Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Abelardo Morell: Reclaiming the Familiar

The Universe Next Door is a fitting description of the work of Abelardo Morell, whose photographs are now on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum through January 5, 2014. Morell reveals a world not traditionally captured in photographs, one that exists beyond the scope of the lens. One can dream up such landscapes but rarely do we get to see them within the formal confines of art.

The Cuban-born American artist employs the age-old technique of camera obscura to achieve his signature photographs. The Latin phrase for “dark room,” camera obscura refers to an enclosed space with an aperture. When light shines through the aperture, images from the outside are projected within.

Drawing of a 19th century camera obscura, Dionysis Larder, 1855
Anyone can make a camera obscura: all you need are a box and a light source. Once you insert a hole - a well-calculated hole - on one side of the box, light from the external scene will pass through and project itself onto the interior’s surface. The image will be upside down, but the colors and shapes of the scene will remain. Morell’s Light Bulb, one of the first images to greet you in the Getty exhibition, captures the fundamentals of this process.

Light Bulb, 1991
Gelatin silver print
If Morell's camera obscuras appear repetitive at first glance, don't be misled. His pictures never fail to surprise. He captures the individuality of spaces; an almost schizophrenic individuality. The same room can have an endless quotient of personalities when Morell is behind the camera. An autumnal landscape casts itself upon the walls of a quiet and pristine room; the same landscape presents itself in another photograph, yet this time it is winter.

Dream-like, too, are his photographs. A hotel room becomes extraordinary when the silhouette of an upside-down Chrysler building traverses down the wall, its spire extending across the length of the rug. Such images remind us that the elements of our familiar universe can be made unexpectedly, powerfully new.

The Chrysler Building in Hotel Room, 1997
Morell propels the outside world into domestic interiors. Public and private spaces converge. The affect is something Frank Lloyd Wright might like, who endorsed the philosophy of bringing the outside in.

Morell's projections not only render environments surreal but also theatrical. Indeed his wife, Lisa, recounts her experiences of watching the outside world projected onto their bedroom wall: “…You and I would sleep there with the black plastic on the windows, and then in the morning we could watch all the neighbors walking by and the squirrels on the telephone wires, and, it felt like a dream sometimes.”

Camera Obscura: View of the Brooklyn Bridge in Bedroom, 2009
With the curtains closed save for an opening to let the light in, the Morells engaged with the outside world in secret. I doubt Morell’s goal was voyeuristic, but it certainly allowed room for that. There is nothing wrong with innocent curiosity.

Struck by Morell's potential to spark an interesting dialogue, museums have invited him to shoot camera obscuras on their premises. The image below, taken at the Whitney Museum in New York, is a fun play on Morell's photographs of domestic interiors. It also recreates the art-viewing experience: the Edward Hopper painting is no longer seen against a traditional monochromatic wall, but a textured one that both distorts and enhances certain qualities of the painting. Note how the projected building overlaps with the wall in the painting. It makes the latter appear as though it, too, is made of brick.

Camera Obscura Image of Windows in Gallery with Hopper Painting, 2003
Morell continues to push the envelope. Most recently he has begun exploring a technique involving the use of a “tent camera.” His own invention, it enables him to achieve the effects of camera obscura entirely outdoors. In the image below, what initially looks like a sand painting is actually a projection of the Golden Gate Bridge onto a patch of ground. Morell calls it “a collision of two realities on a surface.”

Tent Camera Image on Ground: View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Battery Yates, 2012
Morell's experiments with camera obscura are among his many diverse pursuits. He is also known for his images that capture life from a child’s perspective, his sensuous photographs of books, and his cliché-verres ("glass pictures," referring to his hand-made negatives). You can see them all on his website.

...Wonder how Morell managed to project his images upright? I did, too. He used a prism.

Prior to opening at the Getty, The Universe Next Door made its debut at The Art Institute of Chicago. In February 2014 it will travel to The High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

Monday, October 28, 2013

A nod from The New Yorker

...100 years later, Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending A Staircase continues to inspire a legacy of artistic references:

Harry Bliss, Husband Descending a Staircase After Tripping on his Wife's Shoes
New Yorker Cartoon (Published Sept. 23, 2013)

Monday, October 21, 2013

A nod to Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending A Staircase (No.2), 1912
Philadelphia Museum of Art

First exhibited in 1913 at the Armory Show in New York, Duchamp's Nude Descending A Staircase inspired public outrage. The painting challenged expectations: it was abstract, ambiguous, and reduced the female form to what one critic called "an explosion in a shingle factory." As far as audiences were concerned, Duchamp had thrown classical nudes like Venus of Urbino and La Grand Odalisque out the window.

Officially titled the International Exhibition of Modern Art, the Armory Show was America's first grand attempt to engage with modernism. Before 1913, most Americans were unaware of artists like Picasso, Matisse, and Manet; now they were hungry for them. The kinetic pulse of Europe, so unequivocally tied to modern art, was hard to ignore.1

That isn't to say that modern art didn't exist in America before 1913. Artists who had traveled to Europe, like Marsden Hartley and Robert Henri, returned to the States with a new sensibility that penetrated their art.

Based on the critical response to Duchamp, America's nod to modernism would nevertheless be a work in progress. Art collectors were integral to the assimilation process, with names like Abby Rockefeller and Mary Quinn Sullivan at the helm. In 1929 these women, along with other collectors and philanthropists, launched the first museum of modern art in the States, today known as MoMA.

1 I'll expound on this in a later post, and also talk about America's invaluable role in preserving European modernism after WWII.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Museum Hours: So much more than art

A panorama of Viennese working class culture and a hymn to the museum, the new film Museum Hours inspires its viewers to look, yes, but also to see.

Director Jem Cohen hovers his magnifying glass over the streets of Vienna and the city's beloved Kunsthistoriches Museum. It is a privileged view for the less itinerant of us. Built in 1891 to house the collection of the imperial family, the Museum has long been a haven of history and the senses. It is also one of friendship: Johann, a gentle, middle-aged museum guard has worked at the Kunsthistoriches for six years; he comes to know Anna, a frequent visitor as of late, who has flown in from Canada to visit her ailing cousin.

The exchanges between the new friends breathe fresh meaning into the museum as a metaphor for life. The more you look the more you discover; the more you discover the less alone you feel.

Cohen invites us to notice details in the seemingly ordinary. We need not ascribe beauty or power to them, but simply notice them. That is how Johann passes the time so pleasantly at work. One of his recent discoveries is a detail in a Breughel painting: a skillet protruding from a reveler’s hat. This leads him to consider eggs, which in turn leads him on a quest to find eggs in every painting he can. This is what it means to be human: to use our powers of observation, and often patience.

Cohen puts you in uncomfortable places that you can either flee or inhabit. When confronted with an unexciting field of wheat on a hill, adorned with but a few winter-bare trees, you realize you are looking at a living painting. Suddenly you understand.

And yet, the scene continues to surprise. Once Johann and Anne approach the hilltop, only Johann is visible for some seconds. He is at the edge of the camera’s lens and Anne is just beyond it. For all the cinematic rhetoric this defies, it feels paradoxically organic. It is akin to looking at an awkwardly cropped Degas painting: it is capturing an unstaged moment in time, and it makes no effort to accommodate our expectations.

The familiar or under-looked details in Museum Hours - textured layers of paint on a canvas; a child's face - crystallize at the end of the film, in Johann’s soliloquy. The manner in which light hits an object, or the way a person expresses pleasure or pain, is worth noticing. Such details enhance our experience of the world, just as making a discovery at the art museum leaves us with a flutter in our hearts.