There are moments in contemporary art where one is confronted with the big question: Why do I need to contemplate an exhibition when it looks conventional? Hasn’t this been done before?
“Elevated” at Copley Society of Art (CoSo) is one of those scream-less conundrum exhibitions. It is a quiet medium-sized national photography show featuring 30 works by both CoSo members and non-members juried by Robert Klein of Robert Klein Gallery that’s on view through October 3. As expected, in a contemporary exhibition, the works on view are in black and white and color formats and range in subject from landscape to figurative, and the display set-up is commercial in that the work is framed and easy to sell.
The photographers showcased are Doug Adams, Frank Bartucca, David Lee Black, Sally Bousquet, Dan Cook, John Dalterio, Jim Ferguson, Tim Hale, Robert Hein, Andrea Kemler, Keri McAndrews, Brian McDonald, Acadia Mezzofanti, Juan Murray, Paul M. Murray, Ann Marie O’Dowd, Roger Palframan, Joe Reardon, Suzanne Revy, Tony Schwartz, Michael Sterling, Max Stern and Timothy Wilson.
Awards in “Elevated” went to Michael Sterling (First Place for “Period Piece”); Doug Adams (Second Place for “Tribal Expression”); Juan Murray (Third Place for “Lafayette & Co.”); and Sally Bousquet (Juror’s Choice for “Deep End”).
At first reading, in-spite of subject and style diversity, there is nothing extraordinarily new about the photographs on view. In other words — nothing avant-garde. Each photograph lives within a standard recognizable contemporary category. So, what’s the twist? Why should you go see it? Why should you think about it at all?
The Why? is found within the purpose of the exhibition: in talking casually with CoSo’s executive director, Suzan Redgate, she said that Robert Klein was firm in that he didn’t want to look at “just pretty pictures.” What was meant by “pretty” was not defined by Redgate.
In working with Klein, CoSo did something smart: they set-up an important, almost unanswerable, question that is luscious with controversy because it argues the condition of what is considered fine art. Most people hate the term. The exhibition asks: What elevates photography to fine art?
The other smart marketing and conversation point achieved by Copley is in the selection of the photographs featured on the large outdoor vertical banner that hangs in front of the building. These pictures give the viewer an introduction to what Copley identifies as fine art.
The topmost photograph is “Excess,” a sensual black and white figurative composition in which a cloudy liquid and white lace are combined with feminine legs, hands and arms by David Lee Black, who is also honored as the exhibition’s featured artist on the promotional postcard.
Lee Black’s photograph is an excellent attention-grabbing pretty image because of the obvious beauty and graceful and respectful sexiness, a style-point that is typical of Lee Black’s pictures of women. Having a female form on an outdoor poster automatically snags a response, and in itself, beings up other elemental realities about the nature of human behavior.
Is this the male gaze as work here? Yes, it is, but it’s one in which there is profound admiration for the subject instead of objectification. And, more importantly, the picture provokes active story and movement instead of passivity.
Beneath the female action shot, is another figurative work, contrasting the one above it — “Tribal Expression,” a dramatic and stunning portrait of a black youth whose face is decorated with yellow and orange paint, by internationally admired CoSo member, Doug Adams, from his Indigenous Culture Series.
With Adams, we have a picture of a subject that is other than the default standard and therefore it radiates an expansive energy that gathers in curiosity from the viewer. Adams is respected for his extensive travels around the world working simultaneously within the photo-journalist and documentary area and the fine-art platform. Personally, I found it interesting that he grew up in California and Nebraska.
The third picture is Timothy Wilson’s “Depth Numbers,” a picture of the bottom-back end of a boat constructed to focus in on the form: geometric lines, material texture and minimalist aesthetics. Wilson’s picture is a favorite of Redgate, who said she liked it because of her personal involvement with sailing.
Wilson’s objective as a photographer is to remake real objects into abstraction. On his website, he features several more photographs within his Boat Yard Series in which he plays with photography as a tool for negating subject identity and presenting it as pure form.
Returning to the exhibition’s main question — “What elevates photography to fine art?” — it is necessary to look at two objectives and process points, existing as a paradox: technical precision and craft and emotive expression. The goal for all photographers (all artists, truly) should always be to achieve a balance between perfection and structure and spontaneity and imperfection. But here’s the thing: the balance can’t be faked, it must arrive naturally through talent, another difficult to define the condition and study, practice and experience.
Fine-Art exists at the place I call the Flow Point Balance — the paradox cross-section where Truth is achieved. The final, formal work of Art is an Experience, not just an Object. So, what does this mean? Easy: it’s a constructed physical thing that radiates the experience of its production and process and the signature voice of the artist/maker/author as a crafts-person.
The other element to always remember is that all photographs are pictures: they are made by the camera. Pictures are constructions. Therefore, all photographs are partial truth compositions, heavily edited, like paintings, prints and all art. The camera can sometimes capture invisibility, what the human eye does not see; likewise, the human artist has the power to falsify, highlight, spotlight and bring-out information and built up narrative and scenarios that hint at reality — that’s Art.
You can teach the skill of photography, but the talent of photography can’t be taught — it arrives, if it’s there at all, very slowly from the depths of the soul. That is why some photographers are terrible picture makers no matter how well they can master the F-stop.
Speaking via email about his First Place photograph, “Period Piece,” and the experience of making it at Fort Adams In Newport, Rhode Island, Sterling, who does a fine job at tackling the problem of elevation to fine art, wrote: “This image was in a drawing room in the officer’s quarters. Why? I was taken by the geometric lines of the obviously decaying structure. Surrounded by walls falling apart, there is a very well-preserved piece of period furniture in the center. The tonality, almost monochrome tans, and browns give it a look that works together. I additionally wanted to include some depth in the image by including the doorway on the left.”
Sterling was generous in sharing his view on what is fine-art photography, writing, that it’s “similar to what is found in fine art painting, should generate an emotional reaction in the viewer. It is not strictly a literal portrayal of the subject. Rather, it must project the photographer’s vision and emotional reaction to the scene.”
What Sterling is conveying, in words and photographs, is the importance of observation and slow contemplation. He makes good pictures because he’s comfortable with silence and watchfulness. “Period Piece” captures the unevenness of decay, while the walls in the old room are crumbling, the 19th century mini-dresser side table refuses to die. Sterling is doing what Wright Morris did with his work: venerating time and allowing the ghosts of the past to haunt the present.
Of all the artists in the exhibition who best engage the problem of fine art photography, Suzanne Revy is the master. She is showing “Galaxy in the Bedroom,” a color photograph of glow-in-dark stars and planet stickers on the ceiling of a bedroom. The picture has been constructed to highlight space and shape contrast in which the triad corner of the ceiling dialogues with the assemblage of mixed-shaped stickers.
Her other picture, “Hotel Window,” is a figurative-landscape-interior space work showing the back of a young boy in shadow looking out a large square foggy window as if the place outside was an alien ethereal world. Both these images, silent in look, radiate a weird vibrational energy.
I first noticed Revy’s work in a university exhibition in Nebraska a few summers ago that focused on aspects of motherhood. At that time, I was thinking of writing a review of the exhibition but I felt too close to the subject emotionally and therefore couldn’t pull it off as a critic because I wasn’t objective enough.
In the motherhood exhibition, Revy presented a group of casual, yet psychologically inner pictures of her children, in commonplace scenarios that were technically about the experience of light, which is her signature working method and inner voice. To understand Revy’s obsession with light, follow her on Instagram where she regularly posts images of mundane environments that hold compelling light activity.
Revy’s pictures are not technically perfect and she breaks out of the need to achieve mathematical accuracy. For her, it’s about what’s often ignored and ephemeral. Via email, she told me, “I’m interested in the things that are close to me as my subject. My children and the spaces in my home have been the main focus of my photographic attention over the past 15 years.
“The two images at Copley are selections from a series called “I Could Not Prove the Years Had Feet” which is the third of three visual diaries of my children where we started when they were toddlers. “Hotel Window” was made on a trip to visit grandparents during the holidays, and we all showered to get ready that morning, the window fogged up with condensation as my younger son got dressed, so I quickly made a few pictures.”
Revy achieves Flow Point Balance in that she is skilled and trained in looking at and making pictures and open to spontaneity and naturalness. In answering the conundrum’s question of what elevates a photograph to the fine art, she was specific in what needs to be done: “By employing things like framing, form, line, scale, color light, I hope to endow an ordinary moment or a mundane item with something surprising or emotional. My hope is to take that ordinary place and make it more compelling. It’s not always present in every photograph, but when all those elements come together, the content of the photograph moves past the subject and can become transcendent. It elevates the image into art. I never know what when it will happen while I’m exposing the film.”
Other photographers who achieve the same unexpected activity in the CoSo exhibition is Keri McAndrews in the black and white “Shadows of a Blind” and Juan Murray’s “Lafayette and Co.”
Moving back to Lee Black, along with the aforementioned image, he is also showing a picture called “Wandress …” that is good, but I don’t like it as fine art. It lacks the artist’s signature voice. It looks like a picture that was made for a client for the purpose of promoting a product or cause. It shows legs in red boots walking on a stovetop while the electric burners are glowing red. As a commercial “for hire” photograph, it is excellent in creativity, overall design, composition, color and lighting. But it does not radiate the internal voice of Lee Black. Another photographer could easily make the same picture, therefore it is not fine art.
I asked Lee Black to explain himself, to help me see what I’m not reading in the picture. “Wandress is part of Red Boot Project, a photographic journey into Breast Cancer Awareness where a dear friend has a breast tumor, named it Walter and began her “F*** You Walter” approach as a coping skill,” he said in response. “When asked to do a photography project, we decided to ignore Walter completely and simply show the other half of her vibrant life in the domiciliary domain with her Bog Boots.”
Lee Black’s explanation gives “Wandress . . . “process context, but it still does not elevate the final picture itself to the next level of Art for the reasons I explained above. The final picture is too much of a directed portrait and too obvious in form in spite of its creative staging and hidden purpose. What’s interesting and ironic about “Wandress…” is that my dislike of the photograph encouraged me to think about it, to obsess over it, and to talk about it in this review. In my attempt to deconstruct it, I’ve given it more importance than it merits.
Likewise, Klein selected it for inclusion in the exhibition, so it must be Art. Given that Lee Black is spotlighted by Copley on the show’s postcard and poster, I was hard on him with my questioning. In response, he wrote, “What elevates a photograph into fine art? A large question but I think first of what it is not. Fine art photography is not about documenting what exactly appears in front of the camera. To me, that is photojournalism. Fine art photography is about what the artist ‘sees,’ not about what the camera sees.”
My other favorite conundrums in “Elevated” are by Ann Marie O’ Dowd (“Kim”), Tim Hale (“Memorial Day, Boston Common”), John Dalteiro (“Fall, Winter”) and Acadia Mezzofanti (“Mornings II”).
Copley Society of Art’s “Elevated” exhibition does what is necessary: it engages in a difficult argument about the potential haughtiness of the fine art label, causing the viewer to consider what is pretty, and the condition of good art versus bad art.
In reality, all art is good and all art is beautiful; but not all art is fine art, and not all art is quality art — and that’s perfectly acceptable. Along those lines, poet E.E. Cummings said it best: “seeker of truth, follow no path, all paths lead, where truth is here.”
(“Elevated” can be seen through October 3 at the Copley Society of Art, 158 Newbury St., Boston, Massachusetts. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. and on Sunday from noon-5 p.m. For more information, call (617) 536-5049 or visit copleysociety.org.)