See For Yourself

Tough times, tightened belts, tighter budgets — from households and big industry to small businesses and major museums. No surprise that in a time of unstable markets, museums everywhere — threatened by leaner endowments, stiffer costs to indemnify and ship works of art, plus the always hammering expense of producing catalogues — are thinking and acting on a smaller scale, featuring works from their own holdings or hosting exhibitions of easier-to-manage media such as drawings or prints. The Metropolitan is currently running a show of Bronzino drawings and another of a recently reattributed painting by Velázquez surrounded by Velázquez pictures from the museum’s permanent collection, and its spring blockbuster will be over 200 works by Picasso, all from its own holdings. Closer to home, several venues in Southern California, including two in San Diego, have been exhibiting Rembrandt etchings, most from private California collections.

The Museum of Photographic Art seems to be on its own temporary diet. The two exhibitions I saw in late January will be up for a year, both showcasing things from MoPA’s permanent collection, and while one claims to be didactic, they’re virtually interchangeable: In Light offers 14 images; the didactic Seeing Beauty, 47. The explanatory matter swaddled around them asserts thematic purpose, but to this viewer, thematic intent is beside the point. The pictures are occasions to inform and pleasure ourselves. I thought of Baudelaire’s formula for looking at art: first you feel pleasure, then you ask yourself why, which leads to enlightenment, recognition, meaning. So what if these images were shown with nothing to tell us how to look at them? How much instruction do we really need? Even occasional museumgoers are pretty sophisticated viewers of photography. It’s the art we feel to be most completely our own, probably because we all practice it with instinctive expertise in framing and composing. Photographic image-making is our second nature.

Photography is an ongoing slide show of change, so even MoPA’s samplers catch the eye, so saturated are they with time, place, things, and manners. Photography still possesses its primitive shameless power of witness. Its evidence: images cleanse our conjectures of irrelevancies and misrepresentations. (Photos can just as bluntly fake evidence, craft misrepresentations.) Edward Burtynsky has recorded how the rust industries haven’t disappeared; they’ve just migrated (like airline reservation services) to faraway places most of us will never see. His most grotesquely majestic pictures are huge images of ship-breaking yards on mud banks in Bangladesh, where laborers cut up decommissioned freighters into corroded steel slabs and housings that look like stuff from Richard Serra’s drawing board. Rust, as we know, never sleeps. In Burtynsky’s pictures, the sunlight washing down rusty hulls and bridges and rudders bleeds down, in shimmering mercurial oranges and sundown reds, onto the half-naked bodies of workers, gilded by muddy sweat, who in MoPA’s picture are shouldering a long, thick cable that looks like the ship’s intestine. In single file, slogging across the picture’s horizontal field, chopped-up monuments of commercial civilization behind them, the workers look like indentured porters in service to a powerful colonizer. It’s also a vision of modernity as the endless, feckless work of destroying what we’ve made.

For visual whiplash, turn from Burtynsky’s hellish exterior to one of the tony, asphyxiating New York interiors that Tina Barney has been making since the 1970s. The 1998 image is endearingly perverse, and a little pitiful. A girl who seems 11 or so, angelically lighted, walks down a plush hallway lined with ornately framed paintings. She’s in training to become a certain kind of female adult. Dressed in a shimmering jade dress and wearing lipstick, she’s raising her baby-fat-plump arms to adjust her velvet headband, though it also looks as if she’s trying to contain a miserable headache. (A caption would read: “This party is driving me crazy!”) It’s a portrait of a twisted kind of high-society beatitude.

The Burtynsky and Barney are, each in its way, archival. Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison’s image Undergrowth marks how far the medium has come since Baudelaire, 150 years ago, dismissed photography as art because it’s enslaved to nature. Photography obviously can remodel nature, make a second nature, mediated sometimes by hazy moralizing. The ParkeHarrisons digitally manipulate images to craft visions of the ruptured or perverted relations between the human order and nature. In Undergrowth, a man sits on a chair, head and torso smeared (like one of Francis Bacon’s Popes), his sharply focused hand deckled with blood that tracks back in drips across a door next to the man, the door itself gripped by vines growing behind, prising it apart. The blood splatters rhyme with the red-budded vines. It’s an image of Tennyson’s nature, “red, in tooth and claw,” applied to the vegetative world. If you’ve seen an untended wooden garage wrestled to the ground by ivy, you know what I mean. Nature will reclaim us all, and everything sooner or later reverts to jungle, forest, or desert.

Because it is, among other things, a report — even if it’s a report on the state of the artist’s imagination — photography manipulates irony of every kind, from tender-sweet to vicious. Duane Michals is one of our most subversively playful image-makers, and his own vexed version of romantic irony turns on the truth-discrepancy between image and the narrative he composes for it. Item: “This photograph’s my proof. There was that afternoon, when things were still good between us, and she embraced me, and we were so happy. It had happened, she did love me. See for yourself.” The photo these words explain (a photo-as-proof) shows a couple fully dressed on a bed; she’s clinging to him in desperate bliss, he’s all smiles, they’re just peachy, staring contentedly into the camera, blind to the outcome the caption tells us they’re destined for. Photos can be little furnaces of ambiguity and jeopardy. When a verbal report accompanies an image, falsification or oblique half-truths spawn between them. The Michals image tweaks our trust, assumptions, and (a little unpleasantly, thank goodness) reminds us that photography, even apparently archival images like the Barney and Burtynsky, are always kin to fiction.

The other exhibition, Seeing Beauty, has a smashing picture by the Italian photographer Mario Giacomelli. Better known in Europe than here, Giacomelli (1925–2000) brought to still photography the slashing immediacy of black-and-white photography that postwar neorealist filmmakers like Rossellini and De Sica brought to cinema. His 1958 image of a village in Puglia fills the frame with an astounding vocabulary of textures: even human figures seem hacked from the mineral varieties surrounding them. The pileup of whitewashed houses and cobbled streets possesses the ancient fastness that everyone who visits Southern Italy feels but can’t explain. (The fastness holds only until an earthquake hits.) Washlines, tiles, mottled plaster, tipsy houses, crooked cobblestones, chimney pots, somebody entering a house or climbing a steep street — all ascend from the photo’s massive base to a more friable and fragile apex topped off by a foreboding rank of clouds. It’s a landscape as meditative object: as you look at it, it changes on you.

There are other strong images — Dorothea Lange’s Dust Bowl pictures, Walker Evans’s portrait of a withered sharecropper, nudes by Edward Weston and Bill Brandt, and shrouded daguerreotype delicacies. But the museum made a mistake in doing anything more than titling the exhibition Seeing Beauty. We can take it from there. We’re not mopes. We don’t need the writing on the wall: “IS BEAUTY ALWAYS BEAUTIFUL?” “WHO DEFINES BEAUTY?” I spend enough time in museums to have overheard smart ruminations on these questions by obviously infrequent museumgoers. I’m no anti-information commissar — a few words about Puglia’s history and culture would help with Giacomelli’s picture — but we don’t need to be lectured on questions our own intelligence automatically generates, thank you very much.

  • In Light and Seeing Beauty
  • Museum of Photographic Arts, 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park
  • Through Sunday, January 23, 2011. For additional information, call 619-238-7559 or visit mopa.org.

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