Rather than going through my notes and highlighting everything that jumped out at me like I did with my previous visit, I’m going to go through the two or three groupings I enjoyed the most both in terms of the parallels they offered as well as the maps they showed. The Rumsey webpage includes links to the excellent catalog and I totally suggest downloading the high-definition PDF.
Baron F.W. von Egloffstein, Geological map and profiles of some of the principal mining districts of Mexico, 1864
Tauba Auerbach, Untitled (Fold), 2010.
We’ll start with two pieces that best demonstrate the spirit of the exhibition in Baron F.W. von Egloffstein’s map of Mexican mining districts and Tauba Auerbach’s Fold series. Von Egloffstein’s shaded relief maps are a great example of how maps make a two-dimensional surface look three-dimensional. This is not the first such map but it’s both an early example and von Egloffstein is apparently somewhat of an inventor in this category.
Tauba Auerbach meanwhile paints a folded canvas with spray paint that mimics raking light so hat the resulting stretched canvas maintains the image of the earlier folds and still looks wrinkled.
Both pieces look three-dimensional and just ask to be touched even though they’re actually flat. And in both cases the intent of the craft is to actually use this shading to take advantage how our eyes can mislead us in how they interpret a two-dimensional image.
American Airlines Inc., Air Map, 1943
Richard Long, A Seven Day Circle of Ground, Seven Days Walking Within and Imaginary Circle 5 ½ Miles Wide, Dartmoor, England, 1984.
My favorite grouping were a selection of maps and artworks that removed maps’ attachment to geography and replaced it with other spatial and temporal relations. Maps aren’t just about seeing where things are in relation to each other, they frequently correspond to travel time and reflect our understanding of when we’ll get someplace.
At one level, these aren’t maps anymore because they no longer feature any geography. At another level, they absolutely are since geography isn’t the point. By removing the geography we’re forced to think about the world in a different way where the specific pathway no longer matters.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Weather Bureau, (United States) Weather Map, 1901.
On Kawara, I Went (detail), 1968–79.
I also particularly liked pairing a couple maps that worked as small multiples. Sometimes one map isn’t enough and instead you need to see a series of maps. Pairing a series of weather maps with On Kawara is brilliant. One map is boring. Even two is pretty weak. Four though? We’re starting to see how things can be interesting.
What happened this day? What happened that one? Our brains start to fill in stories and connect dots even with this small of a sample set. The map information itself ceases to be the point and instead becomes the context for the actual data that changes day-to-day. It’s a neat trick.
There are so many other great groups. A Trevor Paglen star timelapse that reveals satellite movements paired with a map of the Apollo 11 mission is fantastic. Photographs of Christo and Jeanne Claude’s Running Fence paired with maps of the US-Mexico border are similarly great. I love that they found a way to work in Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip. For such a small little show there’s so much awesome stuff.
Last week I took my annual visit to the Cantor Center. No specific exhibits I was looking forward to but I always enjoy walking through and seeing what’s there.
The special exhibition this time is an installation of Josiah McElheny’s sculptures. These were pretty cool in a mid-century way. All the multiverse drawings are neat to see and the sculptures themselves are a lot of fun to take a good slow look at.
The main interest to me in this gallery though turned out to be seeing the latest evolution of how museums have to deal with photography. I’ve seen “no flash” turn into “no photo” turn into “please photo and hashtag.” This show is the first I’ve been to with designated photo spots.
This isn’t a complaint (even though my favorite view of the room was not from one of the two designated photo sites), just an observation about how something that’s clearly selfie-bait (complete with signs around the museum encouraging posting to social media) is also too dangerous to let people photograph freely. Too easy to blunder into a sculpture either by getting too close or backing up and not being aware of what’s behind you and despite their size these are clearly pretty fragile.
There’s an awesome point where you can see both one sculpture and the entire room reflected in that sculpture. I spent a while there taking everything in and getting the full multiverse experience.
Miriam Schapiro, Docking #1, 1969
Ruth Asawa, Untitled, 1962
The other big exhibition is a hang of modern art under the theme The Medium Is the Message. I love the idea. Much of the art itself didn’t move me* but it’s a great concept for an academic museum to have since it digs right into the concepts of how the medium itself informs abstract art and how much of modern art is explicitly provoking how the medium itself behaves. This was one of Matt Kahn’s design prompts and it’s great to see that legacy still at Stanford.
*It is however always nice to see Ruth Asawa.
Two of the sections cover abstraction and the idea of artwork being more than the sum of its parts—often literally when considering assemblage. I viewed these two sections as being very similar since the artwork was always about what it was made of and the disconnect between our expectations of that medium and the way it actually behaves in the piece.
Roger Shimomura, Lush Life #2, 2008
Roger Shimomura, Business Man, 2008
Titus Kaphar, 2018
I especially liked the third section though which focused on portraits. While the portraits are all paintings, recognizing portraiture as a medium of its own and then interrogating the concept of what a portrait actually is is great to see. In this specific case the museum calls out who is traditionally depicted in portraiture and the disconnect that results when non-traditional subjects enter the frame.
I found myself thinking of how audience comfort works in to this equation as well since very often what people count as a “good” portrait is one which looks comfortably like a traditional rich white person’s portrait. I also found myself thinking about the way photography’s extension of portraiture to almost anyone is as similarly disruptive to our concept of what a formal portrait should look like.
Yinka Shonibare MBE, Cowboy Angel V, 2017
Jeffrey Gibson, Breakdown, 2018
Much of the other galleries were the same and I’ve covered them in previousposts.* However there are a few standouts. The corner of Yinka Shonibare prints was a lot of fun. I like combining his prints with the paintings of St. Michael. I always like seeing Vlisco turn up although I wish there was more of an explanation given for the fabric since it features prominently in each of the prints.
*Specifically the non-white galleries.
I also liked the small gallery dedicated to providing context to their new Jeffrey Gibson acquisition in that it included samples of items from Sol LeWitt to artisan beading to explain the myriad influences and references that the piece was making.
And I was happy to get a chance to walk through Sequence again. I much much prefer it outside with strong shadows and the clear blue skies which photograph so white in black and white. It’s great to walk through and let my camera’s restrictions guide what I see. This time I let my iphone direct my eye.
It’s an interesting show. Vietnam is kind of seared into photography’s memory as a war which defined what photojournalism is supposed to be. Up-close action. Iconic images. I’ve seen way too many lists of “most-iconic” photos that end up being mostly photos of the 1960 and 70s—at least half of them of the war or related events overseas.
The photos at the Hoover are kind of the complete opposite in that they show a more personal side of the soldiers and capture a lot of the downtime of the war effort. So we see how the soldiers spent their spare time and interacted with the Vietnamese locals. Plus we’ve got interviews with the troops asking them what they think about the war, how race relations are in the military are, and other man-on-street type of questions.
It kind of amazes me that these photos and publications were so controversial at the time. To my eyes they’re the kind of thing that the military would want to be circulated. They show soldiers helping children and families. For a time when many in the anti-war public made the mistake of demonizing the soldiers for not avoiding the draft it seems like anything that humanized them could’ve helped prevent some of the backlash.
In many ways the photos felt so much like propaganda for making the soldiers and mission sympathetic that I couldn’t help but find myself be skeptical of the entire thing. For all the Army’s skepticism of Overseas Weekly it’s clearly intended to be for the troops—both news and comfort food. It’s an inside job which avoids anything that would seriously damage the war effort.
To the Hoover’s credit, many contact sheets are present and their actual archives only show the contact sheets online. So if I were so interested I could look through everything and see what didn’t make it into the show. Though this still wouldn’t show what never made it onto the contact sheets or what the photographers weren’t allowed to access and yeah, I know more than to just accept these at face value.
The prints on display are all modern—often on metal—and many appear to be be enlarged scans of the contact sheets based on how frequently the wax pencil markings appear on the image. This suggests that negatives may now longer exists of many of the images. It also treats the images as being about the image itself rather than any artistic statement.
Images on metal don’t feel like prints in a museum but instead like signage. It’s weird. They look fine, I just react to them differently even with the wall texts.
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.
So beautiful printing. Bookbinding as part of the design instead of merely being a craft. And fantastic woodcuts and photogravures. As a print geek the only problem is that everything’s under glass and I can’t get as close a look at things I wish I could.
What I can see is great and I love that the library had enough specimens to be able to display both a spread from the book and the binding itself. While print is a craft which people take for granted, bookbinding is one which makes printing look like common knowledge.
Koch’s bookbinding is frequently gloriously about the binding. This isn’t just the kind of thing where you can see bumps on the spine where the cords are under the leather, in these cases the stitching isn’t hidden at all and functions as a design feature. Look at the book and you can see how it was made. I can only imagine what handling such a thing must be like.
The printing, particularly the typesetting—is also often virtuosic. Small pieces like Real Lead do things with type and typefaces which most of us shouldn’t even consider trying. Other pieces are more traditional but show how beautiful properly-selected fonts can be—especially when given enough white space to breathe.
But Koch’s books are not just about type.* They frequently include images and these, while not always printed by Koch, are as well crafted as the text. In particular I love Richard Wagener’s engravings. His work appears in a couple of books but I love the SierraNevada prints most of all. They look high contrast but there’s so much shadow detail in them when you look closely. Online images don’t do them justice.
*Even though he keeps returning to make books consisting of just pages of “wordswordswordswordswordswordswordswordswordswordswordswords”
Other books feature photographic prints, photogravures, and watercolors. In the small print runs which these were made, the special care taken with the images really shows.
It’s nice to see too that Koch’s work embraces digital techniques. The photogravures went through a digital intermediate. It looks like a lot of the type is also set by computer rather than being cold metal. And many of the books and prints use digital printing for the images.
His Lost Journals of Sacajewea book in particular is a great example of the mix of digital and traditional techniques. Hand-made paper with digital photographic printing as well as letterpressed type. The resulting product looks great.
And the content also looks amazing. One of the things it’s easy to miss with these artist books is how important the actual content of the book is. The craft is overwhelming but it’s important that the book itself be worth reading too. Many of the poems and texts look good. The Lost Journals of Sacajewea though looks great—both in terms of the content of the writing and the general subject matter of the work.
Koch is very interested in investigating and challenging the myths of The West while still operating in a printmaking and publishing tradition which stems from those days. So many of his projects look like Old West publications until you look closer and see how they’re challenging everything.
Two of them—Hard Words and Nature Morte aren’t even letterpress works. These are purely digital series where Koch placed wood and metal type directly on the scanner with the photograph and printed the resulting composition. And even here, despite the purely digital workflow, these manage to reference the history of The West. I couldn’t help but think of Mark Twain’s teenage portrait with “SAM” in the composing stick and the way that both printing and photography play with negatives and reversals in the image.
After looking at Corporate Design I wandered through the rest of the Cantor. They’ve changed it a lot from the last time I visited. It’s now very clearly and unabashedly a teaching museum. I think this is great. Most of the museum is tied in with a class now. Most of which are semi-survey courses. Not all of which are specifically Art or Art History however as the introductory texts are from professors in multiple departments.
The content of the galleries hasn’t actually changed much, it’s just presented and framed in a completely different way. Rather than being the authoritarian curator’s voice which tells us what everything is, each gallery is introduced with more of a syllabus and greensheet describing the purpose of the room and posing questions or providing context for the artwork in the same way that a student would be introduced to readings. These aren’t things you’ll need to memorize for the exam, they’re readings for section.
It’s fantastic to see that Stanford is both using the museum this way and that it has invited the public to take part in the educational mission of the school. It’s an opportunity to take the education mission of the museum into new places and the resulting “novices welcome” sensibility creates a much less intimidating place to enter.
There’s a small gallery dedicated to Trevor Paglen. I’m a bit of a fanboy so I especially enjoyed seeing him here. There’s only one of his pieces on display but it’s a wonderful little room which makes a great comparison between Muybridge’s work and Paglen’s and how both of them have only one foot in the art world and are just as occupied by technical challenges and photographing things people can’t see.
Paglen’s work in particular is nice in how it consists of small gold-toned albumen prints and is a wonderful mix of old processes with new technology. Sometimes this kind of thing bugs me but it works here. The albumen process works really well with the atmospheric haze and shake caused by the extreme telephoto photography.
There was a second small room of photography elsewhere in the museum. This time it was environmental photos but using a more expansive definition of “environmental.” Rather than being photos which were explicitly about the environment, it connected New Topographics to Documerica and treated the whole 1970s landscape photography world as inherently ecology and environmental.
This is a good framing. While the gallery doesn’t include people like Eliot Porter who were being intentionally environmental, the idea that all landscape photography can—and should—be viewed from an environmental angle is important. It’s impossible to separate human activity from the environment and photography allows us to both document our activity and to see what it’s affecting. When we look at a landscape now, even if it’s “pristine” we have to ask ourselves what we’re doing to it. We’re always doing something to it.
One of the Cantor Center’s big shows this summer is about Mid-century Corporate Design. It’s good and tracks the rise of corporate design after World War 2 when the emergent consumer culture* meant that products had to distinguish themselves in ways beyond function and value.
So of course we start with Bauhaus in order to get a baseline of both product design and corporate design. But it quickly gets into Walter Paepcke and the Container Corporation of America and the International Design Conference in Aspen. This is the highlight of the show and there’s lots of very interesting stuff here both in terms of the relationships between corporations and designers and the implication that exporting American products is exporting American design—and by extension, American principles.
I was reminded of the Covert Operations show—in particular Taryn Simon’s work—and how much of America’s image abroad during this time could be tied to American art and design. And by extension how corporate design, more than any other media is a reflection of both who we are and what what we value.
This is especially apparent in the Container Corporation of America’s advertisements. I can’t imagine the controversy which would occur if they were printed today. I can’t imagine a company having the guts to print these today. Yet, they represent exactly what America™ claims to be while also serving as examples of how modern design—especially in the advertising space—is now broken.
As much as the Aspen conference subject matter is concerned with “accepted” taste, it’s also aware of how design has to pick a position and can’t be left to corporate defaults. Nowadays it feels like few, if any companies care about picking any positions. Even supposed design leaders like Apple are mysteries when it comes to their politics and the way their products ship with glaringly obvious design flaws with regard to who it was designed for is dismaying.
If one of the tenets of good design is that everything has been considered, what does it mean if our best design now is so constantly distinguished by a lack of consideration?
That so much of this show focuses on things—companies and events—that Paepcke touched has me wondering if design itself has regressed or if the designs on display have always stood as exceptions to the rule. Or perhaps it’s a bit of both where not everything was as excellent as what’s been selected but corporations have also devalued design because “anyone” can be a “creative.”
This regression is especially apparent in the realm of corporate identity and logo design. There are many mid-century corporate logos and identities on display here—many of which are now sadly extinct. Of these logos, while some are indeed dated, most of them display a level of clean clear graphic design which I just don’t see much anymore.
Sure, I see new corporate identities and style guides all the time. But nothing like the way they all convened at the 1964 World’s Fair and all too often biased toward digital technology and reproduction. And for sure, the world has changed from the age where the only concern was print and spot colors were cheap and plentiful. I totally understand reworking logos so that they are more consistent across printing and display technologies* but too many modern logos contain elements which just don’t work outside of a full-color environment.
*the absence of any print/display notes on how the old logos were intended to be reproduced is something the exhibition was missing.
Seeing logos which can work in 2-color instead of 4-color printing is great. Maybe spot inks aren’t needed anymore for print but they’re still useful for silkscreening tshirts or embroidering bags or even neon signs. Seeing logos which work as just black a and white—let alone logos which can be truly reversed to knock out a background color—is turning into an increasingly rare occurrence. All the mid-century logos do this and it’s what makes their designs so strong.
Also of note
On the topic of logos, There’s a great sequence of Bauhaus designs of the AEG logo which were made with paper cutouts. I enjoy seeing the cut-out paper since it’s both a more tactile way to create a design and it results in a much stronger color presentation and reproduction.
The Olivetti designs in their red dot school purity are always fantastic to see in person. Similarly, a lot of the Henry Dreyfuss designs are great to see in person. Although in all these cases, as with the Dieter Rams show, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the younger generations had any idea what these products did now.
I do love seeming any drafting and industrial design sketches. Especially the ones on medium grey paper which use white pencil for highlights along with various darker colors.
The exhibition is really a greatest-hits kind of show. No overarching theme, just case after case of cool shit. So I’ll just go down my notes and write about what jumped out at me.
The Colony & Fairchild ribbon map of the Mississippi is impressive as both a map and an artifact. It’s an eleven-foot-long tape measure of a map which seems utterly unusable since you have to unspool it completely in order to see the headwaters. At the same time it’s a wonderful way of looking at the river and perfectly demonstrates how it functions foremost as a transportation route. What’s most important on this map is what you encounter as you go up or downstream as towns and tributaries function the way you’d expect train stations to show up on a modern transport map.
The process of straightening out the river—but not too much—is one which I’d love to learn more about too. They very clearly had to get the river to fit in a straight line but there’s still a lot of meander detail visible. I don’t know the river well enough to gauge whether or not it’s done well but I love how this map keeps a sense of riverness in the abstraction.
Similarly, the London to Aberistwith wayfinding map interested me because it’s another map built around a specific use case. As with the Mississippi map, this one is very clearly a navigational map which takes a traveler from one point to another.
These kind of maps are also interesting because while the intent of these kinds of maps is to help inexperienced travelers, they also end up describing the journey and the territory covered. Where my kids like to trace on their maps the exact route of their journey, this would be like giving them a straight-line map showing them only what they encountered.
Seeing the Aberwistwith map paired with the Photo-auto “map” was fantastic. While I have a hard time calling this a “map” I also don’t know what else to call it. It very clearly serves the same navigational use-case as a map does. It’s probably even easier than a map for some people to use as it mimics the kind of verbal instructions that people create. When we tell people where to go we highlight waypoints and tell them what to look for. Yes, street names and cardinal directions are also helpful, but it’s really things like “second left after the gas station” which make directions useful.
This also reminded me of Google Streetview and GPS-based navigation. Very useful when you can’t get verbal directions from someone but also no sense of the overall journey. While I am grateful for step-by-step directions, I’m never satisfied unless I can also figure out how they fit in to the general area.
The historical atlas with fog-of-war to give a sense of what hasn’t been explored yet was very striking. I love the idea of “what we don’t know yet” being an integral part of the design. Instead of zooming out to reveal more of the world, it’s very obvious that there’s a lot of world out there which is unknown.
I also enjoyed how this depiction reminded me of the fog-of-war feature in Warcraft and Starcraft. As with the Street View navigation photos, it’s fun to see how old ideas have been rediscovered today.
I don’t have much to say about the atlas for blind except to note that I was impressed that it was raised relief text rather than Braille.* It’s also just a neat artifact to see since we rarely see things like this in any museum. Even in the design exhibitions at dedicated art museums I can’t think of any pieces of accessibility design.
*That this was published the same year that Braille was developed is a nice coincidence.
It’s always lovely to see a classic in the flesh. The Beck map is one of those landmarks of design. I can’t imagine the world without it as we’ve absorbed its lessons so thoroughly that this is what all subway and transport maps have as their reference now.
As is often the case with landmarks of design, I was surprised by how small this was. I know I know, of course it’s small, it’s a subway map. But because of its prominence in the history of design, I had imagined it as something bigger.
What I like most about Bachmann’s Panorama of the East Coast of The Confederacy is that it’s a view looking West from the Atlantic ocean. In addition to not being a standard view, it also ends up being a specifically political view. Orienting the map this way makes it represent the point of view of the Union blockaders. It’s not just the seat of war it’s an “us versus them” view of that seat.
Frank Dorn pictorial history of Beijing was just a lot of fun. It’s a reminder of how maps aren’t just about super-accurate roads and locations, they’re also a way of depicting and remembering a place. When I was a kid, these kind of pictorial maps—typically a gimmick for local advertising—where what sucked me into being interested in maps in general. The Dorn map is a much older example which is about memory instead of advertising.
This map has also gotten me thinking about trying to draw my own pictorial maps of my youth. As I’ve come to be more of a tourist in my hometown, I’ve been finding myself filling in my childhood memories and connecting where everything used to be. I’d like to be able to share these with my kids rather than be one of those dads pointing out the window while driving past where something used to be decades ago.
A few quick reactions to other things which I saw at the Cantor Center after I finished looking at The Art of Water.
Lewis Hine (and Jason Francisco)
There was a Lewis Hine show consisting of small prints of his child laborer photographs. It was nice and focused and played with the idea of childhood as depicted in the photographs. The kids are working, but unbowed still. So in addition to being a time capsule of a moment in American history, these photos also capture a fleeting moment in our development where we’re reminded of what childhood itself means. The catalog by Alexander Nemerov looks interesting to read too.
These photos were paired with modern photos by Jason Francisco which, while not exactly rephotographs, complement to sense of fleetingness in the Hine photographs in how we not only have child labor anymore, we don’t have any labor anymore. Francisco’s photos aren’t exactly my cup of tea (too much tilt-shift for my taste) but they work well enough when paired with Hine’s.
I really liked the Art++ experiment. As with the previous Rodin’s Hands exhibit, this exhibit brought iPads into the room and set them up with augmented reality so, when you point the camera at one of the articles on display, a whole bunch of digital overlays become available for you to explore. In addition to providing additional context, these overlays also explained how the artifacts have been constructed, retouched, reconstructed, etc.
I’m excited to see where they go next with this idea.
Blood in the Sugar Bowl
This was wonderful. But then I’m a sucker for when an exhibition brings a whole bunch of different media together and puts them in conversation in an unexpected way.
In this case, the objects were all about the theme of sugar and slavery. So we had portraits of plantation owners and prints from the plantation estates. Books about the atrocities committed on those plantations. Sugar bowls and decorative objects and how those were used culturally. And the wall text pulled no punches and got its politics absolutely correct.
I’m kidding. While the Cantor Center is laid out by region and segregates Asian from Native American from African art from everything else, those are not relegated to the basement or any other remote corners of the museum. So it’s relatively straightforward to walk through these galleries just to see if they’re doing anything interesting—or anything that’ll piss me off.
The African galleries are still very much like how they were a couple years ago in focusing a lot on contemporary African art and treating it all from a post-colonial point of view. It’s a point of view which still works for me.
I was very pleased to find that the Native American rooms were also focusing on contemporary artists. In this case though the theme was contemporary artists working within native traditions.* Highlights include Kent Monkman, Calvin Hunt, and Art Thompson. I also particularly liked Lucy Lewis’s work. One of my pet peeves is recent art displayed in ancient rooms as ancient craft, so I took great joy in finding a room which highlights how these traditions are art which is still being practiced and taught today.
The Asian gallery meanwhile took a completely different approach by focusing on ceramics and grouping everything by technique. Thankfully they clearly labeled contemporary stuff as “artist, country, year” instead of forcing the “country, dynasty/period (years)” label on everything.
The Stanford Museum’s Art of Water show is one of the most California exhibits I’ve ever seen. It’s very very interesting and very very good as it uses art’s depictions of water to tell California’s environmental history. Stanford’s press release is actually a great primer on what the exhibition is doing so I don’t need to rehash much of that part. But in short, while water access is one of, if not the, biggest issues in California, art has presented the opposite reality for much of California’s history.
Since artists are drawn to water as a subject, they gave impression that water is more prevalent than it really is. Combined with the way that early photography is often either “land which needs to be tamed,” or “land which has just been tamed” there’s a real sense of California as being the land of unlimited resources.
As someone who’s not normally interested in American landscape painting, I was very excited to look at the paintings with this context. It also forced me to think about the way my perspective is biased* in terms of the subjects I’m attracted to, the places trails take me to when I’m hiking, or the open space destinations I’ll drive to.
This view continues well into the 20th century as photographs of water infrastructure tell a story of continued development. I was reminded of the Edison Archive and how the increased water infrastructure is intimately tied to the creation of suburbia and the white consumer class. There’s still a sense of water being infinite and something that we should completely harness to power homes and fuel agriculture.
It’s only later when the environmental movement kicks off that we start to get more critical views of water usage. While there’s not much “traditional” environmental photography showing unspoiled nature which is under threat,* instead we jump straight to ironic views which riff on the expectations and show how we’ve depleted what little resources we actually had.
*While not photographing California, Eliot Porter is the best example of this type of thing.
In these cases we see how fragile water—and access to it—is. Lakebeds are drying up. A single pipe snakes vulnerably through the mountains. There’s not enough water to go around and the resulting ecosystem is an alien landscape of salt deposits which looks nothing like the lush depictions we’ve become used to.
Robert Dawson’s work is particularly noteworthy here. He just photographs the quixotic nature of water infrastructure but it’s so effective because of how much we’ve internalized what rivers and lakes and waterways should look like.
What I enjoyed most about the photography portion of this show though is how it not only tells the history of California but it also neatly fits into the old topographics vs new topographics story of photography. This results in a much-more-focused and much-more-coherent version of SFMOMA’s California and the West exhibition. It’s missing the social aspect of things but with regard to landscape photography, it makes a lot more sense.