Friday, June 11, 2010

Review of the Denver Art Museum show, Exposure, curated by Eric Paddock, Part 1.

The Denver Art Museum finally has an official photo curator, Eric Paddock. Eric was born in Boulder, had a 25 year stint as the photo curator for the Colorado Historical Museum, and got his MFA at Yale- local and smart!

It is fantastic that we have a photo curator and a dedicated space to show photography at the DAM, don’t get me wrong. However, it is a small grey island in a sea of orange western art canvases on the 7th floor of the North Building. I have to say it. I do not believe that the western wing has any conceptual relevance to photography (ironically, it dovetails nicely with Eric’s previous job), and I hope in the future that photography will make such a big splash at the DAM that they simply have to take it up a notch and give it proper billing. That said- it is the most stunning, contemplative and beautifully lit place in all of Denver to view photographs. The exquisite details from the charcoal gray paint on the walls to the breath taking lighting make it a real joy to visit. More importantly it gives proper respect to the images on display.

This inaugural show, EXPOSURE, is intended to show off the depth and historical relevance of the photographic pieces that the DAM has in it’s collection. There are 7,000-ish pieces in the collection, and Eric continues to purchase more and more. To this end the show is relevant- it shows 19th, 20th and 21st century photographs in many different styles from all over the globe- even Denver artists.

Unfortunately, when you have a group show with no real theme to hang it on- beyond diversity of subject matter- it can get a bit tired. On the flip side, this show is full of such stunning work created by some of the strongest image makers in the history of photography, that one gets invigorated at every turn. A nice curatorial touch was to loosely hang them by mood, not just subject- but mood. There is a quiet contemplative wall with work from such remarkable artists as Andre Kertesz and Robert Adams. On the opposite diagonal there is a wall of portraits with the subjects confronting the viewer with their gaze, even Chuck Close is there bearing down on you from above. On the adjoining wall there is a different mood of portraiture, that of the candid, always moving, street photographers set. As one would expect here there is the requisite Gary Winogrand, but also a few choice Robert Doisneau images, as well as another Kertesz. Across the way there is a diverse collection of figure studies, from conceptual works like thst of Wes Kennedy to the simple exquisite beauty of Owen O’Meara’s nudes (more on Owen in part two of this blog- stay tuned...). Eric Paddock creates more than just walls of particular subjects with these selections, he creates moods, alternate realities for us to explore. This only possible because of the quality of work he has to choose from. The moods would be lost and the show would be chaotic if it were not for the fact that each piece on it’s own carries such a powerful presence. The mood of each section supports the works, rather than isolating them.

For example, the contemplative wall (above) includes a large dark print by Petah Coyne, entitled Untitled 735, of monks in a flurry of movement in what appears to be a courtyard. This sets the stage by blurting out Buddhism, while the next five images on the wall quietly work within that context. Leland Rice with White Door invites us to enter a room with ostensibly nothing in it, but upon further inspection there is a lovely textured wall that gives our mind something wrap around. It is like painting a picket fence- just enough task for our brain to hold focus, but not too hard. In Chez Mondrian, Paris Kertesz invites us into this space of simple beauty, and though there is nothing there of particular interest, we find it hard to leave once we are present. The same can be said of Dominoes, Walls Unit, Texas by Danny Lyon. The space was found by Lyon and captured in such a way that the beauty of the image strikes us to the core even before we conceptually realize what the image is of. Once we “read” the subject, all we are left with is this indescribable knowledge that there is something more to it than what it graphically represents. The beauty touches us first in these images so that once the subjects come into focus- they have been bathed in a glow that makes the everyday scenes appear relevant and vital. The exception to this is Anne Turyn’s image, her piece stands out as being oddly intellectual, that is to say the piece requires the part of your brain that recognizes objects and people to fully “get.” It does not carry with it the same visceral appeal that the other’s sharing the same wall have in common.

The street photography wall (above) is quite simply an extraordinary collection of artists and important works, bar none. Gary Winogrand is heavily represented by three of his most iconic pieces in his long history of image making. These images alone could define street photography as a genre, ala New York style in the 1960’s, and they are nicely rounded out by Doisneau’s humorous doubletakes from the 1940’s.

The confrontational portrait (above) wall stares back at the viewer rather intensely, and in fact there are so many eyes on you it is a little disconcerting to view these all at once. Diane Arbus’ twins stare at you together in a way that makes you intrigued, so much so that a narrative begins to play in your mind as to where these two came from and how did they come to be here? Of course then you notice Chuck Close looking down his nose at you, in fact the placement of this piece would b annoying if it weren’t so… well, funny! Those big eyes feel at the same time disjointed and intense, which makes them approachable when viewing them close up- which you will do so that you can get a good look at the twins. The image that throws you off on this wall is the Robert Benjamin, it is no where near as complex as these others souls up on the wall, the stripped down sensibility feels at odds with the classics around it. However, the Alexander Rodchenko is my favorite of the entire show. I have to admit a personal interest in the Russian Avante-Garde-both photography and the printmaking of this time period is staggering in it’s creativity and productivity. This portrait of Osip Brick alludes to the blending of techniques and craftsmanship of the period. What appears at first glance to be a straight portrait is deepened by the text present in the glasses, this text references the writer of whom the portrait has been made. Inspiring, I would love to see more.

I think in general this is a fantastic first show. Knowing that there was incredible amount of expectation for this show I can only guess that Eric was somewhat breathless at the opening, and it feels like a great beginning. I do hope to see more thoughtfully conceived shows in the future, but in the same breath I hasten to add that the point of this show was to highlight the diversity of the collection, and to that end this show is stellar. If you care about photography in the slightest- you must see this exhibition.

Do look forward to the Part Two to this blog where I will pontificate on the local artists in this show! Namely master photographic craftsmen Owen O'Meara and Kevin O'Connell.

Talk to you soon,