Art Review: In four photo exhibitions, Mainers and Masters present the range of the medium
Photography is everywhere this summer, from small, focused exhibitions to sweeping, rambling surveys featuring some of the greatest masters in the field. Together they represent a continuum of this art form from the 1880s to the present day.
“Light and Lens” (through June 4) at Cove Street Arts will be the first of four shows we’re highlighting here ahead. Curated by Bruce Brown, the theme is a loose vehicle for bringing together the work of three Maine photographers – John Tiedje, Don Peterson, Caroline Savage – with little in common stylistically.
The most innovative offers are those of Savage. For this show, she wrapped various flora bundles in plastic, scanned them under black cloth, and digitally manipulated them before transferring them to wooden panels. Next, she used a clear acrylic medium to create an impression of brushstrokes on the surface.
They are reminiscent of life forms in the pupal state – as in a chrysalis or a cocoon. Indeed, their titles all bear the word “cocoon” associated with the place of their harvest or purchase. The dark backgrounds, however, also evoke Dutch still lifes of the 17th century. There’s not much light to speak of here, except in the way the plastic wrap picks up and reflects scanner flash. But they are strangely, wonderfully mysterious.
Peterson is an architect and painter by training. Obviously, he approaches his compositions from an architectural point of view, especially these images taken at White Sands National Park in New Mexico. They are aluminum cobra-shaped picnic shelters that seem placed incongruously against this desolate landscape, giving them a slightly surreal effect. The light here comes in many forms, from cloudy skies and reflections from the metal of shelters to the blinding white of sunny bleached sand.
But even Peterson’s photos of wooden trestle tables at an outdoor market in Monsweag, bundles of wire fences or patterns created by rows of cornstalk stumps in a snowy field all belie his interest. for the geometry of objects and how they reproduce. shadow outlines. They have a nice formalistic quality to them.
Tiedje’s photos first look like documentary recordings of nature and buildings. But the truth is that he manipulates images to create romantic impressions of a landscape or phenomenon. For “Portland Pilings #4,” for example, he removed background structures such as ramps and bridges, as well as geological features, bringing the sky down to the horizon to create an idealized, dreamy effect.
Like Peterson, Tiedje is also interested in shadows and patterns that form naturally (“Japanese Maple Snow #2” and “Parking Lot Tracks #3”). But his most moving images have a gloomy and deadly quality precisely because they are devoid of human presence. “Secret Door #8” and photos of a dilapidated barn seem to remind us of the transience of human existence.
THE RESNICK RANGE
It’s immediately clear upon entering “Marcia Resnick: As He Is or Could Be” at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (through June 5) that this is not just a photography exhibit. To call Resnick simply “a photographer” is to ignore her extensive vision and talents. It would be more accurate to call her a conceptual artist.
As Frank Goodyear writes in her introduction, “She cast aside preconceived ideas of what her chosen medium was supposed to do and came up with new ideas of what it might be, applying paint and graphite directly to the photographic image, adding elements of text, injecting humor and conceiving photography as a type of performance are some of the strategies she has explored.
In the images from his See and See Changes series, a variety of people gaze at landscapes, sometimes a few feet in front of them and sometimes in the distance. But all of them turn their backs on the viewer. Moreover, she charges the energy around some of them with graphite marks, while in another the figure is a Magrittean presence through which we perceive the part of the landscape that her body would normally block (with rock formations, clouds and sky).
In her Landscape/Loftscape series, she pairs a photo of a scene with a photo of that scene recreated using props in her studio. Elsewhere, elements of text appear in a series of staged photographs. In one, the slightly feminist text reads: “She was taught morals at an early age. Innocence gave way to good and evil…all seemed to be black and white. The photo depicts a girl holding her knees, her feet tucked in old fashioned oxford shoes, in front of her are a black and white composition book, black and white cookies, a bottle of chocolate syrup next to a glass of white milk and a plate of Oreos.
More text appears in the inventive stories she weaved for Resnick’s Believe-It-or-Not, an article published by the Soho Weekly News. They’re hilarious – whether it’s a completely bogus explanation of the origins of the term Elgin marbles (picture is a cigar box filled with glass marbles) or a sales pitch for Lugar perfume 38 (which shows a woman’s hand reaching for a pistol). There are many, many more. It’s a thoroughly clever, witty and sarcastic work of a perpetual prankster. You’ll never have more fun at a photo salon.
It takes a few periphrases around the Jody Sataloff History and Art Pavilion to understand the title of Smith Galtney’s “Dream Sequence” at the Maine Jewish Museum (until June 27). The lush color images feel completely disconnected – and they are, at least in their individual subject matter. But taken as a whole, the show, hosted by Nanci Kahn, is indeed like walking through a dream, with all of its weird, convoluted plots and all of the not-quite-right tensions lurking beneath the surface.
The titles are deliberately opaque. “The goal was to decouple photography from any kind of direct, factual representation and give it a kind of dreamy, fictional inner life,” Galtney explains. So “What’s Next, Big Sky” has nothing to do with a portrait of a man standing in a hydrangea bush. It all looks pretty conventional until we spot the mosquito perched on his forehead, calmly siphoning off some of his blood.
The more you look, the more you wonder what is really going on in each image. A splash of orange light at sunset on the surface of a lake near a diving dock (“An Accident of Hope”) suddenly has us speculating whether someone drowned there. And why are the women in colorful blouses (pulled from the neck down, headless) clutching their wine glasses so desperately? Does it register the tension they feel having to look good on camera?
In some cases, the titles are downright disturbing when juxtaposed against the image. “Your youth, where did it go? shows a frozen lake with the bloody remains of a kill staining the ice. Galtney, who was an entertainment journalist before moving into photography, clearly weaves bizarre, sleepwalking stories that fascinate with their lack of reason or linear logic. The images themselves are by turns beautiful, amazing, strange… but always captivating.
MASTERS OF THE MEDIUM
I only put Colby College’s “Act of Sight: The Tsiaras Family Photography Collection” last because it runs the longest (August 14). This is a big show with a capital “M”. The collection, donated by former students of Dr. William Tsiaras and his wife Nancy Meyer (both Class of 1968), includes over 400 photographs by most of the masters of the medium, including Berenice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White, Harry Callahan, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Aaron Siskind, Edward Steichen, etc.
Tsiaris had a long career as a renowned ophthalmologist. He traces his love of photography to his father’s purchase of a Zeiss Ikon 35mm camera, shortly after he and his family arrived in America from Greece following World War II. . “It was a conscious effort to chronicle our lives and the growth of our family in our culture and adopted home,” Tsiaras writes in the elegant catalog, which is an essential reference for any photography enthusiast. His brothers would go on to successful careers in the photographic arts.
Somehow, aside from the many, many extraordinary images here – documentary, experimental, biographical – the collection is still largely about family. The exhibition excels in photographs of children at many stages of development and from many economic, social and ethnic backgrounds: Edward Schwartz’s disarming 1948 photo of four children mugging for the camera; “Boys Posing as Shaolin Warriors, near Kampung Sasak, Surabaya, Indonesia, 1983” by Leo Rubinfien; “Black Schoolhouse, West Memphis, Arkansas” by Ed Clark in 1949; 1928 “Tap Dance Dress Rehearsal” by James Van Der Zee from 1928. There are many.
The importance of the collection to the scholars of the school cannot be underestimated. Her images have become teaching tools for classes in a variety of subjects: anthropology, biology, environmental studies, queer studies, art. And the story they tell is breathtaking in its scope and relevance to today – from Robert Polidoro’s 2001 photo of an abandoned Russian classroom following the Chernobyl disaster and the Dorothea Lange migrant camp near Bakersfield, California (1935), to events such as Gandhi’s funeral and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, stories of American labor, scientific advances, war exercises, and other war preparations. They reveal perpetual cycles of human fallibility, ideological conflict and exploitation, as well as a rich panoply of social customs, joyous gatherings and human achievement.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]
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