In a felicitous partnership of intellect and resources, the U-M Museum of Art is letting eminent U-M faculty members curate exhibitions of artworks drawn from UMMA’s vast collection. But there’s a catch: each faculty member must select works outside his or her area of specialty.
Who says tenure is without its challenges?
Limiting or liberating, this one condition forms the basis of an UMMA series entitled Flip Your Field. The current exhibition features photographs chosen by U-M art professor Larry Cressman, whose innovative body of work has explored expressive qualities of the line in drawing, printmaking, and installation pieces.
Cressman chose two contrasting arrangements of photographs. On one wall looms a dense, salon-style array of photographs of trees. According to his curator’s statement, they represent traditional photography and relatively straightforward techniques in image making. On an adjacent wall, there is a linear, museum-style display of images that don’t look like photos at all–experimental works that push the margins of the medium. The contrast is visually striking and provides a suitable context for viewing individual photographs within each group.
In the traditional group, the close proximity of nearly thirty photographs of trees evokes a forest. The eye flits from one tree to the next, from the stark clarity of bone-white trunks against a black background in Ansel Adams’ “Aspens (vertical), Northern New Mexico” (1958) to fog-hugged evergreens in Hosain Mosavat’s “Fog–Yosemite, CA” (1980). The salon arrangement minimizes the impact of any one individual photograph and encourages us to make connections between adjacent images, to note juxtapositions or parallels in technique, vision, mood, and setting. Two especially fascinating neighbors are French photographer Eugene Cuvelier’s “Forest of Fontainebleau” (ca. 1863) and the Soviet photojournalist Dmitri Baltermants’ “Tree Study (Homage to Rodchenko)” (2003). These two photographs–the group’s oldest and newest, respectively–are temporal worlds apart, and they provide us with two distinct views: in Cuvelier’s, a long and interminable leaf-strewn trail through woods, and in Baltermants’, a swath of sky nestled in the canopy directly overhead. Yet both images capture a depth that verges on the infinite.
The experimental group contains about ten works whose discrete spacing accentuates their singularity and innovation. A few pre-Photoshop images throw real sparks, including two photomontages by the influential American photographer Barbara Morgan. In Ernestine Ruben’s ethereal photograph “Untitled” (2005), we seem to be looking out a window, through diaphanous curtains. These painterly effects were created through the gum bichromate printing process, which originated in the nineteenth century.
While the exhibition doesn’t attempt to reconcile its two halves, it’s nonetheless easy to step back and behold photographs spanning centuries and continents that–traditional or experimental–provide us with uncommon representations of the world.
The exhibit runs through March 16.