At the Portland Museum of Art – Between Past and Present…
I attended the opening of the five artist exhibit of “Between Past and Present: The Homer Studio Photographic Project” at the Portland Museum of Art on October 5 (through February 17, 2013). The PMA has almost always got a significant photography exhibit going, and this one is a cool way to tie into the huge, international attention-getting Winslow Homer “Weatherbeaten” exhibit (through December 30, 2012). All of the photographers in “Between Past and Present” are adept at creating works using photographic processes that were prevalent during Homer’s time, often mixing the latest digital technology into the process. This exhibit is the current CIRCA exhibit at the Museum – exhibits that feature contemporary artists.
I take issue with how the exhibit is installed for a couple of reasons: depending on where you begin viewing the exhibition, Brenton Hamilton’s works are either invisible, or all you get as an introduction to it. If you take the elevator from the lobby/entrance of the Museum, you see nine of Brenton’s gum bichromate inspirations right off the bat. Of any of the bodies of work in the exhibit, Hamilton’s most closely tie in with the iconic paintings in the hugely successful Winslow Homer “Weatherbeaten” exhibit across the hall and so from that standpoint, it works. As you step out of the elevator on the 4th floor, there are two more Hamiltons once again introducing elevator-users to this exhibit.
If you enter the exhibit using the stairs up to the 4th floor you would never know Hamilton is even included. Not one of his works is visible. Several people have commented they couldn’t find his works in the exhibit or when they did, they are so darkly lit and in such narrow areas they can’t see them well. Having lived for 4 decades with an artist, I know how disappointing it can be for artists when they feel not as appreciated as others in a group show. While no curator is ever maliciously taking this approach to installing an exhibit, it happens a lot.
My second issue is that there are too many works by Alan Vlach and Tillman Crane so that the value of the sum total of their contributions is somewhat diluted in the repetition of subject and style. A tighter approach to curating these artists’ offerings would have allowed room in the main room of the 4th floor exhibit for some of Hamilton’s lively and unusual pieces and in so doing, contributed a much-needed aesthetic break from a long line of black and white works. An alternative would have been a mix of works in the downstairs elevator hall, allowing a more democratic showing of all five artists invited to participate. Too, a mix of works in that narrow hall would perhaps have offered a broader introduction to the five-person exhibit to snag the attention of diverse museum-goers.
Tent-Camera Image on Ground: View of the Sea from Winslow Homer’s Backyard, Prouts Neck, 2012©Abe Morell. Courtesy of the artist and Bonnie Benrubi Gallery, New York, NY. All Rights Reserved
The biggest name in the exhibit is Abelardo Morell, who gave a lively and well-received lecture on his work at the Museum’s Annual Photography Fund event on October 18. His tent-camera image is a mental puzzle that you either get right away or have to work at and then, hopefully, as it did for me, you have a visual epiphany and there it is: the view of the ocean from Homer’s studio, but superimposed on the grass of the back lawn. Morrel has been using camera obscura techniques for over 20 years, but came up with this tent-camera which allows him to take it all with him. At his lecture he showed us some breathtaking works taken of New York City’s bridges and skylines, many of them created in the same way as the Homer exhibit work, but instead of grass, showing the pebbly surface of the rooftop of the building he was working from.
Tillman Crane introduces the exhibit if you enter from the stairway. His platinum prints are beautiful, while mostly documentary in approach. There are three exceptions in my mind – the lovely, pictorialist “Detail, Staircase, Homer Studio” and the visually arresting and unique “Roof Corner, Homer Studio.” His very lively “Lobster Pot, Cliff Walk, Scarborough, Maine” makes me wish he had taken more chances in his approach to this project.
Alan Vlach’s salted paper prints are also beautifully made, and some of the works have been embellished digitally to connect more directly with Homer’s engravings (for Harper’s Weekly, for example). I would have preferred that this had not been done, frankly, and will leave it up to you to decide for yourself whether the approach makes the works seem tarted up and un-genuine or really contemporary and stylish. I love the “Day Marker, Ferry Beach, 2012″, and the “Two Chimneys in Silhouette” is a unique and welcome take on things. The quintet of “rocky shore” landscapes featured on the main wall of the exhibit could have been bettered served by a trio, as the brain tends to stop “seeing” when the visual stimuli is so similar from piece to piece. The “Cliff Walk, near West Point” is gorgeous and should have been the main squeeze here in my opinion. I wonder if it could have been printed larger as a salted paper print or if the artist is limited size-wise when using this technique. I’ve heard that the technique is not limited in size capability but it may have more to do with the digital negative.
We get a relief from all this similarly sized black and white somewhat when we turn and see the 24-piece tin-type installation by Keliy Anderson-Staley. She also has three black and white rocky shore prints scanned from original tintypes, but one of them is a welcome change in that it is taken from the rocks looking up at Homer’s studio. Anderson-Staley is a smart and fearless professional and it’s always a good feeling to welcome her back into the fold of Maine’s fine art photography community.
Lastly (or firstly, depending on how you approach things!) Brenton Hamilton’s gum bichromates comprise the most unique vision with respect to this project. No camera is used and digital montage is the foundation of most images. This was a way of making photographic works that was introduced in 1855 and was a huge hit with the turn-of-the-century pictorialists as well. Hamilton has mastered the technique, but his works are so modern in style, they exude tension and these are no exception. Actual imagery from Homer’s paintings are layered into the series, best evoking the power of the coast that so moved the painter. Hamilton uses red, purple, brown and black/gray tones through the series.
The Museum has done an interesting thing with respect to this exhibit: they are making available 100 portfolio sets of 5 digital reproductions – one from each exhibiting artist in “Between Past and Present”. These are all printed by Nickelson Editions and the boxes are printed and constructed by David Wolfe of Wolfe Editions in Portland. They are available in the Museum Store and are $500.00.