otherwise never have visited the Western Pacific Railroad Museum. After visiting Sand Pond and Frazier Falls, we rolled into Portola not knowing exactly what to expect but optimistic that it would hold my sons’ interests for the hour or so before I planned to retrieve my car from the mechanic.
Ok, we kind of expected something “loving hands” rather than a museum with contextual histories for the artifacts on display. And this is definitely that—the most history on display is a paragraph about when things were made and when they were decommissioned. But where the context is missing this museum just keeps things wonderfully simple.
Here’s over 30 acres of rolling stock. Go explore. Go climb on things. The only rules are don’t walk on the tracks and don’t climb on the roofs. Everything else is fair game.
Is awesome. We all climbed on engines and into cabooses. Looking into the engine cabs is great. Climbing up into the caboose cupolas is a thrill. Seeing all the different box cars and hearing the sounds of the still-working rail yard is a thrill.
There was not only plenty for the boys to do, they want to go back again.
As do I.
Since this was primarily a trip to retrieve my car from the mechanic I did not bring all my camera gear with me on this excursion. In particular, I left my Yashicamat in the cabin at Packer. This is probably just as well since I was on kid-watching duty (and there’s a lot to watch out for). But when I come back I need to make sure I have my Yashicamat with Portra loaded so I can go to town.
A couple weeks ago I got to spend an hour or so at the Cantor Center. There weren’t any specific exhibitions I wanted to see but I always enjoy my visits as I’ve come to appreciate how the museum incorporates its teaching mission into the wall text and displays.
The main exhibition this time is about Contemporary Chinese painting. It’s one of those exhibitions that starts off rubbing me the wrong way since I’ve been developing an allergy to any museum show which over emphasizes the collector. It thankfully sidesteps the biggest pitfalls by being a collection which is distinct and focused.* Plus part of the point of this show is to showcase student curation so the result doesn’t feel like an attempt to increase the prestige of the collector.
*All too often it seems like these exhibitions are intended to glorify the collector and showcase the same group of big-name white western male artists.
It’s great to see these presented in a way which emphasizes their contemporariness and how they’re in conversation with modern art in general while also riffing on the specific history and legacy of different forms of Chinese art. The massive change in China’s role in the world over the past couple decades and how all the artists presented have lived that experience—whether in China or as part of the Chinese diaspora that’s had to rethink its relationship with its home country.
Where other museums lump this kind of artwork into the basement as ancient craft, the works on display are clearly something new and relevant. Many of them work on multiple levels that depend on your familiarity with all the context in play and I love that that so much of that context is provided in the curation as a few older, more traditional works are on hand to provide a comparison and reference.
I especially like the pieces that play with how calligraphy and line interact with illustration and pictographs. The investigation is especially interesting and I also enjoy the fact that it feels like I’m trying to understand a joke but just don’t have the knowledge (in this case being able to read Chinese) to fully understand it. Yes there’s an explanation. Yes, like with a joke, the explanation is never the same as getting it.
In some ways I feel like the joke’s actually on me—and other westerners—who can’t tell the difference between a fake character and a real one. But rather than finding this a problem I love that the Cantor is confident enough to roll with it. I don’t need to get it and I’m glad the museum isn’t catering everything to people like me.
Do Ho Suh
There was also a small gallery with three Do Ho Suh works in it. I particularly like the Who Am We? wallpaper and how it’s so subtly done that a fair number of museumgoers just missed that it was even an artwork.
The other two works—Cause and Effect and Screen—are much more obvious in a social-media-bait kind of way. I find it fascinating that they predate peak social media since they photograph so well. Suh though has been playing with the concept of scale and using little people to construct or support a large concept for decades now. It just so happens that Suh’s metaphors for how culture works are also metaphors for how social media itself works.
All those little people coming together to create content which is distinctly different. All those little people coming together to create content for the easy consumption of other people.
Also The Cantor displayed Do Ho Suh in the Asian wing. In the adjoining gallery they had on display a statue of the Vairocana Buddha. Having just seen all of Do Ho Suh’s work, I looked at the thousand Sakyamuni Buddhas which form the Vairocana Buddha’s seat with very different eye. I’m not sure this comparison was even intentional but I appreciated it anyway.
The small room of Frédéric Bruly Bouabré was wonderful. The small cards were inventive and joyous and reminded me of Lotería in the way that they appropriate terms from a colonizer’s language by illustrating them in local style and accompanying them with rhymes and verse.
As with the Ink Worlds display, much of these feels like an inside joke that I don’t/can’t get and, more importantly, don’t need to get in order to properly appreciate these. What I understand is fun and funny enough and I appreciate again that things aren’t catering to my western-based cultural background.
Stanford needs to digitize more of these since right now its website is disappointingly image-free when you search for the collection.
In another small room was a small exhibition about a Sowei Mask. No image for this section since the most striking part of this room for me is that it included video of the mask in use and recognized that without that information there’s no way to possibly appreciate it correctly.
**Though did make me wonder why no such treatment was given to the Nick Cave Soundsuit on display.
Humanity in the Age of Frankenstein
The other “big” exhibition is inspired by Frankenstein and the 200 anniversary of its publication. It’s a very interesting concept for an exhibition and a wonderful focus for mining the collection and finding works that investigate our knowledge of how the body works and interrogate the distinctions between man and machine (or computer).
Unfortunately I didn’t quite buy the reach in terms of the works on display and the story they were trying to tell. The show felt like it was going too shallowly in too many different directions. Some of it felt like a history of our understanding of the body. Other parts of it cast modern art featuring Tech and technology in Frankenstein’s monster terms.
I really like the second focus—especially at a place like Stanford whose involvement with Tech often precludes any self-reflection about the ethics of what they’re doing. But it doesn’t go nearly deep enough and leaves things at a facile surface comparison of “how scientific investigation has evolved” rather than making us think about what monsters we’ve unleashed on the world.
My favorite thing I saw at The Whitney was Zoe Leonard. By far. It’s rare when I see an artist whose work is this much my kind of thing but in gallery after gallery I found myself just nodding my head and appreciating just how much this was my jam.
I’ve encountered her photography before at SFMOMA where her Analogue portfolio was used in conversation with Janet Delaney and Eugene Atget as a way of documenting the changing city as it develops and redevelops. I liked it then but I like it even better seeing the same portfolio with the rest of her work.
For a medium which is often about a fraction of second* Leonard’s work consistently comes back to issues of slow evolution. Windows in buildings that have been bricked up and painted over. Trees which have grown around man-made infrastructure.** In this context Analogue becomes more about change as a natural evolution in the city instead of reflecting any explicit moment of time and development.
*Garry Winogrand’s quip answer of “around 1/125th of second” in response to being asked “how long did it take you to make that photo?” is the go-to snark here.
**Both of these are subjects I’ve found myself drawn to as well.
Her photos of Niagara Falls coupled by the two huge installations of postcards extend the slow evolution theme beyond what happens in-camera and adds elements about how humanity has documented the evolution over a century of time. That Niagara Falls is moving upstream by like a foot a year coupled with the sheer number of photos of the falls means that the archive of postcards that Leonard has assembled is working on numerous levels with regard to evolution.
In addition to the basic level of how each photo shows a moment of Niagara Falls’ erosion, they also show both how our views of the falls have changed in popularity and how our printing itself of postcards has changed.
As a print geek I could just look at the evolution of printing technology and stare at this wall for hours. But it’s fascinating to see how certain views are popular and what vintage of postcard they seem to be mostly composed of. It’s also a wonderful demonstration of how even with dozens of different views, each photograph feels like a trope.
I also love the Fae Richards archive where Leonard and Cheryl Dunye have created a fictional archive of photographs and ephemera for a black actress. If you didn’t know it was fake you’d swear it was real since the degree of accuracy in the materials is astonishingly good. Without any obvious tells for being fictional it’s able to comment on all kinds of things in how women evolve as they age, how actresses evolve as they age, how black women evolve as they age, how black people evolve as they age, how the roles that Hollywood puts people into changes as they age, how society has changed over the past 70 decades, etc. etc.
This is, again, a piece where I appreciate the craft both because of the craft and the way that craft enables so many things to see and take note of. You can seize on any thread and follow it through. That there are so many threads to follow is just amazing to see and stretch your brain with.
Not everything on display shows evolution. Unfortunately. The most powerful piece in the exhibition for me was I Want a President precisely because it shows how little things have changed in two-dozen years. The entire poem is a punch to the gut.
It hurts to read it. It hurts to recognize how this is how liberals felt after the 1980s yet the supposed left-leaning political party has failed to really address any of this during my entire lifetime of being eligible to vote. It hurts that every single fucking line outlines the things that gave us our current disaster in office. It hurts that every single fucking line describes the people that that current disaster will kill through his policies.
One of Leonard’s pieces is a sculpture of blue suitcases to which she adds another suitcase each year she lives. While I appreciate the concept of a piece where the artist’s mortality is a defined part of the concept, I just wish there was a bit more information about whether the suitcases get reordered each year or each installation. It doesn’t look like a chronological view of suitcase fashion over Leonard’s lifetime (I noted the absence of any roller bags) so I couldn’t help wondering if there was some method to the ordering.
The installation of Kodak books, while an interesting comment on the evolution of mass-market photographic education, was another highlight of my visit because I got to watch another visitor cross the DO NOT CROSS tape, ignore repeated warnings from the security guard to move away from the art, and blithely pick up a book. It was only after she picked it up and the guard’s tone changed from “stay away from the art” to “YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO TOUCH THE ART” that she sheepishly put the book “back.”
Actually, that wasn’t the highlight. The highlight was getting to watch the guard call in the art handlers to have them repair the installation. Which meant that I also got to see how the piece is actually assembled.
It turns out that each pile of books has a hole drilled through it and there’s a post keeping everything together. The topmost book has a hole only drilled part-way through and so masks the construction.
The Whitney also had an exhibition featuring protest artworks in its collection. This was much better as it both allowed the museum to address its own role in protests in the past as well as to position itself politically in the current climate.
It’s not a greatest hits exhibition but instead features a number of pieces that, despite all being dated, still hold significant relevance to today’s issues.
That the first room started off with photos by Toyo Miyatake and Gordon Parks immediately put me at ease. Miyatake is frequently overlooked and few of his photos are even online.* With the way the USA is putting Latino migrants in concentration camps and trying to round up Muslims refugees I’ve seen Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange’s photos of Japanese Internment hit the web every couple of weeks. I’ve only seen one Miyatake and he didn’t even get a photocredit.
So it’s fantastic to recognize his photography as protest and resistance instead of just documentation. And it’s just as important to do the same with Gordon Parks’s and Louis Draper’s work. These aren’t just photos documenting the community. They’re a statement of resistance and protest and I can’t help but see #BlackLivesMatter as the subtext of Draper’s photo of Fannie Lou Hamer or Colin Kaepernick in the subtext of Parks’s photo of Muhammed Ali.
The photos are 50+ years old. The struggle is even older. Yet the same issues are still going on today.
What I like best about this exhibition though is that Whitney points the lens at itself—both in how it’s curated its exhibitions in the past and its place as a tastemaker in the art world. It’s refreshing to see a museum critique its power and how its used, or abused, that power in terms of which artists it champions and what kind of political statement it’s willing to make with art.
I get the sense that for much of its life, The Whitney, while not representing The Establishment,* was instead like much of academia and the art world and still only accessible to people with connections and as a result, wasn’t as cutting edge as it thought it was. Owning up to that legacy is an important first step in recognizing why many communities and artists don’t trust museum institutions in general and becoming a museum which is accessible to everyone.
*Hence all the complaints about non-representational painting also on display in this section.
I’m also fascinated by all the discussion about art’s role and how it should, or should not, be involved in politics. Much of the protest art on display is heavily anti-War and colonization and while I appreciate the sentiment, I was also reminded of Taryn Simon’s work—specifically her photograph of the CIA’s art gallery and how the US used modern art of the type championed by The Whitney and MoMA as a form of cultural imperialism.
It’s a weird thing to recognize how the complaints to The Whitney about too much Abstract Expressionism and not enough representational paintings result in the same goals as Ad Reinhardt’s No War list.
The huge gallery of Vietnam War protest art is very good but also gave me an uneasy feeling. I love seeing all the posters. I also couldn’t help but notice how heavily they emphasize US war casualties as the singular reason to not be involved.*
*Of all the posters on display the ones by Women Strike for Peace are the only ones which consistently mention civilian casualties as being a reason to be against the war.
To be clear, I totally understand why this is the case. It’s the most-immediate and selfishly most-important reason to not wage war. My uneasy feeling comes from the realization that, given the increased use of drone warfare, focusing on US casualties was entirely the wrong reason to be against war. 50 years later and we’re still casually killing civilians in other countries. There’s just not nearly enough outrage or protest about it because the US bodycounts are so low now.
Moving on into the 80s and we get to another round of The Whitney critiquing itself—this time with the Guerrilla Girls.* This wasn’t as pointed as the previous critiques since it involved pretty much every gallery in New York City as well. But as before it’s a welcome thing to see an institution critique itself.
*Every time I see Guerrilla Girls pieces hanging in a museum I do a quick count of the other artists on display in the gallery. Since The Whitney’s room was on feminist art it avoided the trap of having Guerrilla Girls pieces up in a room which is predominantly male artists.
There was also a gallery of AIDS-related artwork. I’m beginning to see the answer to my question from a few years ago when I realized and wondered how museums would deal with the intensity of the AIDS epidemic. This room is especially effective and was a major punch to the gut in its combination of anger and despair. I don’t have an image of AA Bronson’s portrait of Felix Partz up because I can’t bear to look at it again. It’s a brutally effective piece that forces us all to think about whose deaths we’re complicit in.
Speaking of deaths we’re complicit in, the galley about power is also a major punch in the gut that feels distressingly modern. That Carl Pope’s trophy case (one award per incident of police violence) is 24 years old is an absolutely appalling indictment of how fucked up the policing system continues to be.
The other pieces in this room are similarly timely and the only thing which marks them as being dated is the absence of the new horrors that have occurred since the piece was made. Everything else is still relevant.
That so much of this exhibition is still relevant today shows both the importance and impotence of protest art. Did any of these pieces change things for the better? I’m not so sure. But the fact that they exist and show that we have to continue voicing our opposition to things is notable. As is the way they demonstrate how much of a mistake it was for people to sit back and think that things have gotten better since we fought all those battles in the 60s.
After I visited ICP I took a walk to The Whitney. I’ve only been to it once before—in 2002 when it was in the Marcel Breuer building. I’ve been meaning to check out its new digs for a while and I’m happy I finally got around to doing so.
The new building is nice but also kind of weird. It feels less like a museum and more like an office building with gallery spaces. A lot of this is because there are a lot of offices that you see when you’re navigating the building but there’s also something extremely corporate to exiting an elevator or stairwell and stepping out into a hallway. It’s an odd place to navigate.
It is however located in a nice spot on the river at the end of the High Line with wonderful views from either end of the hallway. The windows overlooking the river can be used to frame artwork in wonderful ways and the open-air patios on the other end give you a nice view of the city.
The Whitney has a lot of exhibitions going on. I’ll cover a few in this post since I don’t have much to say about them and I’ll leave the other for their own posts later this week. And if these short comments seem a bit negative on The Whitney it’s because the stuff I liked deserves its own posts.
The big exhibition is their Grant Wood show. These are clearly the most-crowded galleries and American Gothic remains incredibly popular.
I… I didn’t like most of what I saw here.
It’s weird. The Whitney presents Wood’s work as not only important but good art. And I really don’t buy it. All this idyllic pre-industrial America stuff feels intentionally out of touch—both for today and for when it was painted. Like I can see the appeal in the 1930s as comforting imagery for when everything was falling apart. But to elevate it as high art? I don’t get it.
There’s so much more interesting art going on in the 1930s. Most of it is even saying something since there is so much to talk about.
Wood though? Empty calories. Plus most of the portraits are grotesque. Most of the murals, boring (though I think they’d work okay on a much smaller scale). The landscapes, bizarrely surreal with the super-crisp lighting. (I enjoy some of the most-surreal ones since they bust through the idyllic thing and become menacing and off-putting.) I kind of grimaced through all the galleries.
What I did like? His Lilies of the Alley sculptures. Those were fun and interesting. Oh, and I liked that the wall text on American Gothic made it very clear that the painting was supposed to be of the house, not the couple.
I always like it when a photo exhibition makes the point that all photography is basically a lie. There’s a tendency to think of Edgerton’s photos as revealing truths that are too fast for us to see. But the real truth is that while they stop motion, nothing they show actually looks the way it is either.
I don’t remember anything about the permanent collection from my previous visit to The Whitney so it was nice to see that one floor of the building was dedicated to a more-generic permanent collection show.
Walking through that show though gave me some ideas as to why I may not remember the permanent collection. Lots of Hopper and Americana kitsch meant I walked through these galleries pretty fast.
James Castle’s small soot and spit drawings though did catch my eye. I like them for the craft and how roughly they still show Castle’s hand in them as well as the way they work like my favorite photographs by taking something mundane and finding what‘s interesting in it.
I’m also always a sucker for photographs taken from trains and one of the things I like best about the Fusco photos is how, by being shot form the train, they show a side of American cities which we like to avoid seeing. Trains typically front up against the worst parts of town. No one wants to live by them. Industrial shipping and loading needs the access. When I’m on a train I always feel like I’m entering a city via the back door.*
*No this is not a Penn Station joke.
So to see those industrial yards and empty spaces turned into places of emotion and love and thankfulness is extremely cool. As is the way the crowds are so often integrated and focused merely on paying respect to Bobby’s passing.
Terpstra flips the lens and tracks down the people who came out to see the train. So we have their photographs and home movies and transcripts of interviews with them. A lot of the photos are of the train but most of the time was spent waiting for the train to arrive so there are photos of crowds and descriptions of the way things felt that day.
There’s that same sense of wonder at the organic nature of it all coming together. People—often kids—just talking about feeling like they had to be there. Some of them out of the feeling that they owed some measure of thanks to RFK. Others out of the recognition that this was a rare chance to see history. But all of them talk about somehow just finding their way to the tracks through the extreme heat and humidity of the day.
My favorite interview note was the story about all the kids putting pennies on the track and then, after the train had passed, retrieving the flattened pennies as souvenirs.
And the photos are equally wonderful. The crowds just waiting. The cars haphazardly parked along the frontage road. Something about the day made people a little extra mindful of everything—a headspace that’s especially conducive to interesting photographs.
Fusco captures how amazing it was to see the support from the train. Terpstra meanwhile captures what was in the air at the time. I’m sure it’s just a shade of the real deal but I’m glad I got to experience it just the same.
After taking in ICP’s HCB and Erwitt rooms, I went downstairs to see the Multiply, Identify, Her portion of the museum. This exhibition featured around ten different women photographers—or artists working in photography/videography-related media—all working on various representative projects.
ICP’s write-up is mostly art-speak gobbledygook but the general theme of the rooms as being about representation and identity holds up. Yes I have problems with the way that museums tend to pigeonhole non-white and/or non-male photographers as working exclusively in the representation and identity realm. And yes it certainly feels like this exhibition is designed to counterbalance the “neutral” while maleness of the HCB and Erwitt rooms. But taking the show on its own terms works well enough.
The last couple decades of photography have been wonderful for increasing access to the ability to create photography* and with this increased access has been an increased awareness of representation. What the male gaze looks like. What the white gaze looks like. What it means to represent yourself and how that exists in conversation with the ways that viewers are conditioned to look at images.
I’m very glad that so many of the photographers in this exhibition are non-white women as it allows for many many different approaches and actively discourages me from writing about the exhibition in a general way. Each artist is dealing with representation issues in her own way and so I can only touch on the pieces that really struck me.
Christina Fernandez’s rephotography/reenactment project is interesting in how it addresses both the way that photographic representation often relies on tropes and how those tropes are part of our cultural literacy and baggage now. In this case the way that natives get used as unnamed models of some sort of “pure” past is a particularly insidious habit that repeats over photographic history. The way Fernandez embraces her own indigeneity and makes the statement that both she has a name and is still living in the present are important. It’s very easy to present Nativeness as a thing of the past.
That the resulting layered images don’t quite work is also something I really like about these. Reconciling the tropes as someone who’s subject to them is an impossible task which is also impossible to escape.
Lorna Simpson’s hair pieces are a lot of fun in a provocative way. They remind me of Ellen Gallagher’s Wiglettes but rather than critiquing the beauty standards of the past there’s an element of looking forward and celebrating the possibilities of creating new standards.
Simpson’s work also does this thing where it simultaneously makes the hair the focus of the piece while drawing our attention to the models’ faces.
My favorite piece is Roni Horn’s “This is me, This is you.” I love how it goes right at the ways family photography is its own difficult way genre where picking that one good photo is impossible. There are always multiple nice photos and they’re always somehow both indistinguishable from each other yet distinctly different.
Horn’s photos of her niece also capture that wonderfully awkward transition age between childhood and adolescence—an age my eldest is about to enter. It’s an age where everything is awkward but you’re just learning how society expects you to be. It’s an age where you’re still a kid but also trying to be “grown up.” It’s really the first time that concept of representation is something that begins to matter.
And Gina Osterloh’s movie/dance with her shadow is one of those subtle things that I increasingly appreciate the more I think about it. At first it’s merely neat. But the way it touches on how so much of the way society pressures women comes down to literally their silhouettes is kind of genius. The dance and way that her shadow is distinct but also inescapable suggests the push-pull nature of trying to control her silhouette while also being beholden to its demands.
I also very much like the idea of including Osterloh’s film in an exhibition of photography. Not just because the way that film and photography are related but in how light and shadow are the basic ingredients of photography itself. All photography is the same dance between light and shadow and seeing which position within there works best.
I’ve been meaning to visit the International Center for Photography for a while now. I’ve made it to their Jersey City branch but just haven’t gotten to downtown New York until a few weeks ago. It’s a good space, big enough to have a few decent-sized exhibitions without feeling like too much. But you can still do it all in an hour or so. The current round-up of exhibitions includes warhorses of the art like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Elliott Erwitt coupled with a number of newer photographers.
The newer projects will be their own posts but Cartier-Bresson and Elliot Erwitt will get covered here since I don’t have much new to say about them.
The Cartier-Bresson images are all part of The Decisive Moment. It’s always nice to see the classics up close and each time I do so I notice something new like the poster details in Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare. Despite how much I know these images it’s reassuring to see that there’s always more to see.
Every time I see his work though I’m struck by how different his in-Europe work feels compared to his work in the rest of the world. I keep looking and even hoping that things will change but where his European work feels very much a part of the life of the place, when he’s abroad the work feels more like standard photojournalism with its focus on the indigent and suffering.
Sometimes this works for me like his photos of the USA which show it as an impersonal oppressive place full of solitary hunched figures just trying to survive. I also love the photo of Hoboken which shows the frozen aftermath of a fire and Manhattan seeing to grow from the ruins. But in many other places it feels more like tourists just pointing out how different people dress. Like in India and Egypt it seems the only point is how everyone is fully covered and hoe different that is from Europe. Instead of being about the everyday life of the place it just feels superficial to me.
Still it’s wonderful to see the actual book on display as well. I know it exists in a reprint variety but there’s something about being able to scope out the original printing and see how the world came to know these photos. As much as silver-gelatin prints are supposed to be the correct way of viewing Cartier-Bresson, most of us learned of him via black and white halftones or duotones.
The most interesting part of the set though was the idea that it was editing 1950s photos with 2014 sensibilities and I would have loved more information about what it’s like to unearth such a project and shape it 60 years after the fact. How many of the photos are things that we only see as being important now.
There’s a lot of race stuff going on in terms of Black residents living and confederate flags just being visible. Nothing dramatic, just more slice-of-life. But it all takes on added import with the events of the past half-decade as we discover how so much of the country is either still stuck in the 1950s or yearns to return there.
That lack of information is pretty consistent with the rest of ICP’s display. It very much trends toward the Pier 24 ideal of believing that the images themselves without context are all that matters. Yes there’s a decent amount of wall text. But it’s not nearly as deep as I’d expect from a “Center of Photography” and instead just gives you enough to be able to recall the official titles of what you’ve seen.
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.