The CLICK! TRIANGLE PHOTOGRAPHY FESTIVAL, a month-long shutterbug bacchanalia with more than 35 exhibits and events at 22 arts venues, has arrived (see the full schedule at clicktrianglephoto.org). Because you probably can’t see everything, you’ll have to make some choices. If you’re planning a photo outing, two shows at Raleigh’s Gregg Museum and Durham’s Craven Allen Gallery make a perfect pair.
THE FATHER OF N.C. PHOTOGRAPHY
That’s what John Menapace, who passed away in 2010 at age 82, has been called. Born in Pennsylvania and educated at Yale, he moved to Durham to become the director of design at Duke University Press. He picked up photography almost on a whim, buying a camera to take on vacation and then canceling the vacation but keeping the camera. He went on to teach the first photography classes at Duke as well as workshops at the Penland School of Crafts and classes at UNC-Chapel Hill. His students’ work is in museum collections throughout the Southeast.
The Gregg has collected Menapace for some time, showing his work most recently in 2006. When he died, his estate ended up at the museumincluding about 6,500 never-before-exhibited printsquadrupling its collection. SMOKES AND MIRRORS: REFLECTIONS OF THE SELF IN PHOTOGRAPHS, running through Feb. 6, is the first in a likely series of shows of this treasure trove.
You will laugh and perhaps even cry in Smokes and Mirrors. Several contact prints of studio self-portraits12 images in uncut negative strips packed in one frameshow Menapace as a man of self-deprecating, intelligent mischief. While parodying himself, he avoids lampooning self-portrait as a category. Instead, he expands it into a textured meditation upon human multiplicity.
Some of the landscapes and interiors, however, are so stark that they rattle you. Light filters through a screen door to play across a worn runner rug, shadowing flip-flops tossed against the floor molding. A shopping cart huddles against a brick wall, playing its diagonal shadow across the harsh horizontal lines of mortar. These unpopulated public and private spaces are so desolate that they seem inaccessible, even repellant. You have to summon a defense against this kind of emptiness.
You may have taken your own tourist’s version of one of Menapace’s photographs, which shows the Washington Square Park arch in New York City. This is a great opportunity to study his compositional eye in comparison to your own.
In the photo, it’s night, with grids of lit windows in the background, and the pavement is wet. The shot is framed to show not just the spectacular Roman arch, but also the humble circular sewer grate in the foreground. The perspective makes the arch and the grate look the same size, giving equal value to their contrasting commemorative and practical functions.
This is a key to Menapace’s sensibilitynot the simple irony of high-low contrast, but an empathetic appreciation for balance between the forms and identities of all things.
After the Menapace show, go to Durham to see Elizabeth Matheson’s CUBA at Craven Allen Gallery, up through Nov. 8. A Penland student of Menapace’s and the executor of his estate, Matheson recently traveled to Cuba and shot digital photographs for the first time in her career.
Beyond being square-shaped, Matheson’s images have other strong formal similarities to Menapace’s. She sees in thirdsthe lowest one of landscape and the two above of skyas though always looking up in wonder. She commits to symmetry, too. From a street-level vantage, two images of balconies satisfy the eye’s desire for completion, their arches neatly centered. But a tree trunk and a streetlamp intrude upon the frames, saving the compositions from being static. They’re about city life rather than architecture.
Craven Allen usually saves the largest image for the back wall, and Matheson’s “Capitol” is true to form. A huge, domed building with prickly scaffolding enveloping its classical architecture dominates a cityscape. A tiny industrial smokestack belches black smoke on one side; a trumpeting angel in silhouette tops a smaller dome on the other. Against an unmodulated cloud-filled sky, this study in detail recalls Menapace’s Washington Square image, with the smokestack and angel figure providing scale to the architecture in the same way Menapace’s sewer grate does.
Matheson’s street photography is the real revelation. Many shots seem casual, as if she pulled up to a stoplight in Havana and shot whatever she saw out the car window. Digital photography affords freedom and speed without compromising Matheson’s compositional ability. In “La Madrina,” a woman holds her chin in her palm, leaning on a lace-covered tabletop in a doorway. An ornately wrought metal door plays off the design of the lace. But the woman’s personalitybored, waiting, thinkingoutshines these formal characteristics.
CAM Raleigh offers a break from photographic study with LIMITED VISIBILITY, an exhibit of contemporary Latin American art running through Jan. 4. The materials are mundane: downloaded snapshots and found photography, reclaimed sandpaper and drywall, shards of mortar and tile, paper layered thickly with manila house paint. This, combined with its conceptual content, plants the show in the lineage of Italy’s Arte Povera and Glasnost-era Russian work, though its expressions of displacement and disparity are more nuancedanalytical, not revolutionary.
While the materials imply labor, the underlying concept is about erasure or abrasion. “Shape Shifter,” by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, is a red grid of used sandpaper pieces from worksites around the world. Minute variations in the pigments in their grit could carry that global information. But the uniformity of the overall image renders it flat and abstract.
And Pablo Rasgado’s “Unfolded Architecture” is a relief of sheetrock chunks, hewn from gallery walls at CAM and NCMA, on a flag-like panel. The work displaces the act of erasure from itself to its environment. Downstairs at CAM, you can see where the drywall was sawed out.
To create “The Times Atlas of the World (Book),” Agustina Woodgate sanded the cartographic imagery from a 515-page atlas. The headings and hemispheric outlines remain, but all geographical and geopolitical information is gone. On the spread visible at CAM, Antarctica and South America appear as a lunar blankness, depicting both post-human destruction and a pre-human natural state.
Limited Visibility terminates with Santiago Sierra’s “89 Huicholes” in the basement gallery89 black-and-white portraits hung tightly together. An indigenous tribe in western Mexico, the Huichol are losing a battle with the regional government over property rights. In Sierra’s images, the people stand with their backs to the camera and their faces against a white sheet or wall. Their posture is one of disadvantage, but also of defiance. Erasure, we are reassured, can never be complete.
This article appeared in print with the headline “LOST & FOUND “