Thursday, April 27, 2017

Mitch Epstein — New York Trees, Rocks & Clouds @ Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire

Mitch Epstein, Clouds #86, New York City, 2015
I can’t decide if Mitch Epstein’s latest photographs are profoundly insightful, or if they are just very well made and nice to look at. I am an admirer of his images of the corrosive impact of American industry on everyday life. And I need no convincing that his photographs are beautifully composed and very compelling. So while the recent exhibition of works at the Filles du Calvaire gallery didn’t have the same shocking effect as some of his more political work, I was open to having my first impressions proved wrong.

Mitch Epstein, American Elm, Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, 2012
Some of the works on display here are provocative, particularly, those taken in the streets of New York City. In them we see nature doing battle with a human environment that treats it like another piece of concrete or another steel girder. In one image, an indeterminate mound of dirt, or maybe it’s rock, or a cut tree, is imprisoned behind a fence on East 172nd Street in the Bronx. It looks painfully trapped by the need to fence it in, to tame it for fear of its unruly spread across the city concrete. In another photograph, a tree strapped to a concrete mass, presumably to stop it falling over, is given the appearance of a patient fixed to a life support system. There is not much hope for nature in New York City as it is depicted in Epstein’s photographs. Nature is well and truly subjugated to the built environment.

Mitch Epstein, Clouds #94, New York City, 2015

Having seen the images in which nature struggles to survive in the urban environment, I moved along to the gorgeous cloud formations in the skies above the city. And, in juxtaposition, everything changes. I started to wonder what created the drama, the splendid fullness and motion of the clouds in this series. Am I looking at a polluted, sky churned up by the activities below? Or do these images reveal the beauty of a nature that is able to transcend the destruction of manufacturing, industry and other human pursuits? In an image such as Clouds, #86, New York City, 2015, the landscape becomes even more confusing. Here, both concrete walls and dense, almost operatic clouds, frame a city skyline that, as a result, becomes like a horizon line; something vague, indeterminate, dwarfed by slabs of concrete and clouds.
Mitch Epstein, Clouds #89, New York City, 2015
Epstein’s concerns are overwhelmingly formal. Like most photographers, the astonishment of the photograph is discovered well before the image is seen through the viewfinder. Though I remain excited by the compositional clarity of Epstein’s images, what I come away with is an amazement that he found what he did in New York City. Nature, clouds, water and trees are not exactly things we associate with the city, but on seeing Epstein’s photographs, we recognize how much of the natural world we ignore when we are rushing through it. In the end then, over time these photographs are revealing and more than formal exercises in the depicture of nature. However, to be sure, I still prefer the political force of the  American Power series.
Mitch Epstein, East 172nd Street, Bronx 2014

All photographs copyright, Mitch Epstein

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Josef Koudelka, The Making of Exiles @ Centre Pompidou

Josef Koudelka, Ireland, 1976
The exhibition of a series of Josef Koudelka’s photographs at the Centre Pompidou focuses very intently on what it means to be in exile. How to define an exile? It’s a question I have thought about for over 30 years. I was raised in a middle class suburban oasis where the closest thing to political upheaval was the queen’s dismissal of the Prime Minster, and where war was practiced on the parade ground by the university regiment. I left an apparent paradise by choice. I have always thought of myself as an exile, geographically removed from any place I could call home. But others would say that’s ridiculous, exiles have no choice. But even if we are not fleeing war or dictatorship, famine or poverty, sometimes what looks like a choice, is a necessity. La fabrique d’exils confirms my self-understanding as exile.

Josef Koudelka, France, 1980

The Czechoslovakian, Koudelka wandered around Europe in the 1970s and found a world in exile, not just people displaced. The photographs themselves exquisitely portray not belonging through light and shadow, mainly throught the overwhelming coldness of shadow, the sparsity of the background, the solitude of the human figures. As he travelled, Koudelka found poverty even where there was none in Europe: in Spain, Portugal, Ireland, France. In images of shadows on the Paris cobblestones that another photograph would make romantic, the cropping of the image at the legs of the human figures empties out the humanity and leaves everyone alone with his shadow as he walks in different directions.

Josef Koudelka, France 1987

There is also a silence and a stillness to a continent better known for its congestion, intensity and noise. In the many shots filled with snow, the stark whiteness made by the weather also expresses a passing of time, in a familiar world seen from a different perspective. The snow photographed, is example of how even the weather makes for a Europe in exile: Koudelka represents the sumptuousness of light and shadow on stark white snow made visible literally in the grain of the image, thus giving texture to exile. Shadow in some images becomes the substance, and not just at the end of day. An image of hard shadows in Italy next to a worn piece of fabric in closeup makes shadows violent, the torn fabric striated by its own tears.

Josef Koudelka, Gypsies, 1975

For someone photographing exile and nomadism, there’s an ironic focus on place. Every photograph is given a title and every title consists of the country where it is taken. This complicates their curiosity because we don’t recognize, Spain, Romania, Yugoslavia, Italy or England in any of the images. The Europe Koudelka discovered is poor, empty, fragile and filled with sadness. And because this is what he is looking for, the images could be taken anywhere, and yet, he insists on naming their location. I know this: home becomes even more important when there is no home, when home is a place we cannot go.

Josef Koudelka, Autoporträt, 1986

And in an addendum to his photographs of the exiles, there are a series of previously unpublished images of Koudelka himself. When he was sleeping rough with the gypsies, on friends’ floors, park benches and under a solitary tree, Koudelka found home wherever he went. Home was where he lay for the night in his sleeping bag. And this I have found to be true as well: as exiles, we make home wherever we are, but also, find it inside of us, away from any physical place that might give us meaning. These photographs and the Europe they represent capture a concept of exile that is defined by the metaphysical place-less-ness experienced by those who leave, irrespective of the reason why. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Vermeer, et les Maîtres de la Peinture de Genre @ Le Louvre

Johannes Vermeer - Woman Holding a Balance - Google Art Project.jpg
Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, 1664
Unfortunately, the defining aspect of this exhibition is the crowds. I have never seen hoards of this magnitude at the Louvre before. So the first thing I have to say about Vermeer, et les Maîtres de la Peinture de Genre is that if it’s Vermeer’s paintings you are interested in, I would suggest a tour of Europe’s major museums bookended by the National Gallery in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum. Because while the dozen or so Vermeer’s on display here are exquisite, getting close to the small, intimate images is virtually impossible.

Johannes Vermeer - The Astronomer - WGA24685.jpg
Johannes Vermeer, The Astronomer, 1668
However, in usual Louvre style, the exhibition is remarkable and there are other reasons to wait in line. Not only are the Vermeer paintings beautiful, but the exhibition opens up to the world of Delft in the 17th century, and the wealth of genre painting in Vermeer’s midst. Vermeer favorites such as Woman Holding a Balance (1664), The Milkmaid (1659) , The Astronomer (1668) and others are shown in their contemporary environment of works by Gerard ter Borch, Jan Steen, Frans van Mieris, Gerard Dou, Nicolaes Maes and others. Usually in exhibitions of this kind, the works by contemporaries pale in comparison to the master whose name is all over the publicity material. Here that is definitely not the case. The contemporaries seemed to me to be as significant as Vermeer, and we are treated to a glimpse of the rich world of 17th century Delft painting. Needless to say, there was no crowding around the lovely works of Vermeer’s contemporaries.
Johannes Vermeer, The Lacemaker, 1669-71
Perhaps most surprising is what we learn about the artistic world in which Vermeer was working. He was certainly no genius working in a vacuum; everyone was painting lacemakers, women with love letters, astronomers and geographers. Moreover, the exact same iconography is used by all of the contemporary painters. With regards to the content and iconography, there is nothing original in Vermeer’s work. Maps and globes are everywhere to signal the dawn of the age of travel and modernity, it was common to show women alone in pursuit of their activities, as it was to see music lessons, marriage propositions and curtains pulled back on intimate scenarios.
Samuel van Hoogstraten, View of an Interior, or The Slippers, 1658
So what is it about Vermeer’s delicate and intimate portraits of every day people doing everyday things that has the Louvre filling up like a football match 350 years later? It’s probably a number of things, including the glimpse into women’s intimate lives, seeing them in quiet reflection, tenderly working the lace, or playing a lute. These works evoke a rare calm that transports us as viewer into the eternal presence of the scenes. They offer a meditative reflection, away from the clamour of history painting, and the grandness of 17th century narratives. However, with the exception of Samuel van Hoogstraten’s layered spaces that evoke rather than depict human activities, all the works in this exhibition could be said to embrace the viewer with their calmness. It's not unique to Vermeer's works.
Johannes Vermeer - Het melkmeisje - Google Art Project.jpg
Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1667-68
This question of what sets Vermeer apart pursued me around the exhibition. There is his use of color, particularly the signature blue and yellow, which are not so vibrant on other painters’ canvases. Then again, the silks of, for example, Gerard ter Borch’s, Gallant Conversation (1654) or Eglon van der Neer’s Lute Player at a Virginal (1669) are sumptuous and shine in different ways. But what Vermeer does that none of his contemporaries come near is in the nuances of the light. In juxtaposition, we see light falling through windows and gently embracing the woman as she prepares to weigh her jewelry, or holds her pearl necklace to the light as she reflects on her thoughts in Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace (1662-65). In other paintings of the same genre, the light tends to be more even, and typically harsher. 
Gerard ter Borch, Gallant Conversation, 1654
A lot of effort is made by critics to debate what the women in Vermeer’s paintings are doing, who they are, what class they belong to, and what the narrative that surrounds them entails. On floors strewn with slippers – belonging to both genders – men offering women oysters, or a music lesson, birds in cages and pearl earrings, critics discover adultery, grief, pregnancy out of wedlock, and unrequited love. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter what the paintings represent. What matters is that we are not sure, that there is always a haze of uncertainty cloaking the figures and the objects with which they share the frame. All we can be sure of is in the movement of the light, the mood, the meaning and the emotions it expresses, Vermeer's depictions become sublime.