Frames of Reference

Two compelling photography exhibits now at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities include nearly 100 works of art--and almost as many different ideas.

The first show starts off with a titillating posted proviso: Children will not be admitted unless accompanied by an adult. But don't get too excited. Though there are nude photos here, The Body and the Lens: Photography 1839 to the Present is no peep show. Instead, it's a survey of more than 150 years of figure photography--as well as a cogent political analysis of that art form's role in society.

There is hardly any work here that could rightly be called erotic; after all, denigrating eroticism in photography is all the rage now, and it's not hard to understand why. Even more than public sculpture, nude photography is the art form most capable of raising public ire. On the left side of the political spectrum, feminists decry its objectification of women; on the right, conservatives simply view it as immoral. But both groups will be satisfied by the close-to-the-vest approach taken in The Body and the Lens. In fact, the show has the kind of sanitized content appropriate to a provincial venue in, for example, Jefferson County. That's not to say that The Body and the Lens is wishy-washy--it most emphatically isn't--but just that its more radical points are made subtly, with only an occasional hint of stridency.

This traveling show originated at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, and all the photos are from the Spencer's permanent collection. A tremendous collection it is, too, featuring everything from early-nineteenth-century tintypes to a who's who of contemporary photographers.

The Body and the Lens was organized by Spencer curator John Pultz, who also serves as a professor at KU. He made his selections not in an attempt to show off his university's collection--though the exhibit does that--but instead to illustrate a series of ideas he's developed about the relationship of photography to modernism and about how photography can help define society. Viewers may not agree with, or even clearly understand, Pultz's sometimes inconsistent conclusions, but they should enjoy the show he's laid out along the way.

Pultz's basic premise is that since photography's development coincides with the rise of modernism, photography is the quintessential modern art form. However, according to him, it's also wholly separable from the modern movement. In the catalogue that accompanies the show, Pultz writes that his aim is to untangle "photography from the Modernist rhetoric that has been used to define it throughout its history."

The show is essentially presented in chronological order, guiding the viewer from early works in which photography was used as a scientific or documentary tool to a final section where postmodernism and gender politics reign supreme. However, Pultz doesn't construct a single intellectual thread that runs from the beginning of the show to the end. His aim is not to simply conduct a march through history, but to illustrate a multiplicity of artistic currents. Given how complicated his many messages are (despite his attempts to explain them in an extensive series of text panels), it's a good thing Pultz has chosen the chronological tack. This reliable old approach--which, sadly, is seen less and less around here--is essential to making sense out of The Body and the Lens.

One of the most remarkable of the older photos, and one that will be familiar to many viewers from history books, is "Plate 361, Animal Locomotion," a collotype of 1887 by Eadweard Muybridge, an English-born American photographer. Muybridge is often seen as a pioneer of both photography and filmmaking; in this "Locomotion" study, one of many such works done by the photographer, he records for scientific purposes the movements of a nude man in shots taken in quick succession.

Pultz's inclusion of a scientific document like Muybridge's collotype reflects his view that the distinction between fine-art photography and documentary photography is a false one. Pultz also pays his respects to the much-maligned posed commercial portrait, most notably via "Madam Sperber Group," a shot of a well-dressed African-American madam surrounded by prostitutes. This fairly recent gelatin silver print was made from a 1906 negative by American Joseph Judd Pennell. Pultz points out in the accompanying catalogue that all of the women, even the famous Madam Sperber, have averted their eyes from the photographer. The reason, he suggests, may have been racial: Pennell was white.

By breaking down the borders between photographic styles, Pultz is able to include a wide range of material. Still, the best things here are pretty much what you'd expect: great examples of modernist photography from its heyday in the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Standouts in this regard include Hungarian Ervin Marton's untitled 1930 silver print of a reclining nude woman and a 1935 shot of a standing nude woman by American photographer George Platt Lynes. Stylistically, the Lynes photo is similar to 1949's "Nude Foot," an exquisite gelatin silver print by American photographer Minor White that depicts a rear view of a nude black man. In both photos, the heads of the figures have been cropped out of the frame.

Other mid-century currents tapped by Pultz include photographers who themselves blurred distinctions. Weegee (Arthur Fellig), an Austrian-born American, worked as a photojournalist and police photographer in New York, but his work has been regarded as fine art for decades. A typically eerie scene is the aptly titled 1940 gelatin silver print "Trampled to Death on Pier After Panic on an Excursion Boat." At the center of the spooky picture is a corpse draped in a black shroud.

The candid work of Diane Arbus is equally haunting, even when her subject is a summer vacation. "Campers at Camp Lakecrest for Overweight Girls in Dutchess County, New York," a recent gelatin silver print from a 1968 negative, features three little girls standing in a line. Because of the girls' obvious self-consciousness about their weight, it's downright hard to look at. Arbus is remembered today for infusing ordinary scenes with an air of anxiety, and that's certainly what she's done here.

Among the exhibit's newer photographs, feminist-inspired work is front and center. Cuban-born American photographer Ana Mendieta, an important figure in the feminist wing of the 1970s earth-art movement, used photography not as an end, but as a means of recording her performances and temporary sculptures. She was interested in using her body as a metaphor for women's roles in society; along this line is an untitled gelatin silver print from her "Silueta" series of 1978 that reveals her inverted self-portrait carved into muddy ground.

The proper place for women's bodies in art is a question also taken up by the Guerrilla Girls, a 1980s New York political group. In a color offset lithograph poster titled "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?" a reclining Venus in a gorilla mask is placed beneath statistics noting that although only 5 percent of the artists in the Metropolitan Museum are women, 85 percent of the nudes on display are of females.

The inclusion of such political commentary can make The Body and the Lens seem didactic in places. And there are a few pesky contradictions in Pultz's logic, such as the examples of gay sensibility seen throughout the show. These male nudes are dealt with as "exceptions" to Pultz's prevailing dialogue between male chauvinism and women's equality. However, we never get a satisfactory answer as to why Pultz and other feminist critics expect us to view both male and female nudes as examples of male domination.

That, of course, is an issue that can't be settled by an art show. But the material Pultz has marshaled for this discussion is so rich that in the end it doesn't really matter. Whether or not you agree with Pultz's politically correct mantras, The Body and the Lens is essential viewing.

The same is true of the companion exhibit in Arvada, On the Edge: Photo based. Organized by curator Kathy Andrews, this show features installations by three local artists in the center's three side galleries. David Zimmer, Jean Marie Casbarian and Craig Coleman have each been given their own gallery, and each has dimmed the lights, allowing the installations themselves to provide the necessary illumination.

Zimmer is represented by four square sculptures, painted black and adorned with sets of translucent, blue-tinted photographs that depict body parts in bondage. The photos have been internally lit and are much more effective in the dark in Arvada than they were last month under the bright lights at Rule Gallery.

Next up is Casbarian's installation, "Motion Falls to Static: Variations on Metamorphosis," in which a reclining human figure has been projected onto the bottom of a large, half-circular water trough. Above and behind is a black-and-white film loop of a little girl skipping rope. The piece is beautiful, if hard to understand, especially in light of Casbarian's enigmatic artist's statement. Completing the mood is a weird soundtrack of what Casbarian calls "harmonic vocal vibrations," which really puts the "edgy" in On the Edge.

Though Zimmer and Casbarian create a somewhat funereal mood, Coleman's installation, "The Invisible Hand," is a fun-filled riot of sights and sounds. He has filled the room with dangling projectors hidden behind sheets of translucent acrylic sheeting; a control panel, to which viewers are directed, is also hung from the ceiling. Standing on a podium, viewers can manipulate chrome rocker switches that control different projectors, creating their own symphony of flashing slides or short films.

Coleman has some inevitable technical problems--some of the elements predictably go on the fritz from time to time. But even when it's only partly on-line, this piece has a marvelous effect.

This pairing of a heady traveling show with a glimmering showcase for local talent is an interesting one. And it's the kind of thing we've come to expect from the adventurous Arvada Center.

The Body and the Lens: Photography 1839 to the Present and On the Edge: Photo based, through March 29 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 431-3939.


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