Art in the age of smartphones: Mead Art Museum brings photography to the forefront

  • “Burning News,” by Tim Parchikov. Image courtesy of Mead Art Museum

  • “Burning News,” by Tim Parchikov. Image courtesy of Mead Art Museum

  • “The Peasant Woman and the Cow,” 1912, gouache over pencil on cardboard by Vladimir Davidovich Baranoff-Rossiné.

  • “Self portrait,” 1913, gouache and watercolor on paper by Antoine Pevsner. Image courtesy of Mead Art Museum

  • “River Scene,” circa 1860, oil on canvas by Charles-François Daubigny. Image courtesy of Mead Art Museum

  • “Self Portrait with Nets and Runner,” 1986, mixed media by Michael Mazur. Image courtesy of Mead Art Museum

  • “Untitled, #578, dye sublimation metal print, 2016 Image courtesy of Cindy Sherman and Metro Pictures, New York

Staff Writer
Saturday, October 14, 2017

In a world swimming with millions — make that billions — of pictures, is there still a place for the venerable stand-alone photograph? You know, the kind that you view in a museum?

At Amherst College’s Mead Art Museum, the answer is certainly “yes.” But in our media-saturated age, says Mead Director David Little, photographers may need to stretch the traditional boundaries of the medium to make their work stand out.

And Little is confident the photos that are part of a new exhibit at the Mead have met that challenge. “Tell It Like It Is — or Could Be,” one of several new displays the museum has opened for the 2017-18 school year, features numerous large-scale photographs by artists who use a variety of means, aside from size, to creative compelling narratives that “break the spell of image saturation,” as exhibit notes put it.

Other exhibits at the Mead include “Home Away From Home,” which is devoted to 20th-century Russian painters who lived outside the former Russian Empire and Soviet Union; a collection of work by the late Michael Mazur, a painter and printmaker who was one of the most distinguished artists to graduate from Amherst; and a show by multimedia artist Saya Woolfalk, who uses video and other mediums to depict a fictional world of half-plant, half-human creatures.

“Tell It Like It Is” occupies the Mead’s Fairchild Gallery, the museum’s largest space and the first place visitors encounter. The gallery was extensively reconfigured last year to become a center for contemporary art, and it has been modified again to display the large photographs, some as high as 15 feet.

Among the photographs are two self-portraits by Cindy Sherman, who has made a career of photographing herself under different guises and identities to offer commentary on stereotypical images of women in film, advertising and other media. In her Amherst portraits — printed on metal to give them a particular sheen — she poses as aging but still-glamorous films stars from the 1920s, with elegant clothing and perfectly coiffed hairstyles.

Danielle Amodeo, the Mead’s coordinator of marketing and public programs, emphasizes that Sherman has been in the news of late; in late July she made her Instagram account public (she had previously declined to share photographs online) and revealed numerous distorted and manipulated selfies, perhaps as a commentary on the practice.

“The timing of our exhibit is pretty fortunate in that sense,” said Amodeo.

The most dramatic photographs are by Kenya’s Mimi Cherono Ng’ok, as they’re printed on 15-foot wallpaper that museum staff have affixed to one end of the gallery; an image of a jungle scene, and another of a white horse twisting its head away from the camera, come from an exhibit Ng’ok staged in Europe, “Everyone is Lonely in Kigali.”

One of the show’s most arresting images is Stan Douglas’ “The Second Hotel Vancouver,” in which the Canadian photographer used 3-D software to re-imagine a former grand hotel in Vancouver, built in 1916 and demolished in 1949; it briefly became a home to over 1,000 WWII veterans and their families after the war due to severe housing shortages at the time.

Douglas’ recreation of the ornate building, which he based on archival photographs and old film images, has a noirish feel, a nighttime scene that’s eerily devoid of people and ominously dark; light shows in a handful of windows, illuminating tiny interiors with empty beds and closets and, in one case, a head of a female mannequin adorned with a wig.

“Burning News,” meanwhile, a trio of photographs by Tim Parchikov of Russia, portrays a standing figure reading the Russian newspaper “Kommepcahtb” (“Kommersant” in the western alphabet). In the photos, the paper is on fire, the readers seemingly oblivious even as the flames obscure their faces.

“You can look at this as a commentary on the speed at which the hottest, newest news becomes old, given how fast information comes at us today,” said Little.

Little has included in the exhibit a classic documentary photo, “The Living Dead at Buchenwald,” taken in 1945 by Margaret Bourke-White of survivors at the Nazi concentration camp. He sees that as a good way to contrast the more traditional style of photography with the new ones, particularly for students.

Photographers today, he said, “are using a different kind of narrative than the traditional ‘you are there’ motif.”

Paintings, prints, and video 

Much of the material from the other Mead exhibits comes from the museum’s own collection, including the paintings in “Home Away From Home: Russian Artists Abroad.” As exhibit notes state, many Russian artists in the early 20th century were drawn to the new styles centered in Paris, while others fled the chaos of the Russian Revolution and subsequent Civil War.

Thus you have Vladimir Davidovich Baranoff-Rossiné’s “The Peasant Woman and the Cow,” a colorful Cubist experiment in gouache, circa 1912, that the artist created while living in Paris from 1911-15 and studying the work of Paul Cézanne and other French artists. Baranoff-Rossiné later became a leading avant-garde figure in Russian art before he was murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz in 1944.

The gouache and watercolor “Self Portrait,” by Antoine Pevsner, also shows some Cubist influence, as well as considerable abstraction, with the artist’s face floating in a kaleidoscope of swirling colors and undefined images. Pevsner visited Paris in 1911 and 1913 and settled there in 1923.

Alla Rosenfeld, the Mead’s curator of Russian and European art, has created the Russian exhibit as well as another on the changes in European landscape painting from the 1600s to the early 1900s. The latter outlines how the formal, classical paintings of the earlier era gave way to impressionism and modernism in the 20th century; included are works by Charles-François Daubigny, Alfred Sisley and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, among others.

The exhibit on Michael Mazur’s work, continued from earlier this year, and that of Saya Woolfalk, both put the emphasis back on contemporary art. Mazur, a 1957 Amherst graduate who worked in several mediums, created one of his most interesting works with “Self Portrait with Nets and Runner,” a 1986 composite piece of pastel, lithograph print and paper collage made by fastening separate works together.

And Woolfalk’s exhibit, in the Mead’s historic Rotherwar Room — a wood-paneled room originally designed in England in the early 1600s — includes videos, colorful digital prints and a sculpted female figure in costume that can best be examined via the augmented reality application Refrakt on a smartphone.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

For additional information on exhibits and admission (always free) at the Mead Museum of Art, visit amherst.edu/museums/mead.