Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Diverse trio of shows at Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

Diana Parker, grade 12, Surreal
One of the three very different shows currently on display as you enter MMoCA from State Street is immediately visible through the glass wall on your left. Maybe it’s my years of experience in teaching, but I love seeing art made by young people and I’m always delighted when distinguished institutions like this one provide space and therefore support for children’s creativity. In a time of fiscal austerity (and, in my opinion, misguided priorities that demote the arts in education, if not eliminating them altogether) it is most important to proclaim artistic achievements in our schools. Young at Art opened March 20. It showcases the complete range – from kindergarten through grade 12 – students from the Madison Metropolitan School District. According to their website, “the exhibition is the result of a long-standing collaboration between MMoCA and the school district’s Fine Arts Department.” Long may it continue! The show runs through May 15.

Alfred Leslie, self-portrait
A small but delightful show drawn from the permanent collection is tucked away in the museum’s Henry Street Gallery. True Self: The Search for Identity in Modern and Contemporary Art “explores the ways artists have understood and conveyed the essence of the self—through facial expression, body language, dress, and the particulars of setting—in a selection of paintings, sculpture, prints, and photographs.” I rarely tire of this fundamental genre and this show includes a wide variety of approaches to portraiture as well as the variety of media listed.

“The notion of the “self,” the essential quality that makes a person distinct from all others, is a core theme in modern and contemporary art. Its primary formats are the portrait and self-portrait, which focus on the identity and psychology of the model. For the artist, the true self is fluid, not fixed; layered, not clearly evident. The true self is both innate and determined by experience and culture. Never consistent, it is often self-contradictory.” True Self runs until June.

Bale, variant no. 17
The featured exhibition, Menagerie by Shinique Smith, fills the vast, open spaces of the second floor gallery. Her output is remarkable, not only for her facility with diverse materials and methods, but for how well they all integrate into a unified ensemble. There are nearly fifty installations that include paintings, photographs, sculptures, drawings, and videos. Many of the pieces are mixed media assemblages of found materials. Bundles of cast off clothing are made into totemic sculptures, inspired by donations commonly made to African countries. Much of the show is composed of site-specific installations that combine the organic forms of these bundles with painting on the gallery walls. Their impact cannot be transferred to images online or in a gallery brochure. The show’s flamboyant visual energy could be overwhelming in a smaller space. With a less deft combination of concept and technique the work’s vibrancy might also threaten to swerve into pure sensual fantasy. But it packs a hefty emotional punch as well. 

In one video the artist herself becomes the bundle. Her face is never revealed, her identity hidden within the folds of fabric, as she struggles with the cords that will leave her bound and mute. You have until May 8 to check this one out. I heartily recommend it.

Shinique Smith, from Menagerie
For more information go to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Images of Atlanta

Last week I posted a review of the SPE conference in Atlanta. Here is a different kind of review: a visual meditation on "civilization."

There was a time when there was no division between the natural world and the human world, when there was no concept of “wilderness” because the undifferentiated world was simply where we lived as a species, among others. Civilization changed that. When humans became civilized, nature became “other” and untamed nature became wilderness. Now, after millennia of the inexorable civilization of the wilderness, precious little of it remains. By the end of the twentieth century it became possible to contemplate what Bill McKibben termed “the end of nature,” a global environment so totally compromised by human activities that no place remains untouched, no landscape remains pristine, no environment unaltered.

Today, most people live in densely populated cities, where nature is reduced to bits and pieces, if not bulldozed into oblivion and replaced with symbols. Parks and lawns represent what has been lost. Trees dwarfed by architecture symbolize the great primeval forests. But we must have our symbols, lest we lose our souls. The bits and pieces must not simply represent but embody the whole. Nature cannot be denied. When we chose civilization over wilderness we began a long gradual process of alienation from the soil, plants, and animals, as well as the natural processes that we once knew as instinctively as a Monarch knows how to get to one mountainside in Mexico. But we did not and cannot separate ourselves from our own natures.

When I went to Atlanta for a conference recently I found myself in a wholly “civilized” environment. My need for a connection with nature was not appeased by the tenuous indoor approximation provided by the conference hotel: the tepid, chlorinated atmosphere of its atrium with an undulating pool and potted tropical trees. Although others found it relaxing, I needed to be outdoors. But, with little time and no transportation, I was trapped downtown in a citadel of skyscrapers. There being no wilderness, urban or otherwise, within reach, I sought out bits and pieces, the symbols of nature that we plant between sidewalks and streets, in tiny public plazas, and even tinier window boxes.

We have spent millennia casting out the wilderness, trying to create a safe, orderly environment. As a consequence the world has become abstract, geometric, civilized. And so I offer this small sampling of images, of nature abstracted, fragmented, distilled into minute traces. We are capable of creating a world that looks like this, but is it the world we want to live in? The problem with the “end of nature” is that it is based on a false premise, the false dichotomy: we humans are not – and never have been – separate from nature. We have tried to tame it – perhaps too successfully – but nature includes us. We cannot escape from our own nature. Whatever environment we create, that is where we must live. When the wilderness has been completely tamed and the world once again is undifferentiated, will it look like this?

To see more images from this series, go to my flickr page.
To read my post about the conference I attended, go to Science, Poetry, and the Photographic Image.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Science, Poetry, and the Photographic Image

I just returned from Atlanta where I attended the annual conference of the Society of Photographic Educators (SPE). You can certainly be excused if you're not familiar with SPE (unless you're a photo educator!) I don't attend the conference every year, but it is a good way to feel the pulse of photography as it's being passed on to a new generation. I thought I'd share some of my experiences.
Room-sized, camera-less pinhole image by
keynote speaker Abelardo Morell (see below)
The theme of the conference was Science, Poetry, and the Photographic Image. Although any conference of photographers will be awash in photographic imagery, I saw scant evidence of serious science and less of poetry. I'll come back to the science in a moment. As a fan and occasional writer of poetry I was especially looking forward to seeing how these disciplines might be integrated creatively. But I was disappointed when two featured speakers gave it no more than an obligatory, almost dismissive nod. The third didn't even bother to nod in its direction.

An exception was Bea Nettles, who has been combining her mother's poetry with her own photographic images since 1972. That personal and loving collaboration has taken the form of a series of books that Nettles created using a variety of available technologies. Her presentation traced a history of those technologies, from a loose leaf binder full of collages paired with typewritten pages of poems through years of typesetting and offset lithography to her most recent foray into the new world of digital image-making and print-on-demand online publication. Her visuals showed how each new phase brought greater fluidity to the relationship between text and image and also resonated with my own bookmaking and publishing efforts, which have had a similar trajectory. (Her mother's poetry was quite good, too!)

Back to science. One of the featured speakers was Catherine Wagner, a highly decorated photography veteran with a long list of fellowships, awards, and exhibitions in major art museums. With no fixed style - she has a chameleon's sensitivity to her subject's context - nearly all of her work oozes with science. Her image above is a series of MRI scans of a pumpkin. Lest it seem boringly repetitive I suggest you check out this link to her website to see a similar series of scans of a pomegranate in a 40 ft. long museum installation. Wagner admitted that many of her scientific subjects can be intimidating for the average audience. Her solution is to "use beauty as a formal strategy for observation." In other words, whether or not you find the "typologies of scientific processes" fascinating you will suspend your reluctance to view them because of the exquisite beauty of the photographic images.

They are indeed beautiful. If I had to criticize her work, I would argue that its formal qualities may be too facile and her approach to her subjects too neutral. She appears to keep any potential for scientific controversy at the arm's length formal abstraction provides. The image below is from a series she calls Frankenstein in an overt reference to Mary Shelley's fictional character. Wagner likens these foil wrapped vacuum chambers, which are used for "experiments in high energy physics and synchrotron radiation research," to Shelley's Frankenstein. However, she misses an opportunity to relate her imagery to the darker implications of the impulse to create such "monsters" that is so much at the heart of Shelley's masterpiece.

The work that appealed to me the most was that of keynote speaker, Abelardo Morell. Although I've seen some of his decades-long experiments with the camera obscura before, I was not familiar with his name. If that is true for you, too, I am delighted to introduce him. The idea of a camera obscura (which means "dark chamber") predates the Italian Renaissance which gave it the name. A camera obscura is a device, usually a box, into which light is admitted through a pinhole in one side. An image of the scene in front of this device is projected onto its back surface. Renaissance artists used such a device to make accurate depictions of perspectival space and it is the distant precursor to the photographic camera. To make a long story short, Morell uses an entire room as a camera obscura, making a pinhole in a blackened window. He then photographs the image that is projected (upside down and backwards) onto the rear wall of the room - spilling across doorways and furniture, etc. The resulting photographs are simultaneously lovely and disorientingly surreal.

Out of what was overall a good conference, there was one bittersweet element. One of the highlights of every SPE conference is the opportunities that are available to visit local museums and galleries. Atlanta is home to one of my favorite museums, the High Museum of Art. Unfortunately, the major current photographic exhibition was the Cartier-Bresson retrospective that I'd already seen at the Art Institute of Chicago. Ah, but..., I thought, they also have an exhibit of Toulouse-Lautrec! I adore his work. My hopes were dashed, however, by the perceived borders of art that I find so limiting. The High graciously opened its doors after hours on Saturday night for a special viewing by SPE members...of the Cartier-Bresson show only - not the Toulouse-Lautrec show. All in all, however, Cartier-Bresson, arguably the most important, influential, and ubiquitous photographer of the Twentieth Century, is worth a second (third, fourth...) viewing. Familiar as the work is, it's especially instructive to see the less famous pieces.

Shanghai, 1948

His eye is unerring, able to capture a multitude at the exact instant when everyone in the crowd has an expression worth studying. I’ve made innumerable students memorize his immortal phrase, “the decisive moment.”

The exhibit wisely, I think, shows his work in different states, and with varying print quality. His images were made for publication in magazines and therefore he didn’t do his own printing for most of his long career. The “fine print” made with the luscious gradations of black and white silver gelatin that one learns to expect at a museum of this caliber has little meaning in this context. It was great to see the luscious ones alongside those of less discriminating quality. I overheard a photo teacher commenting on the low grade that a student would receive if a print of such poor quality made it out of their darkroom!

To view my photo essay from my visit to Atlanta, go to Images of Atlanta.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Pulp Possibilities at Redline

“Pulp Possibilities” opened Friday night at Redline Milwaukee. It “celebrates … contemporary paper making endeavors” and features works that have been made in RedLine’s new Paper Making Studio. I missed the opening but visited on Saturday and enjoyed the show immensely. The mostly experimental works are appropriately diverse. Though the work varies in terms of its polish, the quality is remarkably high for a studio workshop effort and it shows off the possibilities of using paper pulp as a medium, as promised in the show title. Here are some shots of the installation, accompanied by excerpts from the artists’ statements.

John Kowalczyk: “ A transformation mask is used in Native American cultures and represents an animal transforming into a human. ...These masks represent equality between all living things. …I see pulp and paper as an equalizing factor between different works of art, a sort of skin that differs between every individual like the surfaces of varied artworks.”
Kari Couture: “Working in paper has started to bridge the divide between printmaking and sculpture for me. …H(ome)/H(eart) Bombs is a piece about the delicacy of relationships and the comfort we find in them. Home is often defined by the people we share our space with and when these relationships are threatened, changing or fading, our sense of home, belonging, safety, and wellbeing, comes under attack and becomes fragile.”

Laci Coppins: “In my current project, the self portrait, …the use of a template invites the observer into the repetitious hidden impressions. My intent is to rouse the viewer’s curiosity regarding the text and the message that exists. Finally, the spectator is encouraged to take ‘a piece’ of who I am with them as I strive to become more open.”

Jessica Laub: “the fragile nature of paper reminds me of the fragile nature of nests – so beautifully constructed with so much care, and yet so temporary, as is life. They exist for a season or two to nurture what is good, then the birds fly away and all returns to dust.”

Victoria Tasch: “Paper is temporary. …Sometimes the paper receives the marks of the artist; sometimes the paper is the mark. …My first paper casting project was a sand castle, incorporating sand into the pulp and on the surface. …The spontaneity and manipulation of the pulp/sand are therapeutic and intuitive experiments. This series will be finished when I take the sand/pulp castles to Florida to be documented and then they will return to the sea. Beautiful things are destined to end.”

Steve Vande Zande: An excerpt of Steve’s artist’s statement will not do it justice, as it has a diaristic literary style and narrative integrity. This delightfully twiggy character striding boldly across a disheveled book is one of four diverse pieces that Steve says “share the possibility of what narratives are presented in ephemeral litter with utilitarian purpose.”

Lawrence D’Attilio: “As a photographer I feel we create images that are limited by our five sensory perceptions and sense of passing time. …Wet pulp can dry into a texture that looks like a landscape in miniature…. We can consider that we are rapidly imprisoning the earth in the embrace of man’s ego. How do our limited sensory perceptions of earth, sea, and air govern what we permit ourselves to do that affects the earth?”

Dara Larson, who has been making paper since 1987, is the ringer in the bunch. Her statement asserts “paper is a wonderful source for collage, sculpture, artist’s books, drawing, and printmaking of all kinds.” That not only sums up the whole show but her own prodigious output. Her section of the installation includes pretty much all of that. The rest of the pix are all of her diverse installation.

Several of Dara's pieces were framed in glass, as above, and placed against the window. I not only liked the pieces in themselves but the way that their abstract industrial content and compositions harmonized with the view through the window.

“Pulp Possibilities” continues through April 2 at Redline Milwaukee.

(p.s. I apologize for the screwy formatting of this post. I wrestled with the blogger template and did my best!)