Since its invention in the mid-nineteenth century, photography’s fine art status has been in flux. Initially thought to be a technological device that could assist a painter or sculptor’s production, the medium quickly surpassed this supplemental role by crystallizing itself as a fine art in its own right through landscape, portraiture, and pictorialism. Eventually, critics would claim that photography’s ability to represent actuality spurred avant-garde experimentation in painting—including Impressionism and Cubism. Continuing in this tradition of critical investigation of the medium’s status, the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery has organized and mounted two exhibitions that examine the interface of photography and contemporary art.
Curated by Director Joseph S. Mella and presented in conjunction with Bestia contra Bestia/Beast vs. Beast Photographs by José Luis Raymond, Wide Angle: Photography and Its Influence on Contemporary Art investigates the current role of photography in fine art. Culled from the university’s collection, Wide Angle places works using traditional photography alongside alternative approaches to the medium, creating a poignant dialogue about the ways in which contemporary artists incorporate photography into their diverse creative statements. This successful grouping presents artists using a variety of photographic techniques and emphasizes their distinct artistic outlooks—from social critique to explorations in form.For example, a Lorna Simpson diptych—suggesting through texture, cropping, and titling suggests that the black women depicted are nothing more than stage sets—is exhibited alongside four silver gelatin prints by Lucien Clergue, which simply explore the formal qualities of the female nude. Two surprising ruminations on the picturesque hang nearby. Gerhard Richter’s 1971 photolithograph invokes a sense of nostalgia using his characteristic blur in an idyllic landscape; to the right, Roni Horn’s offset lithograph of 1992 delivers an ambiguous voyeurism with a solitary figure in a comparable landscape. An intimate group of Polaroids™ by Andy Warhol demonstrate the iconic artist’s interest in the instantaneous matched by a kind of earnestness toward his obscure subjects. Kiki Smith’s 1997 photogravure fragments the female body in a mosaic of views depicting a tension of energy and stasis. The standout piece of the exhibition, however, is Christiane Baumgartner’s 1 Sekunde (One Second) of 2004, which represents the side window view of one second of automobile travel, stretched into twenty-five unique woodcuts. The impulse to walk briskly along this remarkable work yields a satisfying cinematic effect.
Adjacent to the main gallery is a solo exhibition of large-scale photographs by Spanish painter, sculptor, and scenic designer José Luis Raymond. An excellent complement to Wide Angle, Bestia contra Bestia/Beast vs. Beast is a grouping of twelve works that mix Baroque drama with enigmatic tableaux of human interaction. Raymond’s photographic works depict macabre, anachronistic, and quizzically hostile situations yet withhold a straightforward narrative to these stagey constructions. They seem to hearken back to Surrealism in their dreamy, even nightmarish, situations, though Raymond’s theatrical background is also underscored by his use of precise lighting and figure placements.
Make time to view these two important shows, as they close next Sunday, February 27. The Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery is open Monday-Friday, 12-4pm; Thursdays until 8:00 pm; Saturday and Sunday, 1-5 pm.
_ginger elliott smith