Thinking Photography: Five Decades at the Kansas City Art Institute // The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art // Kansas City, MO // July 24, 2010 – January 2, 2011
Photography is arguably one of the most accessible art forms today. Perhaps the availability of this medium has obstructed us from really seeing its potential. In a time where just about anyone can pick up a digital camera and start clicking away, what does it mean to be making pictures and not just taking them? Thinking Photography, Five Decades at the Kansas City Art Institute offers a plethora of different avenues by which artists have used photography in their practice. Associate Curator of Photography April M. Watson and Senior Curator Keith F. Davis have assembled a non-chronological exhibition that, as stated in the gallery brochure, “celebrates … the school’s diverse and vibrant photography legacy.” Featuring 27 Kansas City Art Institute alumni, the exhibition aims to expose each artist’s different approach to technique, subject matter, and style.
Coinciding with KCAI’s 125th anniversary, the exhibition also lays the groundwork to compare older and recent alumni who are working with similar themes and subjects. “We wanted to tell a story,” says Watson when asked how the artists were selected. There is a story to be told, although it is a non-linear narrative. When seen together, the 42 works are an exciting amalgamation of alumni grouped in such a way that viewers can discover moments of comparison (of which there are many) on their own.
An interesting meeting point for many of these artists, and perhaps a dividing line between generations, are the various techniques they use. Regardless of a preference for traditional or digital formats, one unifying trait is the artists’ experimentation with the photographic process. Mark Osterman (1977) employs the popular 19th-century wet-colliodion technique to capture staged images of himself as a scientist feverishly buzzing around his laboratory. The resulting images have a ghostly haze and also a carefully refined craft. Due to his hand-coloring process, Osterman’s ambrotypes are at once an image and a unique art object, and ultimately question the function of a medium based in reproduction and the value of a skillfully made image.
A similar line of questioning about the function of a photograph occurs in the Cancellation series by 1963 alumni Thomas F. Barrow. Here the artist scratches large ‘X’s across the surface of the image during the dark room process. Merging technical andconceptual experimentation, Barrows’s work is in a constant struggle with itself. f/t/s Cancellation—Frame acknowledges both photography’s potential to create illusionistic depth and its simultaneous inability to transcended the flatness of its material. Other alumni, such as Russell B. Phillips (1977) choose to experiment with digital technology. In Wells and Wacker “Pedestrians,” Phillips weaves multiple images of a Chicago street scene together using computer software. At first glance his image appears to capture a typical bustling city, until one notices the bits of people and architecture that have been carefully removed or blended together. Phillips cleverly baits the viewer into his vibrant image then leaves them questioning its authenticity as a document of a single moment or the construction of a fragmented reality.
At the crossroads of traditional and digital technology are Robert Heishman’s (2008) images from his seriesStill Life. Here Heishman photographs worn darkroom equipment, in this case chemical bath trays, on a neutral black background. The residual characteristics of the trays are unique to each chemical, leading them to appear as a kind of portrait. When seen collectively, Hieshman’s series creates a genealogy of technology in which newer digital equipment memorialize their elderly darkroom relatives. In a way, these images are a larger reflection of the history of photography in which new technology is constantly replacing outdated techniques. Laced with an insider’s witty humor (all the photographs are inkjet prints), Heishman also turns process into pun.
Conceptually investigating what constitutes a photograph is another similar theme among the artists in Thinking Photography. Stuart Allen (1994), a multidisciplinary artist also working in sculpture and installation, displays a work that relies on subtleties of color similarly to minimalist painters Joseph Albers or Ad Reinhardt. The “ah-ha” moment comes when viewers read the wall plaque and discover his work is actually a nine-pixel section from a larger photograph of the sky over Santa Fe, New Mexico. In his Pixels series, Allen turns the micro into the macro and thus reduces photography to fundamental properties of light and color, while also questioning what makes a photograph a photograph.
Jeff Eaton’s (2007) The Way Out is simultaneously a formal exercise and a conceptual investigation that combines a found exhibition postcard, original photograph, and raw photo paper. Eaton’s disorienting collage plays with the idea of appropriation versus authenticity while also confronting issues of globalization, industry, and nature. Eaton is the only artist in the exhibition to physically collage his materials, and while this process is relatively simple, the conceptual process is more complicated, and thus warrants a lengthy wall text by the artist explaining his process.
Humor is another common thread among many artists’ approaches. From Jamie Warren’s colorful, if not simplistic self-portraits, to Chuck Avery’s clever depiction of the American obsession with political fame, KCAI alumni seem comfortable poking fun at both themselves and the culture they’re a part of. Some of the most humorous and poignant images using this approach are those of 1997 alumna Nicole Cawlfield. The selections in the exhibition are taken from her Thin Up Girl series in which Cawlfield stages full-figured women in ironic scenes as 1950s housewives. Repositioning women as empowered (and eating cake) while strapped to retro workout machines or standing on old scales, Cawlfield subverts the pin-up genre to fit her own feminist agenda.
Courtney Andrews (2005) and Allyson Lubow (2002) also address issues of the body, gender, and sexual politics in what proves to be the only vaguely controversial moment in an otherwise safe exhibition. Displayed next to one another, Andrews’s and Lubow’s images create a dialogue about voyeurism and the female body, but from very different perspectives. Andrews’s luscious image of a young nude woman, stretched backwards over a chair is simultaneously erotic and awkward. Employing a seductive color palette, Andrews entices her viewers into the position of a traditional voyeur: gazing at the passive female nude presented before them, but leaves them no clues as to why or how they’ve arrived there. Conversely, Lubow’s work, Lennie, confronts the viewer head-on as her sitter looks directly into the camera lens with a confident, and possibly menacing, stare.Lennie — easily the most commanding photograph in the exhibition — is from the artist’s series Instilled Expectations, in which she made portraits of women dressed in clothing from various feminine rituals. We are not sure whether Lennie is wearing her wedding gown or prom dress, but in any case, her single-use formal attire feels out of place among her cluttered New York apartment. Lubow’s work is a critique of the importance and impermanence of fashion in cultural ceremonies.
Thinking Photography boldly presents a collection of outstanding KCAI alumni in such a way that their works can be appreciated individually without needing to fit into an overarching theme. This lack of restraint allows for several smaller exhibitions to occur within a carefully curated whole. While celebrating the photography department at the Kansas City Art Institute, Thinking Photography will also introduce new works — about 85 to 90 percent of them are recent acquisitions — into The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s already reputable photography collection, creating potential for future exhibitions. This addition to the museum’s archive, combined with KCAI’s 125th anniversary and a new museum director with a reputation for community outreach, will hopefully lead the way towards exhibiting more local talent and bring together institution and community. When asked how this exhibition fits into all the talk about changes around the Nelson to show more Kansas City-based artists, Watson replied, “We’ve been collecting local artists for a while now,” naming Mike Sinclair and Deanna Dikeman as examples. She added that the goal for the new director (Julián Zugazagoitia) should be to balance local relevance with putting us on the map internationally. As the most prestigious art institution in Kansas City, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art certainly does have a role in educating the public about contemporary international trends, but there is also an obligation to highlight the local art community. Hopefully, Thinking Photography can act as a catalyst for future exhibitions of Kansas City artists while maintaining a balance with non-regional art.
*Also published on Review magazine. See it here