Forging ahead: Joyce Tenneson at Dowling Walsh…
I’m impressed. 13 books published. Cover photos on half a dozen major publications like Time magazine. International acclaim. Four+ decades of hard work. Joyce Tenneson should be more than ready to put her feet up and rest on her laurels. But, for the second time in ten days I’ve viewed a challenging series of new work by an accomplished Maine-based fine art photographer who could easily coast through the next decade or two on what she’s already achieved: Joyce Tenneson, exhibiting 30 new works at Dowling Walsh in Rockland in “Trees and the Alchemy of Light” through July 29, and Judy Ellis Glickman, who is exhibiting “Upon Reflection” at UNE Gallery of Art through September 30 (read my posting here).
Love ‘em or not, if you miss this Tenneson show, you’ve missed history in the making as far as Maine’s fine art photography community is concerned.
Many contemporary fine art photographers are finding that marrying historic processes with high tech ones results in some highly satisfying photographic experiences. Most of the works in “Trees and the Alchemy of Light” are photographs printed on gold leaf which Tenneson applied herself, and about half a dozen are facemounted on plexiglass (described as “gold mixed media”). Both processes are proprietary to Tenneson, the results of expensive and exhausting experimentation with substrates, and every other part of the process, I imagine – the goal being that of weaving her spiritual journey into her creative vision, and the inspiration to continue the tradition over the ages of using gold to enhance one’s path to the divine.
Bird’s Nest Tree (Gold Leaf Mixed Media)©Joyce Tenneson. All Rights Reserved
I went around this exhibit several times and with various colleagues. Sarah Szwajkos said many of the images reminded her of Atget’s graceful and ethereal public park photographs in style and mood. Several people I talked with think the gold leaf process is fascinating and unique in its final presentation, but concurred that some of the images in the show are not as memorable as others – these subjects obviously resonated with the artist, but didn’t translate through to us as viewers. The discussion continued on to whether the process became the focus of a viewer’s attention, overwhelming the images themselves – but none of us came to a hard-and-fast conclusion on that score.
My first sense was that the portraits of a single tree are the most successful images as presented, but the more time I spent with several images that embraced larger content, such as “Lincolnville, 2011″, below, which includes six different depths of field all perfectly presented, that initial reaction unraveled.
I found the variable presentations and variety of sizes (smallest: 8″x10″ and largest: 66″x48″) a little schizophrenic, and kept having to adjust my reading of the works to absorb the ever-changing framing style. My preference would have been installing the works in groups of like presentation. I had long discussions with other viewers about whether the lighting was the major factor in how the works read – sometimes muted, sometimes glaring, from one angle gold, the other copper, others sepia. The gorgeous little “Glowing Tree, 2012″, at the top of this posting and my favorite work in the show, was probably the most overlooked because it rested casually without a spotlight on an antique desk top, well below eye level.
I love the fact that Tenneson is making portraits of trees. She writes in her artist’s statement that she approaches her tree subjects the same way she has approached her portraits of people: “Their life journey is visible as is often true of a human face.” It’s interesting, too, she is re-visiting this subject almost 40 years after her first museum exhibit in 1974 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in which she exhibited “a large series of tree images”.
This show definitely puts Joyce Tenneson in a place of leadership to Maine’s fine art photography community with her willingness to risk all and do what it takes to realize a personal journey and creative vision – a model of boldness and faith for the rest of us.