|"Brown House" by Shari Wilkins|
|"Winifred's House" by Shari Wilkins|
|"Ivy House" by Shari Wilikins|
|"4499R" by Laura Ruth Bidwell|
|"6564U" by Laura Ruth Bidwell|
By Tom Wachunas
“… Reality has always been interpreted through layers of manipulation, abstraction, and intervention… Every photograph has many truths and none. Photographs are ambiguous, no matter how seemingly scientific they appear to be. They are always subject to an uncontrollable context…” - Taryn Simon
“You come to the photograph as an aesthetic object with no context... Then you step in and read the text and then out again to revisit the image in a completely different way. I'm interested in that space between text and image. The piece becomes the negative space between the two.” - Taryn Simon
EXHIBIT: Art as Journal: Laura Ruth Bidwell and Shari Wilkins / THROUGH NOVEMBER 4, 2018, at STUDIO M in the Massillon Museum / 121 Lincoln Way East in downtown Massillon / Tuesday through Saturday 9:30am - 5:00pm, Sunday 2:00pm - 5:00pm / Phone: 330-833-4061 /
Please note: I apologize for being so late with this post on the fascinating inaugural exhibit at Massillon Museum’s beautiful new STUDIO M Gallery. Last day for viewing this show is Sunday, November 4.
Of all the myriad forms that a work of art can be, now more than ever photography remains the most challenging if not problematic to me. What makes a photograph a work of art? What distinguishes it from the plethora of photographic images that seemingly assault our daily lives? What separates it, for example, from all those terribly ordinary snapshots stuffed into social media? One unfortunate by-product of the photosaturated culture we’ve created for ourselves is the sheer ease with which we can sate our gluttonous appetites for the mundane. Fast-food for the eyes.
Ansel Adams’ dictum comes to mind: “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” The notion of a photograph being an intentionally creative act on the part of the photographer is a prickly proposition, arguably implying that reckoning a photograph as art is simply a matter of determining how effectively its visual components adhere to certain aesthetic principles of formalistic excellence. But it’s rarely that simple.
I included the above quotes from contemporary multimedia artist Taryn Simon because I think they offer an avenue to appreciating the photojournalistic or documentary character of the pictures in this exhibit. As discrete two-dimensional images, their essentially quotidian subjects are captured in a straight-on fashion, which is to say they’re unembellished by any really fancy special effects. But as Simon reminds us, embracing context is key. To that I would add the vital importance of presentation. So read the artist’s statements posted on the wall to better grasp their motivations and meanings. Therein you learn this about Laura Ruth Bidwell’s “The Great Tangle” series:
“When we moved from Peninsula to Cleveland, the one thing I truly grieved for was the great abundance of forest and tangles surrounding our property and in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Once I started walking around my urban neighborhood with camera in hand I could see how much lush foliage and tangles existed among the houses and buildings around me. This show has given me the opportunity to pair up what I call The Great Tangles from my rural and urban lives.”
And of her works here, the “Promised Land” series, Shari Wilkins has written: "Shot primarily on miniature instant film, this project portrays images of homes built in my father's hometown of Cairo, Illinois… It is a mythological place in my family's collective memory… After a twenty year absence, I visited Cairo and was struck by the abandoned town that I visited often as a child. I set out to find my grandmother's home as my first step in documenting some of the remaining homes, some abandoned, some not…”
The fronts of every house in Wilkins’ miniature pictures are seen from enough of a distance so that no matter how close you come to the actual picture, the details remain slightly blurred and fuzzy, though still clear enough to show varying degrees of decrepitude or abandonment. Especially interesting is how the photos are uniformly presented, all seeming to float under glass on wide-margined matts framed with very plain (pine?) wood. Like so many preserved museum specimens of extinct life, or fossils, the pictures have become objects - reliquaries of urban entropy. There’s something distinctly poetic in how they exude a saddening narrative about the historic diminishment and shrunken dimensionality of a once promising place. It’s a story certainly not unique to Cairo, Illinois.
Though not so overtly mournful in scope, the narrative contained in Laura Ruth Bidwell’s photos is no less engaging than Wilkins’, and equally well-presented. In the journey of leaving her home in a richly sylvan environment to live in a more urban setting, Bidwell tells us how her missing the natural richness surrounding her former home was relieved by finding ample enough evidence of the same around her new one. Consequently her unframed photos, most of them capturing various densities of lush foliate textures, shapes and colors, and each uniformly mounted on a white birch panel, are presented in pairs, suggesting a before-and- after scenario. Interestingly, though, the pictures have no titles. They’re coded only with strange numbers, so we don’t know which home is which. Her memory of the first beloved locale has become intermingled and ‘tangled’ with her connection to the second. Whatever anxieties Bidwell may have initially experienced in her moving from one place to another, her handsome photos represent the discovery of a comforting kinship between the two.
Returning for a moment to the idea of photographs as fast food for the eyes: If a more gourmet cuisine, as it were, is what you seek, be thankful for real art galleries. In this case, the featured entrees at Studio M are particularly savory.