28 January 2013

From the Collection: A photograph by Jerry Mathiason

Hay Bale/Cedars, 1984, by Jerry Mathiason
Jerry Mathiason (b. 1947)
Hay Bale/Cedars, 1984
Gelatin silver print
14 x 14 inches

My most recent curatorial project, Framing the Field: Photographic Terrain in the Collection of the Minnesota Museum of American Art, is on display from February 4 to March 28 at the Catherine G. Murphy Gallery at St. Catherine University in St. Paul. The show includes 39 works by 36 artists. All the photographs were made within the last 40 years, since the time I started junior high school in the Twin Cities.

The show is not about landscape as a visual genre, nor does it consist entirely of photographs of land and nature. Rather, the framing devices of "field" and "terrain" focus attention on the entirety of a collection and the ways in which it maps the contemporary evolution of photographic art.

There are many pieces in this show that I have admired over time. Some of which I owned for a while, then donated to the museum (MMAA for short) in recognition of a former director who was a friend and a great supporter of photography.

This image, by Minneapolis-based photographer Jerry Mathiason, was given to MMAA by Mathiason in 1989. It is full of genius loci, or spirit of place. I don't know exactly where this place is. And I don't really care. The photograph itself, its tones, shapes, textures, the synthesis of its component parts, is the place. A range of grays implying a world. The universe in a grain of sand--or a blade of grass.

I can linger in this place, I can enter it or view it whole. I can reach in and feel the amassed, aging hay. I can hear the grasses, swishing from wind and my boots, yet to be transformed into hay. I can almost smell the cool cedars, see the fibrous bark that, shaved and scraped into cottony wads, makes for excellent fire starter. I can fear the fire that might take this whole scene into another, darker spectrum.

As I stare my vision goes soft and the slouching bale becomes another structure, of Indian derivation, using cedar bark and branches to fashion a structure bulging roundly from mother earth. Whether wigwam, waginogan, or wickiup, I squint my eyes a bit and see it there on the prairie, the dark line of cedars a trail of smoke from the cooking fire inside, an interior further suggested by the dark hole admitting entrance.

The grand scale of this space is evident from both the depth of the focused field and the gradations of light across the dried grasses. The ground makes a screen large enough to capture the variable glow projecting from the sky above.

When my vision sharpens again I revel in the infinite variability of lines drawn on film by both the hewn and uncut foliage. Deepening my focus I consider the energy invested in baling this hay, the attempt to bind and thereby retain the nutrition latent in the grasses. And then, the release, letting that bale soften, lose its focus, return to the soil. A puzzle in that, the invested energy going to waste. Maybe another story about why. And the eternal story of cycles, of will and neglect.

In the show, nearly every photograph has three subjects. First, what it shows--its content. Attached to that are formal issues, which extend to its place within the entirety of the exhibition. And finally, each photograph relates another topic, somewhat theoretical, philosophical, or symbolic in nature; that would be its implications. What does the photograph tell us about what we can't see, what can't be shown? This, to me, is photography's most wondrous terrain.

Link to Jerry Mathiason's site
Link to exhibition on Catherine G. Murphy Gallery/St. Catherine University web site
Link to Minnesota Museum of American Art

20 January 2013

GREENER | Carolyn Monastra, The Witness Tree

I'm not sure how I first found Carolyn Monastra's blog, or when. She writes that she started the blog in September 2011 as a component of a new photographic project, The Witness Tree, dedicated to images of landscapes affected by climate change.

One of Monastra's images of felled trees along a beach in Tonga.
Although she maintains a fairly conventional web site, she made a smart decision by chosing the blog format, which allows her to include conversational narratives about her search for these impacted landscapes. (If one wanted to create an itinerary for a global adventure or two, the blog offers a number of tempting suggestions, including local cuisine.) The flora, fauna, and humans of a particular biome, after all, suggest the effects of change, and the stories they tell often lend themselves to words. It is landscape, however, that offers visual evidence, and the way things blend with each other and within the photographic frame create perspective, push us into appreciating, maybe even having, points of view.

Carolyn Monastra, Coconut trees being killed by rising sea levels (in Tonga)
Coconut trees being killed by rising sea levels. By Carolyn Monastra

Monastra's photographs are not harangues, nor artificially strident. They are eloquent, honest, and often disturbing testimony to the damages being wrought on ecosystems around the world.

From Monastra's photographs during a trip along Rio Negro and the Amazon rainforest.

She received a MFA from Yale, coming to it after being in social work for a number of years. Not the typical background for a photo-world insider. The combination does, however, make for an interesting blog that is also worth looking at, and has resulted in appealing photographs worth reading about for their implicit meanings as well as their surface pleasures and technical accomplishment.

(I should note, too, that I am strongly affected by trees, and Carolyn's use of trees as symbols of climate change has great resonance for me. I wonder if she's ever seen Jeff Krueger's study of trees that have witnessed historic events? Or Janelle Lynch's "portraits" of tree stumps in her Akna project (in her book Los Jardines de Mexico (Radius, 2011) and soon on display at the Southeast Museum of Photography in Daytona Beach, FL)?)

Carolyn Monastra's blog, The Witness Tree
Monastra's web site