Thursday, August 4, 2011

Moving Beyond Violence & Despair

Moving Beyond Violence & Despair / Toward Hope & Restoration: 
Cleveland Photographers Respond


Projection always hides a feeling you don't want to look at. If you examine any negative trait you insist is present in another person, you will find that same trait hiding in yourself. The more you deny this trait, the more strongly you will have to project it.

Dr. Deepak Chopra



“When it comes to photographs, we are all deconstructionists now. After thirty years of Derrida, Foucault, and Baudrillard, anyone can confidently (if incorrectly) proclaim that photographs lie, manipulate, oppress; that they are ‘fictive constructs’ and ‘discourses of power;’ that they reveal only their own prejudices, not objective reality; that they express privilege, never truth. Yet more and more, it is upon these presumably meretricious, morally stained documents that we rely—not just to bring us news of the world, but to form our ethical and political consciousness and even, sometimes, to determine our actions.”

Susie Linfield

From the article “Capture the Moment: On the Uses and Misuses of Photojournalism,” 
Boston Review (April/May 2001)




As popular as he is, I confess I don’t read Chopra. I have only a cursory familiarity with his thoughts and writing; I stumbled across the reference above while thinking about the phrase “Moving Beyond Violence and Despair.”  (I was asked to curate an exhibition of contemporary photography with a Cleveland, Ohio-centric focus to address the theme). What caught my eye—my sustained attention—in Chopra’s passage was the word “projection,” a term I am much more accustomed to thinking about relative to my usual reading fare of photo-literature, photographic criticism, visual perception, and art history. In example, and admittedly in my own unfashionable way, I was quick to reflect upon John Szarkowski’s exhibition and catalogue Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960, held at The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1978. Often criticized through our post-modern era for overly reductive simplicity, the interpretive strategies of thinking about the photographic image as a mirror of self, or as a window unto the world (and every permutation in-between), I find useful here. 

Historically predisposed, or perhaps handicapped depending on one’s point of view, the first images I draw upon when I think of “projection” are similar to the illustration here in reference to the development of linear perspective from the Renaissance forward—a mathematically correct system by which the 3-dimensional world is rendered onto a 2-dimensional surface. 


This arduously acquired skill of spatial interpretation—our western preoccupation with this rational order of space as “correct,” as “picture perfect,” or as things should be—is built into our cameras through centuries of scientific, artistic, and technological advancement. We don’t have to think about it or do the math. (That’s not necessarily a good thing). As photographers and presenters, what we often think about, and hopefully take responsibility for, is how we gather, create, and “project” information to the viewer. And perhaps the exhibition “Moving Beyond Violence and Despair” will raise questions about the actions we take, or don’t take, in response to the image as perceived. Frances Richard writes in “The Thin Artifact: On Photography and Suffering” which appeared in the December 13, 2010 edition of The Nation: “The question is how we do this. How to look into a flat smear of ink or emulsion? In his book-length essay Camera Lucida (1981), in which he discusses the notion of the punctum, [Roland] Barthes speaks of his desire to ‘turn the photograph over, to enter into the paper's depth, to reach its other side.’ This is just what a photograph can't allow. How, then, to comprehend the thin artifact, especially when it shows people we'll never know under duress? Is it always right to look? Is it ever all right to turn away? What do we learn, and can such lessons translate beyond passive beholding into political or existential acts?”

In reference to the state of photojournalism at the time and the decline of picture magazines during the 1950s, Szarkowski wrote in his above-mentioned catalogue, “Good photographers had long since known—whether or not they admitted it to their editors—that most issues of importance cannot be photographed.” Today, I think I understand what he meant. When it comes to the ideal of moving beyond violence and despair toward hope and restoration, I rather favor the work of looking within ourselves, through the “depth,” to reach that “other side”—and that is a process that the photographers included in this exhibition seek to explore and share. 

Charles Mintz
“Loli Kantor” from the series Precious Objects (2011)
31” x 17 “ inkjet print with scanned hand-written text on washi 


Text reads: "This is my mother's handwritten letter, dated April 21, 1946. My mother Lola Kantor, died in childbirth with me. This is the only handwritten piece by my mother that I own." 


If I accept Chopra’s message, then every person in my life who has ever ruffled my feathers has the potential to serve as a truthful mirror, a reflection of self deeper than appearance—or perhaps a window unto self. What do I do with this information? It stands to reason that what I do is a measure of how I interpret the image in the mirror—or the window—as the case may be. No matter the root of violence and despair—be it hatred, fear, loneliness, abuse, difference, greed, scarcity of material and resources, self-loathing—the precious movement toward hope and restoration begins as an inside job. 

Saturday, April 30, 2011

On Fire

It is hard for me to view any color photographic images, especially family snapshots (of any family, not just my own), made during the 60’s and 70’s without being immediately transported to the specific scent of place and time. It is not so much about styles of the time, make of automobiles, or other distinguishing characteristics or markers of time; Rather, it is the visual power of palette, about the particularities of color—akin to a kind of olfactory sense (such as blossoming trees) to track moments in my life. Instantaneous and miraculous is this bridging of the trail of time. I was thinking about this while playing football with my son outside just now... so I made this iPhone picture of my son, which could have been me in the late 60's to early 70's. 







It is a beautiful day in Cleveland, Ohio, this last day of April. So beautiful is the quality of light, the color it produces, the senses it heightens—especially in light of the rainiest month of April in recorded history (pun intended)—that I am so compelled to come inside and write these notes down…  





In the late 1970s, German photographer Joachim Brohm began to explore color photography to reflect upon the world around him. Joachim and I were students together at The Ohio State University around that time (he was on a Fulbright scholarship as a graduate student and I was doing my undergrad work). At that time, color photographs were widely accepted in commercial markets such as advertising and family snapshots, but less so in the art world. In fact, up until the mid- to late 1970s, color photography, as an artistic medium or as a sophisticated documentary approach to the medium, was unusual—if not unacceptable—as a serious form of photographic exploration.





















© Joachim Brohm, On Fire, from the series "Ohio," 1983-84
chromogenic print on crystal archive paper, 50x60cm



Joachim’s work was quite possibly my first critical introduction to the “idea” of color in photography as an expressive device. Color was of course being taught at OSU in closed, closeted, little rooms with no ventilation and open-bin processors with the smell of chemistry wafting in one’s face as the processing drum spun in total darkness. Ah… the images that smell alone can conjure from total darkness. Still, black and white ruled the day. Brohm eschewed the predominant convention of black and white photography as the fine art medium of serious expression. A few other photographers who challenged such widely-held views were Americans such as William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. For instance, William Eggleston's work was featured in an exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1976, which was accompanied by the now classic volume William Eggleston's Guide. This exhibition is regarded as a pivotal moment in the history of photography, by signaling “the acceptance of colour photography by the highest validating institution,” as Mark Holborn has stated. Eggleston's was the first one-person exhibition of color photographs in the history of The Museum of Modern Art. Brohm took Eggelston, and others such as Stephen Shore and William Christenberry, as his model. Brohm’s pioneering achievements have largely been overshadowed by the fact that the international success of contemporary German art photography is primarily associated with the “Becher” or “Dusseldorf School.” Yet Brohm’s first color photographs predate his contemporaries such as Andreas Gursky and Candida Hofer by several years. Brohm is of singular importance when we examine the influence of American color photography on contemporary European practice today.

How fascinating that something as pervasive as the color photograph, notations taken so much for granted as the way we see, that we can choose so easily to not see them. Yet, these images can inform so deeply our understanding of the world around us, and like Joachim’s work, so quietly shape cultural conditions. So commonplace, so everyday, yet so extraordinary! Like the air we breathe, I often notice it more when it’s depleted, than appreciate every moment in which I comfortably draw each and every breath. Sometimes I need to stop, be still, pay attention, and take notes. Now, I have to go play ball…

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Photobook Life

For inside him there are spirits, or at least little genii, which have seen to it that for a collector—and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be—ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.

—Walter Benjamin, from Illuminations, “Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting”


I first read Benjamin’s essay sometime in the early 1980s, many years after its original publication. But it hit me with a currency that only comes with recognition. Here was someone describing what some may deem an obsessive relationship to books—his library—with an intensity and passion of new love. This struck me because describing that relationship in words is like trying to define good leadership: I’m not sure I can define it, but I sure know it when I see it. The first time I saw this personified was with my old friend and mentor Alex Sweetman in 1983. I helped move and unpack Alex’s book collection from a van and massive trailer stalled by weight of books on the back steeps of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Boulder, CO. Good times!

Backchat

I went to Boulder in 1983 to study with Alex, in part, and pursue my master’s degree at the University of Colorado. I had always loved books, and I began collecting photobooks around 1980 during my undergrad work at Ohio State. My professor Allan Sekula suggested that Alex might be a good person with whom to continue my studies—given the whole “book thing” and all. So off I went never looking back. 

Fast Forward

As some of you know, I moved about 9 months ago and I am still birthing the remaining few boxes of packed books. There have been times during my many moves around the country that I regretted the excessive weight; it is exhausting but fantastic, like that heavy image in fantastic memory I carry with me of Alex’s stalled, oversized, over-stuffed, yellow van on the side of that mountain road, so fully incapacitated by the weight of extraordinary things. There is rarely a moment when I think of books that I don’t think of Alex. I remember every single moment in bookstores, antiquarian fairs, shows, and sales of all descriptions; with him, every moment an adventure and an extraordinary story to share:

On Broadway in NYC during the Rodney King verdict riots we looked at a collection of dada and surrealist periodicals for hours upon hours while the streets were storming with people shouting, “No justice, no peace!” I knew the collection well as I had spent many months working with the material for an exhibition, so I feared for our safety instead. Alex, on the other hand, shrugged it off and continued to focus on printed matter, living in the seeing of the next one, and the next one, and the next one… completely undisturbed by the chaos mounting in the streets. How dada.

Acquired at a bookshop on the Hill, 



Boulder, CO, in 1984
One time he showed up, unexpectedly, on my porch in Rochester, NY, with a trunk load of books weighing down the back-end of a borrowed car parked on the street. He acquired the books during a “quick errand to fetch a loaf of bread.” Considering the bread errand was launched from Syracuse—two hours away, it is a pretty funny image of him standing on my porch in Rochester. (He was visiting from Colorado over the Thanksgiving holiday, and he had been staying in Syracuse with family). He hit every book dealer between Syracuse and Rochester that day while running his quick errand to the corner store back in Syracuse. After a couple of hours passed, my phone rang. I answered and the first thing I heard was a question terse as statement: “Is he there?” How his wife (at the time), Barbara Jo, knew—with such conviction—that he wound up at my place, a 2-hour’s drive away, implicates me in a fellowship of extraordinary proportions. The first step is admitting you have a problem.

A gift received from Nathan Lyons, 



Christmas 1994
Like the countless stories and anecdotes I could relay about my brilliant friend, every book on my shelf contains a story and a singular association to a person, place, or thing. What system of order that prescribes! Yet, when it comes to finding order on the shelves from the chaos of opened boxes, I am in my element, right at home, living present of mind. I arrange and find value in relationships created among the books in which I can score my life. New meanings, new associations, new experiences, enter—found in the openness of the hunt. I need to remind myself daily to apply this same sense of wonder, appreciation, and openness in all my affairs… When I do, there is always less weight to carry. 

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Ruthless Concentration

“…a ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self . . . is the mark of Hell.”

—C. S. Lewis


There is a “discussion” taking place in one of the groups I joined on a professional, social media site. I am not going to spend the time looking it up to reference, but an artist is asking: “Why are gallery owners so arrogant to new artists?” 

I know, it is unfortunate that the artist is having such a hellish time of it… But the question is both funny and sad. It is funny because of the presumption of its own optimal relevance—in a sweeping, over-generalizing kind of way. It is sad because arrogance is not uncommon—certainly no more common (none, goose egg, nada, zip) in gallery directors than in any other walk of life, occupation, or avocation, including artists. I know from experience that whenever I point my finger at someone, there are usually three fingers pointing back at me. So I try to ameliorate rather than point. It’s the “man in the mirror” kind of thing for me today... just saying.

In previous posts I have written about the importance I place on relationships and interactions with others. The value created in my life is directly proportional to the quality of my relationships in all matters. I want to build wealth. But relationships are always a two-way street—I can only keep my side of the road clean. Not everyone plays along (I will not kick my high chair over this). I am limited in my capacity to care-take, although I have spent years trying to do this with some individuals—even an artist or two. My bad.

I am not going to please everyone, satisfy all needs, or be adequately responsive (at least by some estimations) to everyone who may come aknockin’.  I am only setting myself up for failure in thinking that I am that capable or that important. With the knowledge that some may exceed my grasp, I gratefully extend my hand and freely give my best, no matter how flawed my effort may be perceived.  


© James B. Wyman


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Whose Griot You?

I love stories. Good ones don’t always come easy—whether in the telling—or in the receiving.

There are all kinds of stories in all kinds of forms: oral, written, visual, musical, and everything in between and beyond. Inevitably, the most powerful stories for me come from the heart to touch the heart, no matter what form they may take. They are real, palpable, genuine.

The popular author Spencer Johnson wrote, “Integrity is telling myself the truth. And honesty is telling the truth to other people.” Pretty simple stuff not so simple or pretty to get: Truth in telling, in all forms, starts with getting honest with myself. 

Throughout my career as a curator, I have been fortunate to work with countless artists, scholars, and associates to help them shape and tell their stories in the myriad forms of public exhibitions, interpretive materials, and publications of their work including some of the great artists (qua storytellers) of our time. From the social realism of Betye Saar, Jeffrey and Meg Henson Scales, to the filmic narratives of sculptor Gregory Barsamian, to the functional wares of ceramicist Linda Arbuckle, to the minimalism of British photographer Andy Lock, to the architectural monumentality of public artists Athena Tacha and Maya Lin, these extraordinary experiences have given me countless stories from which to draw. 

I approach this work in trusted partnership with those in which I am engaged, as a civic servant in the public eye, and as such, I have sometimes heard things that I don’t necessarily enjoy hearing. Yet, I’m grateful to hear them. Humbling as it may be, I am better for it, never weaker. I believe the old adage that “a true scholar is constantly amazed at how little he knows.” So I ask myself: Am I teachable today?

No question… I have done wrong things, and done things wrong in some areas of my life. There were those times when I held distaste for even the idea of humility—not even being aware of the foul taste in my mouth. I need to vigilantly watch for this. (Thankfully, my friends do a pretty thorough job of this for me, too!) Today I seek those extraordinary stories yet to be drawn upon, with the character to acquire just a taste of humility as something to be desired for itself.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the character Polonius offers these words to his son:

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Some Artist’s Bath

The artist Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970) wrote in his essay The Artist’s Dilemma: “What is the popular conception of the artist? Gather a thousand descriptions, and the resulting composite is the portrait of a moron: he is held to be childish, irresponsible, and ignorant or stupid in everyday affairs.”

I find the statement as humorous and disconcerting as this tongue-in-cheek pinhole photograph I made in 1989 at the height of the Culture Wars:























Some Artist’s Bath, color-coupler print, © James B. Wyman (1989)



Rothko philosophized a lot, and about a lot of different things, very little of which makes much sense to me as compared to his painting. But unfortunately, he was probably correct on the subject of “popular conception.” How ironic that throughout human history and with the distance of time, we often assess the significance of a society by its artistic and cultural achievements.

I had a recent personal, “in my face” reminder of the reality of how the arts are marginalized in our society. I was talking with a friend who expressed concern that my time would be better spent elsewhere than writing my thoughts on my “worthless” blog. He added it was time wasted, and not quantifiably sound relative to my immediate income needs. He’s right about that!—at least compared to the ways in which I can quantify my work and leadership roles in raising tens of millions of dollars for the cultural institutions I have served. He’s one of my closest friends. I love him dearly and he is one of those guys that would do anything for me at the drop of a hat, and he has done that a lot. I value his input even though we don’t agree on many social and political issues.

Then, moments later, I read in the Los Angeles Times Sarah Palin’s rant against funding for the arts and education:
 "NPR, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, all those kind of frivolous things that government shouldn't be in the business of funding with tax dollars—those should all be on the chopping block as we talk about the $14-trillion debt that we're going to hand to our kids and our grandkids." And at the time of this writing, in Washington, the House voted to end federal funding to National Public Radio with the added statement that we can no longer afford this luxury. Suddenly, it’s getting hotter in here…

The FY 2010 budget for National Endowment for the Arts was approximately $167 million (pennies for the average taxpayer). We spend $500 billion (half a trillion, folks!) a year incarcerating non-violent offenders for crimes committed directly related to drugs and alcohol, and the myriad attending social and healthcare costs. We spend this rather than on inner-city programs such as education, prevention, and the kinds of cultural programs which have proven to reduce crime, increase our taxpayer base, and create the single greatest revenue source in U.S. tourist dollars—returns on investment that dwarf revenue generated by the NFL.

I could go on and on, putting together facts and figures to support any position, opinion, or argument I choose—and so could you; But my friend’s admonishment had the desired effect. So, rather than pointing my finger at political figures and opposing views from those views I value and hold dear, I have to ask myself: What is my part in all of this? What is my contribution to where we are right now relative to popular conceptions and the value of the arts in our society? …For “our kids and our grandkids," Sarah!

Today, if I question the challenges or struggles in my life in this way, I inevitably conclude that I am lucky to have the opportunity to have the problems that I have. I have the freedom to solve them, the choice to step into the solution—which for me, in good measure, is to create opportunities to learn from each other, challenge each other, in all of our diversity, to seek and provide the kind of transformative experiences that make the arts central to the fiber and identity of the communities I serve. If this blog reaches only one person, then I have succeeded on some level, and that is better than nothing. It is better than finding blame.

In this space, I am free to concentrate on culture and character. I am free to do this because I am a citizen of the U.S., I have a Mac, a roof over my head, food in my belly, health, the love of family and friends—and my basic needs are met. What luxuries. What gifts. The ongoing tragedy in Japan brings this all the more to light.

Am I grateful enough?


P.S.

…And Rick, my dear friend, perhaps one person out there will read this, respect my credentials, accomplishments—and the character I possess today—and offer me that next great opportunity to be of maximum service… 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Isolator

I’m not sure I could articulate in words and writing a reasoned understanding of the work of American artist Joseph Cornell (1903–1972). I wouldn’t want to. My love of Cornell comes from another place where no words can be appreciably formed into sentences. A place of intuition that so sufficiently eclipses any kind of academic blather that I am capable of spewing that my friends in choral unison sing: “Thank God!”

My favorite poet T.S. Eliot wrote about such a place—at least to me—in The Hollow Men:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow


Conscious reasoning, spiritual insight, intuition… There are all kinds of understanding: the feeling we get when a look in the eyes cuts like a knife (check, I understand that), or a gaze that fills your soul (check, I understand that, too). I fall short between the idea and the reality to describe with crafted sentences those derailing moments—be they bad or good. I’m not equipped to be the writer I would like to be. I have long sought greater minds, vehicles, methodologies, and interpretive strategies in the effort to connect us to one another, like the hundreds of art exhibitions, publications, and programs I have organized or been fortunate enough to play a part. I try to choose the best tools for the job, and with this blog post, I reach for equivalency; Like Alfred Stieglitz’s “Equivalents,” a series of photographs of clouds (1925-1934) that are recognized as the first photographs intended to free the subject matter from literal interpretation.

I’m not so delusional to think I’ll hit the mark every time for everyone—or even be close for that matter—no matter what idioms or assemblages thereof I choose. I know that kind of perfection does not exist, yet I can chase it as if it were a destination within reach. I need to reframe the picture: I’m better off with seeking and investigating. It is a better place to be than the consuming shadow of self; and that is a feeling that I understand, too. I have been guilty of being boxed-up in my own private Cornell.

Cornell built or used found boxes to house his constructed assemblages and tableaux that, as some scholars suggest, reveal an inner theatre of the mind. As his diaries and correspondence clearly reveal, he was in contact with a lot of artists and he was actively showing his work. But he was an isolator, and that is a state of mind. “Wherever you go, there you are.” This trait of personality made him appear an idiot savant whose combinatory virtuosity seemed like effortless child-play to many people who interpreted his work as intuitive accidents. That’s so not right. I’m reminded of another favorite quote of mine:

There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation.

—Herbert Spencer (British social philosopher, 1820-1903)


Yes, I understand Cornell was an isolator. I recognize the visual language. I’m fluent. But I also feel this in his work. When I look into the eyes of someone in pain and despair, I feel the kind of connection with which only two words come: “I understand.” And that connectedness is always found in the seeking. If my eyes are open, I always get it, and only then can I share in an outward-bound explosion into life with joy, passion, and productivity. What insanity should close us down, stop us dead in our tracks from making the motion to connect, the action to be a part of—to understand? On any level, fear is a downward spiral; I’ll get off here, thank you!

To me, Cornell found meaningful equivalents through subtle and profound associations that say, “I understand,” in all its permutations. He did that with daunting consistency. I want that! When I look at his work, any work—you choose… I am connected, I am plugged-in, man! And that is perfectly adequate for me.