Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Outwin 2016 at the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM)

"Outwin"? Ever hear of it? I hadn't until the email from TAM announcing the opening came a while back.

Subtitled "American Portrature Today", it is a triennial competition sponsored by the National Portrait Gallery (part of the Smithsonian) and is juried by a panel of curators from the Portrait Gallery and, significantly, working artists. It is open to any artist, professional or Sunday only, working in any medium, in the United States. This, the 4th Outwin, drew over 2500 entrants and was winnowed down to 43 -- a size just about right for two of the north galleries at TAM. This is the first venue after it hung in the Smithsonian.

Why "Outwin"? Virginia Outwin Boucher was a passionate supporter of the National Portrait Gallery and volunteered there for nearly 20 years. She and her children endowed the competition in her honor.

I can't say that I was particularly excited by "Miss Everything", the first prize winner that illustrated the email announcement from TAM but Barbara and I were ready for a brief road trip so we took the arduous journey down I5 to see it yesterday. Three years or so back TAM received a mammoth gift of vintage and contemporary art of the American west from the Haub family (along with the money to build a new wing to house it -- wouldn't it be nice to have the loot to afford to do something like that?) and much more recently a smaller but similarly impressive gift of contemporary Northwest art from the Benaroya family (along with the money to build yet another new wing to house that). But I digress again.

Outwin 2016 includes sculpture -- including a cast glass bust -- drawings, paintings, a good deal of photography and two installations. The skill level and attention to detail throughout is exceptionally high. Most of the works are straight-up representational -- the originality demanded by the jurors achieved through content and approach rather than avant garde technique. 

The work that strayed farthest from strictly representational was the installation Caja de Memoria Viva II. I'm not keen on installations as a rule but I'll make an exception for this one. It is housed in a large hollow cube suspended from the ceiling at a height such that the viewer can walk under it. The front/back/left/right views of a kindly, wrinkled, older man's head are done in charcoal on the sides of the box. As you walk under it you are looking up into the hollow cube that is decorated with snapshots and letters and a soft, nearly unintelligible voice speaks to you -- you are literally "inside his head".

The other installation, "A Moment in Time" is a set of 17 small photographs housed in a large, wall-mounted case -- one portrait for each decade since the invention of photography. They begin with a jewel-like Daguerreotype in a tiny, ornate case labeled "1850" and progress with the technology of photographs through ambrotype, tintype, albumen, silver, polaroid and digital (labeled 2010). Only when I read the wall tag did I realize that all the portraits are self-portraits of the artist -- costumed to match the fictional time of the photograph.

With the exception of the photographs in "A Moment in Time" all the photographs were digital prints and all but two of these were color. One of the latter, “Haints at Swamp II” was a faux toned C-print mounted behind a crystal-clear thick glass that gave it the appearance of wet-plate or even aureotype. 

With no exceptions the pieces in this show stood on their own as portraits apart from the fame or obscurity of the sitter -- David Hockney no more nor less than a homeless African-American man on a San Francisco street corner.

Many of the portraits dealt with social issues -- homelessness, gender inequality, racial tension, transgender acceptance, mental and physical disability -- but the issues were beneath the surface of the portrait that was first and foremost an image of a human worthy of attention and respect.

Many of the artists, in their statements that accompanied the art, commented on their artistic debt to the great portraitists of the past. It was easy to see, for example, Edward Hopper's "Night Hawks" in "Audrey, 2014", Vermeer's use of side light in "Becky, June, Jessica, and Mary" (perhaps my favorite of the show), Sally Mann's ability to show childhood as both idyllic and threatening in "Mavis in the Backseat", August Sanders' respect for his subjects in "Hiede and Lilly"

As for grand prize winner, "Miss Everything" -- it is one of those artworks that I didn't appreciate until I saw it in person. In this painting, a young African American girl in a partly polka-dotted dress, white gloves and a scarlet hat stared fixedly at the viewer while holding an outsized teacup. Her skin is grey (although my eyes obediently saw it as a chocolate brown). At a glance it resembles a "naive" work but, like Jacob Lawrence's paintings, the longer I look at it the more sophisticated and carefully done it becomes.

"Outwin 2016" is on view at TAM until May 14. The small but well-produced catalog is available in the gift shop.

I plan on seeing it again. 

(and as an aside, the blogspot editor is a real pain to use -- this is hardly the format I had in mind but I'm throwing in the towel)

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

PCNW Revisited

(I’m really on a roll on blog posts — that’s the influence of a couple of snow days last week that gave me the unexpectedly uncommitted time to edit several latent posts.)
A while back, well 2013 to be truthful, I wrote a post grumbling about the MFA show at the local flagship university and how much more to my taste was the "thesis" project show at Photographic Center Northwest (PCNW). I found the work there to be a good deal closer to the mainstream and nowhere close to attempting (and failing) to be innovative and original.

How times change.

In the interim between then and now the advisors at PCNW have seemingly changed their approach. The thesis projects that are the capstone of their certifcate program run to the conceptual and introspective -- characteristics that in my opinion are not well addressed by photography.

Moreover the number of students finishing a certificate is dwindling. Only four were in the most recent (July 2016) show. I suspect that the decline in numbers is strongly related to the fact that a prominent local aerospace company changed its policy on employee education benefits to exclude anything not directly related to job skills. But I digress.

I went to the opening of the show and it was a cheerful party with a goodly crowd -- much bigger than I expected.

Two of the four projects in the most recent show were conceptual -- one of these involved large panels of cyanotype material exposed by laying them in the shallows at the edge of a Salish Sea beach. The lapping of the saltwater and the sunlight partly filtered through the water yielded an abstract pattern. The panels were hung without flattening so that the wrinkles in the paper were intended to suggest the lapping of the waves.

The third project was very, very personal and was undoubtedly meaningful to the artist.

The final project was a series of carefully staged and beautifully executed portraits of Jewish women. It was intended to comment on the place of women in the artist's own conservative Jewish community. They were sweet, loving, respectful (too big for my taste) color portraits printed on Japanese rice paper then coated with beeswax that gave them a slightly muted, dreamy look and a vague halo around the highlights. The content -- commentary on women's roles in the community -- wasn't obvious to me as an outsider but the prints were very appealing.

Talking to several of the other guests, the unusual size of the crowd was driven by members of the artist's community who had come to congratulate her and to see how her project turned out. They were delighted with it, as was I, and several of her pieces already proudly wore red dots. Nothing from the other projects had been sold by the time I left.

On the subject of sales -- and pricing -- the pieces in this show were priced in the several hundreds to a couple of thousand dollars. Well, that explains the dearth of sales except to the subjects or families thereof of the portraits. I later discussed the issue of pricing with an experienced arts administrator who explained it all to me. It seems that art speculators (oops, collectors) haunt graduation shows hoping to snap up an early work by a graduate that they believe will turn into a hot market item. Ah. Perhaps pricing to that potential buyer is a good idea if the show is of MFA graduates from Yale but I'm pretty sure that it more often merely gives the freshly-minted graduates an inflated expectation of the market value of their work.

Ray Bidegain, an established Portland photographer, prices his lovely platinum prints to sell -- in the range of $250 matted -- with the goal of making them available to a wide audience. As a result, he sells a lot of them. He openly says that when he can't keep up with printing them then, and only then, will he raise his prices.

LensWork’s Brooks Jensen sings the same song — saying that if you want your work to sell then it needs to be priced at a point that appeals to an audience beyond the wealthy collector.

My friend Katrina for many years did stunning underwater photography. Her large, color prints of tiny sea creatures were expensive. The same images in smaller sizes, on greeting cards, refrigerator magnets, bookmarks ratcheted the price down to a few tens of bucks, a few bucks — or less for a bookmark. Do you want to guess where most of her income came from?

Lomography, Plastic Cameras, and Simplicity

While looking for something else I found this post that I wrote and then forgot to post. (sigh)

When a computer program behaves in an unexpected (and usually undesirable) fashion, the nearly universal tongue-in-cheek comment by the developer is “That’s not a bug, that’s a feature.”  But even we software developers (a notori ously opportunistic group) don’t have the balls to jack up the price and tout such features and the things the program doesn’t have in our advertising.
On the other hand, that’s exactly what the Lomo website does as reasons for buying their camera.  A hundred and fifty bucks for a 35mm, zone-focus, auto exposure, plastic camera with a lens that vignettes?  Is this for real?  Of course for your $150 plus $15 shipping you also get 2 free rolls of Lomofilm (36 exposures each) and free lifetime membership in the Lomographique Society – nearly as valuable as membership in the International Freelance Photographers Organiza tion for which you also get a membership card, a handsomely engraved certificate and a lifetime subscription to their magazine.  However, IFPO membership is only $39.95, leaving you just over $140 that would buy about a half dozen of Porter Camera’s plastic 35mm zone-focus cameras and a cheap light meter. 
The Lomo promotion, IMHO, is perhaps the biggest PR hype I’ve ever seen – blatantly created to capitalize on the popularity of plastic camera photography and sell lots and lots of their cameras at an amazing profit margin.
Having gotten that off my chest and lowered my blood pressure a bit, I may as well stick my foot in my mouth even further.
While I’m at it – I don’t understand the plastic camera phenomenon, either.  Not that I dislike plastic camera work on principle.  Apart from various swap prints (many of which I like very much, thank you very much) I actually bought three plastic camera prints – not because they were plastic camera prints but because I like the prints.
I certainly understand the notion of using tools that make photography less intellectual, less considered, more spontaneous – to loosen you up and help break out of ruts.  However, I don’t understand why it is more liberating to do so with a plastic camera than, say, an Olympus Stylus or even a hyperfocused Nikon.
I understand the notion of using a plastic camera because it is fun and reveling in the unpredictability of the results.  Now unpredictability makes me crazy so it isn’t fun for me but that’s my problem.
I also understand (and highly respect) the notion of a skilled artist consciously using ‘primitive’ tools and working in a ‘primitive’ style to achieve a desired effect.  The three plastic camera prints that I bought are certainly in this category.  The artist would have had a hell of a time making them work with his Hasselblad.
What I don’t understand is the notion of plastic camera art being art because it came out of a plastic camera.  Much of the plastic camera work I see in exhibits looks like the artist worked his or her butt off in the darkroom to get a halfway acceptable print out of an impossible negative.
Is this liberating?  Is this spontaneous?  Is this fun?  Strikes me like watching a dog walking on its hind legs.  The amazing part is not that it does it well but that it does it at all.
Neither do I understand the notion (epitomized by the Lomo website headline “DON’T THINK!”) that plastic camera work is somehow superior to, more art than, more pure than other varieties of photography.  This strikes me as another square-wheeled bandwagon in the continuing parade of photographic fads.
I have been pondering the “don’t think” issue.  ‘Think’ is a very slippery word.  At the risk of getting academic about this, Webster’s New Collegiate has (in part):
• to form or have in the mind
• to have as an opinion
• to reflect on (ponder)
• to devise by thinking
• to determine by reflecting
• to center one’s thoughts on
• to exercise the powers of judgment, conception, or inference
• to have the mind engaged in reflection
• to consider the suitability
• to have a view or opinion
Most of these definitions emphasize the analytical side of thinking and if you change “Don’t think.” to “Don’t overanalyze.” I couldn’t agree more.  Making art is a matter of synthesis not analysis and it is clear to me that paralysis by analysis leads to puzzling photographs and critical writing that are useless both to the artist and viewer, PSA salons (the bastions of going by the form book) all looking alike, and (may the saints protect us) deconstructionist theory. 
You can also change “Don’t think.” to “Don’t think about the process.” and I’ll still agree.   I can not-think about the photographic process either by using equip ment that is brick simple – an auto everything or a fixed everything – or by becoming so familiar with my equipment that knowledge of how to use it is in my fingers rather than in my mind.  If you can hold the camera above your head and still nail the framing  you aren’t using a camera you picked up yesterday.
Beyond these restatements I have increasing trouble agreeing with “Don’t think.”  I read the two definitions “to center one’s thoughts on” and “to exercise the powers of judgment, conception, or inference” as edging us toward “We photo graph with all our senses”.  The ability to synthesize data from all our senses is one of the truly mysterious happenings in our heads.  However, the reality is that we photograph by pointing the camera and releasing the shutter.  It seems incon ceivable to me that we can do this better, in the long run, by not looking than we do by looking.  Moreover, we cannot photograph a smell or a sound or a feeling or a taste – we can only photograph to suggest the other senses. 
I suggest that statement is more accurately “We decide what to photograph with all our senses.”  If that is the case then the blindfolded photography exercise is an attempt to sharpen our attention to what our senses other than sight are telling us.  Taking better pictures when blindfolded isn’t equivalent to not thinking.  It is a wake up call about being so dominated by vision that other sensory input isn’t getting though -- and that sure as hell is a problem but I doubt that photographing blindfolded will cure it.