Tag Archives: Guy Mendes

Arts

Kentucky Artists at the Elaine de Kooning House

This past summer, I had the opportunity to work with the curator Phillip March Jones, a dedicated and tireless ambassador for regional artists as well as Outsider Art, that genre of self-taught makers with limited contact with and access to commercial galleries and institutions. Over the past nine years, Jones has fostered a community of artists, writers, and musicians around Institute 193. The relationships formed have resulted in new bodies of work and collaborative projects that we were excited to exhibit at the Elaine de Kooning House.

Guy Mendes,” Marble Creek Nude”, 1998, gelatin silver print, 16 X 20 in.

“The Plant Portrait Series”, Elaine de Kooning House, installation view with works by Lina Tharsing

He and co-curator Maia Ferrari’s exhibition proposed both local and universal notions of community, demonstrating the effects that a space dedicated to the exchange of ideas can instill upon a group of individual talents. Their show entitled Summer Song: Institute 193 at the Elaine de Kooning House featured works by Robert Beatty, Jessie Dunhaoo, Mike Goodlett, Lonnie Holley, Shara Hughes, Guy Mendes, Adam O’Neal, Aaron Skolnick, Lina Tharsing, and Mare Vaccaro. A selection of Institute 193 publications was also on view.

“Summer Series”, Elaine de Kooning House, installation view with works by Michael Goodlett

Our collaboration was conceived of and tailored for the Elaine de Kooning House, the artist’s historic home and studio in East Hampton.

In 1975, when artist Elaine de Kooning was reconciling with her husband, Willem, she purchased a traditional saltbox house on Alewive Brook Road in East Hampton, N.Y. Elaine later added the studio where she created her final series of paintings, “Bacchus” and “Cave Walls”. During this time she also made portraits of her sister, Brazilian soccer player Pelé, and art dealer Aladar Marberger. Her work had been featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Young American Painters (1956-58).” She continued to make portraits during a formative period of American postwar art when, for the first time, the most radical new painting was happening in New York. Back then, the thought of an Abstract Expressionist concurrently adhering to a traditional genre was considered taboo by many tastemakers and the paintings themselves retrograde. Today, her studio practice seems prophetic: Many artists are able to create divergent bodies of work without the constraints of dogma or critical mandate.

“Summer Series”, Elaine de Kooning House, installation view with works by Adam O’Neal, left, Aaron Skolnick, right.

After de Kooning’s death in 1989, the sculptor John Chamberlain purchased the house, followed by painter Richmond Burton. Each artist made changes and modifications to its design. In order to capture the light at a specific time of day, Elaine would often work in the sunroom. Chamberlain used the ground floor studio as a darkroom and for archival purposes. The main studio has 18-foot ceilings with angled skylights, a private entrance and is connected to the house. When I bought the house and studio in 2010, it seemed animated with stories about renowned artists from previous generations. Elaine’s well-documented generosity toward other painters, curators and writers was legendary.

It was inspiring to be showing in a place where some of our greatest artists lived and worked. Thanks to Institute 193—specifically Phillip Jones and Maia Ferrari– we were written up in Hyperallergenic, and our work was posted on the Art News website. I’ve been exhibiting and publishing for 50 years, but I’ve never had a photograph reproduced by Art News before. Just as it has for nine years now, the Institute gets the word out. – Guy Mendes

Since 2011, the Elaine de Kooning House has hosted events, exhibitions, and informal artist residencies with the artists Charles Andresen, Aaron Aujla, Katherine Bernhardt, Lizzi Bougatsos, Joe Bradley, Jessie Dunahoo, Chris Duncan, Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe, Mike Goodlett, Sedrick Huckaby, Kim “Mudman” Jones, Laura and Rachel Lancaster, Sadie Laska, Jose Lerma, Liz Markus, Adam Marnie, Scott and Tyson Reeder, John Riepenhoff, Celeste Dupy-Spencer, Jerry “The Marble Faun” Torre, Michael Williams, and Anke Weyer.

The painter and photographer Katherine McMahon has made the ground level space her permanent studio. Katherine is ARTnews’ Creative Director and her presence has allowed each of the visiting artists to feel at home and become acclimated to their new environment quickly. (I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing her own work develop and projects come to fruition.) While the residence still functions as a private home, its main purpose, both now and in the future, is to nurture artists and the groups that support them.

“Summer Series”, Elaine de Kooning House, Installation View with work by Jessie Dunahoo

Our hope was to foster this spirit by making the space available to Institute 193’s artists, all while preserving the original structure and its history. Summer Studio has served as a resource for many of the activities at the house. We were happy to host a benefit for the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit as well as the launch of Art21’s new streaming experience Art21.live.

In July, the Beach Painting Club (co-founded by Scott and Tyson Reeder) painted together on Sammy’s Beach, located just down the road from the Elaine de Kooning House. This annual event gathers artists and friends to paint together, followed by a cocktail reception and display of the resulting work at the house. Our guests have included the art historian Gail Levin, Jess Fuller, foundation director Helen Harrison, the collectors Anne and John Mullen, and painters Laura Owens, Chuck Webster and Joe Bradley.

As Institute 193 collaborates with artists, musicians, and writers to produce exhibitions, publications, and projects that document the cultural landscape of the modern South, our goal was to create and merge with a larger network. The installation became an opportunity for these artists to gain well-deserved broader media exposure, initiating connections across the globe. We look forward to continuing and fostering these relationships.

More about Phillip March Jones: A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Jones graduated from Emory University in Atlanta but also attended Auburn in Alabama and the Sorbonne in Paris (his French translating skills helped subsidize some early aesthetic endeavors). In 2009 he started Institute 193, a small project space near the University of Kentucky with the intention of exposing contemporary artists from the interior who were unknown on the coasts. Two years later he became the inaugural director of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Souls Grown Deep was a labor of love for collector Bill Arnett, who had a missionary zeal to preserve, document, display and promote the expressions of living self-taught African American artists in the Southeast and elevate them to the level of the blue chip insiders. He succeeded. Works from the foundation are now in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. One of Jones’ most anticipated upcoming projects is his organizing of the Atlanta Biennial with Atlanta Contemporary Art Center curator Daniel Fuller.

About the author: Chris Byrne is the author of the graphic novel The Magician (Marquand Books, 2013). He is co-chair of ART21’s Contemporary Council and serves on the board of directors of Institute 193, Dallas Contemporary, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.

Arts

Guy Mendes: Unframed Play

If you know Guy Mendes, you may know some of the things I am about to share. If you are familiar with one of his three publications – Local Light: an anthology of 100 years of photographs made in Kentucky, (1976), Light at Hand (1986), or 40/40  40 Years, 40 Portraits (2010), the same might be true.

You also may have run across reference to the man’s genius in Yale University Press’ new catalog that accompanies an exhibition of the same name at the Cincinnati Art Museum: Kentucky Renaissance: The Lexington Camera Club and Its Community: 1954-1974 (2016). Guy Mendes’ life’s work is being framed in many ways.

But the life of a creative person is never static and we who publish stories about them are always limited by the confines of our medium. Whether it be an essay, a book, a catalog, a video, or even an exhibition, we know too well that singular frames often cut short the contributions of artists who work in multiple disciplines as did Guy and many of his colleagues while working as members of the Lexington Camera Club.

When that frame is broken, when no preconceived notions are placed around creative thought and experimentation is encouraged, that’s when things start to happen. Guy Mendes admits that he learned this from his mentors, particularly Ralph Eugene Meatyard, in the Lexington Camera Club. Play. Search. Make something new.

This free-wheeling mindset was a far cry from Guy’s work as a journalist for both the Kentucky Kernel and later the underground paper known as the blue-tail fly (1969-71). Both publications were deeply immersed in the issues surrounding the Civil Rights Movement and covering campus protests against the Vietnam War. The deaths of student protestors at Kent State in Ohio occurred during this period. Not playful stuff.

Guy Mendes has had work published in The New York Times, Mother Jones, Playboy, Smithsonian Magazine, Aperture, and Newsweek. His photographs are in collections that include The International Center for Photography, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the High Museum, and Aperture Gallery, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the University of Kentucky Art Museum, and many other local institutions. His career includes the production of numerous documentaries while working for nearly thirty-five years at KET. His life’s work needs nothing more than a straightening on the nail every now and then. Right?

Wrong. He still loves hours of play in the dark room. So, within the confines of this frame and along with Part I: For Guy Mendes, It’s What You See, it is our hope that UnderMain is able to introduce a little something new, then ‘get it souped, get it dried, and print it’ – a phrase Guy uses for the reportorial mode of production. We have invited Guy to play with us and send along a couple of new images before the end of the show at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Something that we can add here for your enjoyment.

Kentucky Renaissance, The Lexington Camera Club and Its Community: 1954-1974 is on view through the end of December.  If you have not seen this show, we encourage you to go. Also, see Hunter Kissel’s new narrative titled, Kentucky Insurgence.

What intrigues me most about the exhibition and catalog – both authored by Brian Sholis, then Curator of Photography at the Cincinnati Art Museum – is Brian’s observation about what happens when creatives work closely together as they did during the years of The Lexington Camera Club. Brian calls it genius that emerged in that time. Not only did photographers encourage and challenge one another, but they also played with new ideas, ideas that came often from writers in the region such as Wendell Berry, Guy Davenport, Thomas Merton, and James Baker Hall.

Such collaboration was of particular interest to Guy Mendes as a very young photographer and writer. Falling into the soup that birthed the Camera Club altered his vision forever – the talent and ideology of not only photographers and writers, but of sculptors, printmakers and multiple small presses like Gravesend Press, Gnomon Press, and The Jargon Society. Numerous contributions merged ‘words with pictures’ in a way that jelled for Mendes as a young photographer and writer.

Here are a couple of clips with Guy discussing what he refers to as the ‘cross-pollination,’ particularly with writers in the region, what was going on between members of the Lexington Camera Club.

Guy Mendes learned a great deal from his mentors, beginning with his introduction to Wendell Berry (see Part I) while he was working as a journalist for the Kentucky Kernel. Later, in 1971, Guy served as an apprentice to James Baker Hall and was thereby connected to writers like Gurney Norman, Ed McClanahan, and Bobbie Ann Mason, all of whom benefitted from a strong literary presence in Lexington, Kentucky at the time.

A keen awareness of what was taking place on the national level in photography grew, much of which was learned by attending lectures and visiting national exhibitions in New York and Chicago. According to Guy, photography was just coming into its own with movement in earlier decades prompted by Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and Ruth Bernhard.

Mendes also recalls the influence of Jonathan Williams, who had attended Black Mountain College and studied with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind –  ‘a hotbed of modern art in the hills of North Carolina.’ Williams was highly influential in connecting club members to this national scene in photography.

Today, with all the years of experience behind him, Guy Mendes recalls with great fondness the years of 1968-70 when he drove the countryside with Meatyard and Bob May – it was a time when he learned the value of play. He learned to search, but never with preconceived notions and while that play may have revealed the ‘uncanny’ or things that for some may even seem ‘dark’, that play was freeing. His recollection of that time is here:

UnderMain would like to thank Guy and KET for assisting us with presentation of a special insight into those times. In 1974, Guy Mendes, Martha Chute, and Stanley Maya created this film on Ralph Eugene Meatyard 1925-1972. The voices are those of Guy Davenport, Bob May, and Minor White.

Guy currently shows with: The Ann Tower Gallery and Institute 193 in Lexington, and POEM 88 in Atlanta and his website is: www.guymendes.com.

Arts

Kentucky Insurgence: The Lexington Camera Club at the Cincinnati Art Museum


Quick Look

  • Exhibition of luminous, inventive era of Lexington Camera Club
  • Reveals a daring, supportive, experimental group of photographers
  • Works by Meatyard, May, Mendes, Baker Hall, Merton, and other lesser known members
  • Curated thematically by Brian Sholis
  • At Cincinnati Art Museum thru December



2016Kentucky_Renaissance_installation view horizontal
2016Kentucky_Renaissance_installation view horizontal
People_Section
People_Section
gierlach_abstract_1966
gierlach_abstract_1966


During its heyday, the Lexington Camera Club was one of the more experimental groups of photographers outside of art hubs like New York or Chicago. What’s more, the club’s members—comprised of opticians, lawyers, and writers—differentiated themselves from their counterparts in bigger cities by allowing the idiosyncrasies of their environment to inspire their photographic explorations.

Club mentors Van Deren Coke and Ralph Eugene Meatyard encouraged their peers to employ multiple exposures, out-of-focus techniques, and compositions that deliberately made use of the play between light and shadows when making photographs. The resulting images often incorporate aspects of life in Kentucky: family, nature, and daily life are recurring themes within the club’s work.

The distinctions of the Lexington Camera Club are the subjects of Kentucky Renaissance: The Lexington Camera Club and Its Community, 1954-1974 currently on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum. The exhibition is a testament to the club’s profound dedication to expanding the definition of photographic output, often through publications and partnerships as well as the photographs themselves. In the exhibition, works by Meatyard and Coke are presented alongside images made by Zygmunt S. Gierlach, James Baker Hall, Robert C. May, Guy Mendes, Thomas Merton, Cranston Ritchie, and Charles Traub.

Rarely in the museum’s gallery are any one photographer’s works presented alone. Indeed, Curator of Photography Brian Sholis carefully constructed pairs and groups of photographs by multiple club members to help inform visitors the extent to which the club’s activities were collaborative. It is Sholis’ curatorial decision-making that effectively illustrates the interrelationships between club members, their geographical surroundings, and modernist photographic trends.

Kentucky Renaissance, Installation view at entrance, photographed by Rachel Ellison

Kentucky Renaissance contains three primary themes: People, Place, and Experimentation. The Lexington Camera Club had many well-known figures among its members, yet individual achievement is hardly ever the focus of this comprehensive exhibition. Sholis emphasizes the club’s collectivism by erecting a wall at the gallery’s entrance featuring a salon-style presentation of photographs by all included artists, albeit without accompanying image labels. Here, visual connections are forged between similar uses of composition, content, and style.

James Baker Hall, Gene and Michael, ca. 1972, gelatin silver print, 8 1/4 x 12 1/2 in. (21 x 31.8 cm), Courtesy of James Baker Hall Archive

Walking behind the introductory wall will deposit visitors into the first of the gallery’s three thematic enclaves, which fixates on People. Sholis makes clear the affinity each club member reserved for their colleagues: some photographs—such as Hall’s Gene and Michael (c. 1972), which offers an intimate moment between Meatyard and Hall’s son—allude to familial relationships shared between club members.

Robert C. May, Chris Meatyard, 1973, gelatin silver print, 7 x 7 in. (17.8 x 17.8 cm), Collection of the University of Kentucky Art Museum; bequest of Robert C. May

Chris Meatyard (1973) by May serves as an instance wherein other club members’ families assisted in making photographic experiments exploring how light propels itself across different surfaces. The proximity of many of these various portraits within the gallery suggests that nearly all stemmed from the similar creative inputs—indeed, they did. Sholis’ ability to mold the club’s complex profile out of interconnected parts prompts a realization one may only be able to experience upon visiting the exhibition and seeing these objects in person: that this group of Midwestern photographers was indeed working as a unit.

Van Deren Coke, Thou Shalt Not Steal, 1963, gelatin silver print, 6 1/16 x 8 1/4 in. (15.4 x 21 cm), Collection of the University of Kentucky Art Museum; gift of the artist

The theme of Place occupies the middle section of the gallery and it is here where Sholis’ selections accentuate certain regional characteristics. Specifically, the photographs that embody the club’s dedication to depicting nearby places exceed typical representations of home. Coke’s Thou Shall Not Steal (1963) presents a newspaper rack stocked with copies of the July 21, 1963, edition of The Lexington Herald-Leader. The rack’s nameplate is flipped so that the stamped relief of the newspaper’s name appears backward in the photograph. The backside of the nameplate faces the viewer and contains handwritten prices for the Herald-Leader while offering the photograph’s eponymous warning to potential thieves; the warning even cites its source—Exodus 20: 3-17. Some editions of the paper appear upside-down, forcing one to concentrate on the photograph’s content if they wish to gain a sense of the printed headlines and stories.

The varied texts in Coke’s image marry political, religious, and colloquial musings in an attempt to capture local interests in 1963. While the biblical excerpt stands out amongst smaller text, it yields to the overabundance of legible words and phrases. Thou Shall Not Steal exemplifies the attention Club members paid to the environment, noting how some ideologies can shape local culture.

Thomas Merton, Untitled, ca. mid-1960s. Archival inkjet print from original negative, Lent by the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. Used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust

Under the guise of Place, Kentucky Renaissance also includes photographs that could be appropriately categorized as landscapes, but even these examples break from stereotypes of the landscape genre. Thomas Merton’s Untitled (c. the 1960s) displays a close-up view of water ripples near the point where water and rock meet. While it is unclear where Merton was when making this photograph, the rocky features mirror elements from works such as Cranston Ritchie’s Untitled (Hands on Rock) (1956-61) or Meatyard’s photographs of Eastern Kentucky’s Red River Gorge that were published alongside Wendell Berry’s prose in The Unforeseen Wilderness (1971).

Merton’s image serves as a visual intersection of photographic experimentation and spirituality. Some club members found inspiration in facets of Zen teachings after Coke and Meatyard learned about Zen from Minor White during a 1956 workshop at Indiana University, Bloomington. Merton’s photograph is exemplary of the distribution of White’s expertise. It should be noted, however, that Merton—who was ordained in 1949 and lived in the Abbey of Gethsemani in Bardstown—was already a person of faith when this photograph was made. He likely used White’s insight as guidance for incorporating his mantras into his preferred photographic techniques. In any case, Untitled captures in detail subtle features of Kentucky terrain in a manner akin to one of the twentieth century’s most prominent photographers. Merton’s photograph may allude to isolation, but the Lexington Camera Club was not a group unfamiliar with the broader photographic community.

Familiarity with White and mainstream photography (Coke had in his personal collection photographs made by White, Alfred Stieglitz, Walker Evans, and other well-known artists) did not stop members of the Lexington Camera Club from pushing the limits of the photographic process in innovative ways. Experimentation becomes the focus in the gallery’s third area, the one furthest from the exhibition’s entrance.

James Baker Hall, Chairs, ca. 1973, gelatin silver print, 6 1/2 x 6 7/16 in. (16.5 x 16.4 cm), Cincinnati Art Museum; Museum Purchase: FotoFocus Art Purchase Fund, 2016.28

Here, People and Place serve as subjects from which to explore the steps one takes when making a photograph. James Baker Hall used a film camera when making Chairs (c. 1973), in which he re-wound the film to expose the same negative multiple times. Different viewpoints of the same group of wooden chairs are layered on top of each other, some more in focus and opaque than others. A ghostly aura characterizes the photograph’s content, but it is Hall’s process that is the actual subject of the work.

Zygmunt S. Gierlach, Abstract, ca. 1966, gelatin silver print, 6 3/4 x 7 in. (17.1 x 17.7 cm), University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections Research Center, Lexington

Experimentation culminates in images such as Gierlach’s Abstract (c. 1966), which is reminiscent of Man Ray’s radiographs. To achieve the aesthetic in both Abstract and Ray’s radiographs both artists laid objects on top of light-sensitive paper before exposing the paper to light. Gierlach, a radiologist by trade, created multiple works like Abstract that also appear in the exhibition. Sholis likely felt obligated to include images like Abstract in the exhibition, yet his placement of them within the gallery was undoubtedly a deliberate choice: Gierlach’s experimentations are on the gallery’s back wall—Abstract and its equivalents are the last works to be seen.

Visitors are then compelled to exit the gallery via the way they entered; Abstract then becomes only the midpoint of one’s journey through the gallery. Enhanced by the dispersion of publications featuring prints made by club members throughout the room, one’s revisiting of the exhibition’s themes continues to build the intended narrative around Coke, Meatyard, Gierlach, and their peers. That is, the Lexington Camera Club stands as one of history’s most self-supportive, exploratory groups of art practitioners.

Kentucky Renaissance: The Lexington Camera Club and Its Community, 1954-1974 runs until January 1st, 2017 at the Cincinnati Art Museum. A full-length catalog by Brian Sholis, accompanied by John Jeremiah Sullivan, is available for purchase through Yale University Press.

SEE ALSO: Part I and II on Guy Mendes: Its What You See and Unframed Play.

TOPMOST IMAGE: Cranston Ritchie, Untitled [Hands on Rock], ca. 1956–61, gelatin silver print, 7 x 9 in. (17.8 x 22.9 cm), Cranston Ritchie Collection, Photographic Archives, University of Louisville

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Hunter Kissel is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Critical and Curatorial Studies as well as a Master of Public Administration at the University of Louisville. He has held fellowships at the Speed Art Museum and the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft and has curated exhibitions at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, the Hite Art Institute at the University of Louisville, and the Huff Gallery at Spalding University. His MA thesis will focus on the life and career of Ralph Eugene Meatyard. 

Arts

For Guy Mendes, It’s What You See

Recently, I had the pleasure of traveling to the Cincinnati Art Museum for the opening reception of Kentucky Renaissance: The Lexington Camera Club and Its Community 1954-1974. Joining a large contingent from Kentucky, we celebrated photographer and writer, Guy Mendes.

His work along with that of his contemporaries Van Deren Coke (1921-2004), Zygmunt S. Gierlach (1915-1989), James Baker Hall (1935-2009), Robert C. May (1935-1993), and Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925-1972), Thomas Merton (1915-1968), Cranston Ritchie (1923-1961), Charles Traub (b.1945), and Jonathan Williams (1929-2008) numbered nearly 150.

All of the photographs, chosen by curator Brian Sholis, were made while these men worked along side one another in Lexington, Kentucky as members of the Lexington Camera Club. The exhibition brings to light many things, including how a connected and collaborative community raised the bar for all involved. In fact, in the accompanying exhibition catalog, the curator uses the term ‘genius’ to describe the inspiration of that time.

Curious about Guy’s thoughts on the matter and what intrigues him still today about Lexington, Kentucky, I decided to talk a little more in-depth with him. Our interview was lengthy and UnderMain will bring portions of it to you throughout the duration of the show – January 1, 2017.

After hearing Guy’s thoughts on so many things, I began to wonder about that genius thing – if real genius emerges only when you are wise enough to open yourself to it, so humble as to never admit you possess it, and honest enough to be generous with it. We are very fortunate to have Guy in our midst.

Here is just an introduction to my interview with Guy Mendes. Listen and learn how Guy went from being a ‘Kitten’ to realizing – late in life – that he is a native Kentuckian.

Guy Mendes as Kitten, 1966-67, Photo by Rick Bell

When Guy Mendes arrived in Lexington as a young man he intended to play basketball (who knew?) and study journalism. He landed a job with the Kentucky Kernel and, at the same time, walked onto the 1966-67 Kittens – the University of Kentucky’s junior varsity/freshman basketball team.

Guy was uninspired at the time by the classes in journalism, but highly intrigued by his work at the Kernel. The Kernel was – in Guy’s words – ‘a pretty radical paper back then’. It was a daily paper and part of the United States Student Press Association, a nationwide organization that shared a teletype machine from a network of colleges including Berkley, Harvard, Michigan and North Carolina.

His journalistic endeavors led him to cover many noteworthy things including the Vietnam War and Civil Rights, but for the sake of this interview, I was particularly intrigued by his story about the Fall of 1967 – when his interest in journalism led him to meet two men who would change his life forever: Wendell Berry and Ralph Eugene Meatyard.

It was an eye-opening time for Guy Mendes. What he learned then, he still lives by today: it is not what you look at in life, but what you see.

Guy Mendes, Photo by Dick Ware, 1970

SEE ALSO: Part II in this series: Guy Mendes: Unframed Play.

Guy currently shows with: The Ann Tower Gallery and Institute 193 in Lexington, and POEM 88 in Atlanta and his website is: www.guymendes.com.

Arts

not-your-grandmothers’ Nude Show

Heads up, Lexington! Just when the winter’s cold and grey was starting to get your seasonal affective disorder riled up, along comes a blast of heat and light, courtesy of the Lexington Art League’s new exhibit ARTIST:BODY.

Drawn from artists and private collections in the region by guest curator Julien Robson, the show is a selection of self-portraits, most of them nudes. No, this is not a replacement for the long-running LAL annual exhibit, The Nude, which was put out to pasture a couple of years back for a well-deserved rest. ARTIST:BODY is something else again, and definitely not-your-grandmothers’-Nude Show.

Photos courtesy Guy Mendes

Board member Haviland Argo felt compelled to make two things clear: “There are representations of nudity in this show.” And, “There are NO representations of sex in this show.” He added: “It is not a show of titillating images and objects. It is a thoughtful explication of the artist’s complicated relationship to the body.”

The images to be found in ARTIST:BODY are more of the in-your-face variety, provocative but also poignant, occasionally whimsical, and sometimes funny, even with death looming. Anette Messager gives new meaning to the term Bearded Lady. Shinique Smith turns work clothes into a bound-up version of the Venus of Willendorf. Leslie Lyon’s idyllic three-panel romp ends with an unexpected inversion. Julius Deutschbauer’s beefy real self against an impressive bookshelf is as good as it gets. Annie Sprinkles’ inventive Bosom Ballet is followed up by a more documentary tone in her Beats Cancer Ballet. And Martha Wilson and John Coplans remind us that time takes its toll on us all.

Robson, formerly a curator at Louisville’s Speed Museum, says, “Artists have increasingly employed themselves as both the subject and object of their work. This type of art can be seen as a form of self-portraiture that addresses identity…and how an artist deals with the nature of beauty, desire, sexuality and mortality.”

Louis Zoellar Bickett, What I Read, Inkjet Print

Louis Zoellar Bickett, What I Read, Inkjet Print

Robson purposely mixed works by international art stars like Kiki Smith, Cindy Sherman, Francesca Woodman and Sam Taylor-Johnson with regional artists to put them in a broader framework. Hence, we are fortunate to have Louis Bickett showing us what he’s reading-in-the-raw, Mare Vaccaro contemplating her lovely self-portrait-within-a-self-portrait, Carrie Burr’s form pressed into a large pile of Forbidden Black Rice, and Chris Radtke’s dual self-image made up of wooden boxes and broken glass.

Also on display, in effect, are the collectors, the largest of which is the 21c Museum Hotel Foundation. To see its contributions to this show gives Lexingtonians some idea of what they’ll find at the new Lexington 21c, which opens with a ribbon cutting on February 29th at 3 pm.

ARTIST:BODY features 27 artists, including Thaniel Ion Lee, Cynthia Norton, Gabriel Martinez, Rene Pena, Hannah Wilke, Xaviera Simmons, Penelope Slinger and Mark Boyle.

There is much for the eye to contemplate, and for the mind to see.

Besides producing high quality exhibits, the LAL has been building wider support for artists in Kentucky, with its Community Supported Arts harvests and sales, (some of which are still available on their website) as well as their periodic auctions for collectors, both of which have benefitted area artists.

Arts

VIVIAN MAIER: ON THE STREET

University of Kentucky Art Museum

Through July 26

A Review for Under Main

First and foremost, there is the work. The photographs of Vivian Maier on exhibit at the University of Kentucky Art Museum are immediately arresting, thanks to her eye for formal composition. They are compelling, because of the crazy quilt mix of people depicted in the 1950s U.S. metropolis. And they are charming, owing to an arch sense of humor and an abiding affection for women and children. Seeing this small but insightful show leads one to a greater appreciation for the unconventional and ultimately unknowable woman we see peering out at us from deep inside her own obsession.

But the afterimages that linger beyond the viewing are as much about the backstory, or the Vivian Maier Mystery (as a BBC documentary calls it), as they are about the images. If you spend a couple of hours on the internet in Vivian Maier Land, it’s easy to see there’s trouble ahead and trouble behind. Nanny Strangest! cries a Wall Street Journal headline. The Greatest Street Photographer You Never Heard Of, says Mother Jones. Legal Battle Over Vivian Maier’s Work, reports the NY Times. In the six years since her death, there have been two films made about her, and five books of her photographs have been published, all thanks to a few collectors and dealers who found her work in dispersal sales and have been promoting it ever since. There are, of course, lawyers arguing over who should get the proceeds, competing genealogical researchers have identified different French heirs, and late word has it that a long lost brother, Charles, has turned up and been awarded the rights to the photographs by the Cook County (IL) Probate Court, which wants its own cut of the action.

Meanwhile, Vivian Maier’s life has been scrutinized and called into question. Because she made 150,000 negatives over four decades, showing them to no one, stashing them in storage units, only to lose them when she couldn’t pay the rent, she is now assumed to have been “a private, unhappy person” who left us with “the riddle of her sad life” (WSJ). It is reported that she wore men’s clothes and boots, and that some of the kids she nannied nicknamed her “Bird Lady.” Some of them loved her, to the point of taking care of her late in life, and others say she was cruel and abusive and speculated that perhaps she had been abused as a child. One person who knew her says she might have been in the autistic spectrum. The fact that she hoarded newspapers and other items along with her negatives, and that she became more temperamental with age led one writer to surmise that Maier’s behavior was symptomatic of “a haunted, morbid psychology.” But a piece in The New Yorker cautions that neither was she a Mary Poppins, nor a surrogate Mommie Dearest. “To suggest her choices were the result of some as yet uncovered emotional trauma is to assume that her life was lived in reaction to pain.” Poor woman–she didn’t ask for this dissection of her psyche. She has been made into a public figure, without her permission.

Vivian Maier was a spy in the house of love. With her French accent and German camera, she was a kind of foreign correspondent, disguised as an au pair, who amassed a voluminous dossier on urban American life, and then filed it away, her obsession satisfied with the acquisition and collection of images—and not with the dissemination of them. Perhaps she found her joy in seeing the world through the camera and making the exposure. When an image comes into focus on the ground glass, the world is seen anew. To look through a cameral is an adventure, and a form of play. When the shutter is tripped, a photographer feels that anything can happen. Vivian Maier’s twin-lens Rolleiflex was her passport into other peoples’ lives. It gave her the access she craved, but at the same time kept her at some remove—the strategy of a consummate observer.

Among the things she took pleasure in observing were reflections of herself. One of the self-portraits in this exhibit reveals a rare glimpse of her enjoying the chase. In it a worker lifts a mirror out of a truck, seemingly unaware that there is a woman in the mirror taking a picture. For 125th of a second, a smile plays across her face. That’s the woman that three of her former charges spoke of when they wrote this death notice for the Chicago Tribune: Vivian Maier, proud native of France and Chicago resident for 50 years, died peacefully on Monday [April 23, 2009]. Second mother to John, Lane and Matthew. A free and kindred spirit who magically touched the lives of all that knew her. Always ready to give her advice, opinion or a helping hand. Movie critic and photographer extraordinaire. A truly special person who will be sorely missed but whose long and wonderful life we all celebrate and will always remember.

As for the industry that has grown up around her work, it has endowed a Vivian Maier Scholarship to allow emerging female photographers to attend the prestigious School of the Art Institute. And without those collectors and gallerists—in the case of this exhibit, John Maloof and the Daniel Greenberg Gallery–no one would have ever heard of Vivian Maier in the first place. Are we to canonize her and place her in the pantheon of photographic heroines of the 20th century? Lord knows she may have suffered enough. Imagine what she went through when her archive was sold out from under her. But is she to be mentioned in the same breath with Helen Levitt, Margaret Bourke-White, Diane Arbus, Lisette Model, Ruth Orkin, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post-Wolcott, Imogene Cunningham, Bernice Abbott, Laura Gilpin, Evon Streetman, Francesca Woodman, Carrie Mae Weems, Mary Ellen Mark, Linda Connor, Annie Leibovitz, Lorna Simpson, Susan Meiselas, Donna Ferrato, Deborah Luster, Debbie Fleming Caffery and Sally Mann? Perhaps. We have seen only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to prints from Vivian Maier’s thousands of negatives. Hundreds of rolls remain undeveloped. When the legal wrangling is all said and done, we can expect that more of her work will be brought to light.

Other Streets: Photographs from the Collection

Speaking of wanting to see more, the UK Art Museum has put up an excellent selection of street photography from its collection to help place Maier’s work in a broader context. As you leave the thoughtfully-sequenced Maier exhibit, take a right and you will find prints by Magnum great Bruce Davidson. Take a second right down the next hallway and you’ll see images by Lexington Camera Club members Van Deren Coke, Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Robert C. May—early documentary work from the 1950s. Several of Garry Winogrand’s “Women Are Beautiful” photographs are on the opposite wall.

Together, the two exhibits remind us of the important role the UK Art Museum has played in the regional photographic community, especially over the past 18 years, since Bob May’s bequest begat the excellent lecture series that bears his name, and funds were earmarked for exhibits and the purchase of prints. The museum has expanded its collection and made photography a point of emphasis in its programming. We can thank Bob, and the museum staff for that.

Arts

Uncanny Nanny: The Intrigue of Vivian Maier

Six years after their public introduction, Vivian Maier’s photographs still exude mystery and prompt intrigue. Working as a nanny in Chicago during the fifties and sixties, Maier documented her surroundings — and often herself — but ironically we know little about her life. Vivian Maier: On the Street at The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky presents a monographic exhibition of thirty black and white photographs, including abstract self portraits and intimate glimpses into the lives of both Chicago’s working class and elite aristocrats.The scope of the exhibition provides a perspective of Maier’s surroundings, while at the same time offering viewers a deeper connection with the photographer and her Rolleiflex camera.

However socially and aesthetically infatuating, the legal underpinnings of Maier’s photographs remain overarching. In 2007, two years before her death, her negatives were auctioned off along with the rest of the contents of her storage unit as the result of nonpayment. Since then, her work has been reproduced, edited, and resold to private galleries and collectors. An onslaught of intellectual property debates and ethical questions still permeate Chicago courtrooms. In sum, Maier’s oeuvre has been posthumously constructed and aggrandized by those with a market share in her life and work.

While this aspect of Maier’s entrance into the mainstream is a basis for contention (but not entirely unique — this happens all too frequently in the art world), I think there is more at play in our vehement attraction to her photographs than just market controversy. Perhaps this is why On The Street resists a dialogue about ethics and legalities. Although the entrance wall text states that the selected photographs are pulled from the John Maloof Collection (Maloof is just one of the original purchasers of Maier’s defunct storage unit), no details are provided about the legalities of his purchase. Instead, the viewer is presented with another concern: the entrance of unknown “artists of consequence” into the canon of art history.

The works chosen for display for On the Street provide viewers with a multi-faceted view of city life through the lens of Maier’s camera. Each image seems at once familiar and uncanny — we can recognize the ebb and flow of city life, but only though Maier’s abstract angles and intense shadows. While some of Maier’s subjects are aware of their subjectiveness, others are oblivious — they are presented as anonymous, fragmented bodies. Ubiquitous shadows seem to be subjects themselves: Maier frequently makes them the focus of her self portraits. Indeed, there is something dream-like about Maier’s use of light and line, shadow and shape — her Surrealist predecessors applied many of the same techniques to their own photography.

Although the exhibition of thirty photographs seems small in comparison to the number of negatives available from the Maloof Collection, the time required to absorb Maier’s work is proportionate. Each photograph is remarkably detailed — and one journey through On the Street is not enough to fully immerse oneself in Maier’s world. The exhibition is comprised of single images and groupings of two and four photographs: children, city streets, women, transportation, and leisure, to name a few. Contextualizing these selected photographs provides a comprehensive survey of her subject matter, allowing viewers to connect her daily activities with the people and places she chose to capture on film.

On the Street is located in the back corner of the museum, which seems an odd fit for Maier’s work — the exhibition almost suffocates in its compact space. The intensity of Maier’s photography needs a precise “breathability,” something the back gallery ultimately lacks. Perhaps in attempt to mediate the small space, each photograph is surrounded with a large white mat and delicate silver frame. While this gesture helps aerate the body of work, the lack of space remains a dominant issue.

An observer of the everyday, Maier was able to capture the humanism and humor of daily life. This is evident through On the Street, which treats her work as both a time capsule and an autobiography. It succeeds by presenting her photographs as documents of a time passed, but also through examining the photographer’s importance and artistic resonance. While viewers are asked to question Maier’s undoubtable skill in relation to formally trained photographers of her time, I wish to offer a thematic addendum: should we ignore the fact she may not have wanted her life and work displayed publicly? Who truly owns Maier’s work — and should we be content with others profiting from her anonymity?