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Art in the Afternoon

I had time to slip into the SUArt Galleries Tuesday during my lunch hour to catch a couple of exhibits before they close on Friday.

The first is North and South: Berenice Abbott’s U.S. Route 1.

You could almost miss Abbott’s photographs, as her work was tucked in a back gallery space, far away from the Kiki Smith exhibit prominently on display. This raises a question, and please forgive my digression. Do multiple, concurrent exhibits in a museum lessen the impact of the art and lead to fatigue on the part of art-goers, as visitors move through several rooms? If you’re like me, you sometimes get to the point where you want to say: “Enough. I’m done. Let’s go get coffee.”

Anyway … back to Berenice Abbott.

Berenice Abbott in 1979. Photo by Hank O’Neal.

In the summer of 1954 the photographer and two companions traveled the length of U.S. Route 1, from Key West, Florida, to Fort Kent, Maine. During the trip Abbott made more than 400 8-by-10-inch photographs and more than 2,000 smaller images using her Rollieflex camera. The exhibit presents 50 images from Abbott’s journey, and in these pictures of Maine potato farmers, Florida motels, small towns and average Americans, we are given a snapshot of the nation during the post-World War II era.

Potato farmer, Aroostock County, Maine, 1954.

Two photographs stood out for me. The first was Daytona Beach, Daytona, Florida, 1954. The image shows some teens sitting on a railing in the foreground while an illuminated, soft-focus Ferris wheel or other amusement park ride spins in the background. You can almost hear the kids screaming with glee and smell the popcorn and cotton candy wafting in the air.

Daytona Beach, Daytona, Florida, 1954

The second image was No cursing, No drunks allowed—a low angle shot of a cop seated at coffee shop counter with his back to the camera. A boy in profile leans against the counter on the other side, facing the police officer. A ketchup bottle and a napkin dispenser sit on top of the white counter, and the composition draws the viewer’s eye toward the boy. The picture possesses a strong narrative quality—in line with the work of painters Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell—and I imagined a scene where the police officer was the boy’s father and he was giving his son a lecture about the value of hard work and the importance of taking responsibility at a young age. In my story the boy worked at the diner after school.

The small size of the framed works and the intimate gallery space allowed me to get lost in the images and discover how people in the U.S. spent their leisure time in the 1950s.

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The second exhibit I checked out was The Hidden Beauty: Exploring the Aesthetics of Medical Science. The showcase of medical imagery, e.g. magnified shots of diseased organs, was organized by Norman Barker, a professor of pathology and art as applied medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and Dr. Christine Iacobuzio-Donahue, a gastrointestinal pathologist Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. The goal of the exhibit is to “leave the viewer with an appreciation of visual beauty inherent within the medical sciences.”

Exploded skull.

Having undergone multiple brain surgeries, I have always found MRIs and CT scans of my skull and brain alluring. And in getting my blood drawn by phlebotomists, I often make a mental connection between the crimson color of my blood collecting in a plastic tube with bright red oil paint smeared on a canvas.

Kidneys.

In roaming through the exhibit space, where I saw images of kidneys (which looked like balls of yarn), the netlike pattern of thinning bones in osteoporosis, a placenta, a smoker’s lung, a healthy human brain (which looked like a Pollock drip painting) and a scan of a patient with prostate cancer, I came away with a feeling of compassion for the patients—the owners of these organs and the people suffering from the diseases on display.

Placenta.

Many of the works offered bright colors and abstract patterns. But for me I was left with a strong theme of universality—the sense that all of our bodies will break down and ultimately fail us. The circumstances may be different, but the results the same. And in looking at some of the pictures, my faith tugged at me and I could not help but think that a divine master, call it God if you want, created this magnificent machine we call the human body.

Melanoma.

Both of the exhibits wrap up on Friday, March 9.

Writing

Julie Blackmon: Other Tales from Home

In visiting the Everson Museum in Syracuse, you could easily miss the exhibition Julie Blackmon: Other Tales from Home tucked in the small Robineau Gallery on the main floor. The exhibit, which closes Sept. 2, contains eight large-scale color photographs depicting family scenes. The images are a cross between common family snapshots and an artfully arranged tableau depicting the chaos of modern family life; and Blackmon seems comfortable straddling the line between reality and manipulation and taking the viewer along for the ride.

Blackmon fills the frame with so much information—in the form of kids, pets, food, plastic toys and other props—the viewer can linger in front of the works, as countless narrative connections spark the imagination. You also find yourself counting the number of kids and the different props in each scene.

Blackmon lives and works in Missouri. In her artist statement, found on her website, julieblackmon.com, she cites the lively narrative paintings of 17th century Dutch artist Jan Steen as an influence on her work. However, it may be Blackmon’s own family life that provides the most inspiration. She is the oldest of nine children and the mother of three, and she says, “These images are both fictional and auto-biographical, and reflect not only our lives today and as children growing up in a large family, but also move beyond the documentary to explore the fantastic elements of our everyday lives, both imagined and real.”

One of the most compelling aspects of her work is the care she takes in capturing children. The young subjects, whether they are her own children, her nieces and nephews or children from the neighborhood, reflect a sweet innocence in front of the camera. They play, pout, and cry, but cuteness is not the aim of the artist; these are not Facebook photos uploaded by proud parents. Instead, even though the scenes are staged, we get the sense these are kids acting like kids in a safe environment surrounded by family. In many cases, the subjects seem unaware of the camera’s presence. The result is Blackmon’s photos possess a timeless quality resembling the iconic American paintings of Norman Rockwell, but with an odd twist thrown in.

In Patio, for example, one of the works in the exhibit, we see what looks like a modern house in a sun-bleached California-type setting. There is a blue inflatable ball on the roof in the top right of the frame and a pink ball in the bottom left. A little girl in a white dress is looking at her reflection in the window, a toddler is scooting around on a blue stroller and a third child is crawling on the floor in the house, just inside the doorway.

A red charcoal grill stands in the middle of the frame with orange flames shooting out, and a large box of McDonald’s French fries rests on a circular table covered with a green tablecloth. A barefoot woman sits in a chair, her face buried in a large-scale glossy magazine called New You. A bag of Lay’s Classic potato chips has been placed near her feet. The viewer is left to wonder: does she know there are children playing close to the open fire? Does she care?  

And that’s the beauty of this exhibition. The images remain fertile in your mind, as you think about the families depicted in the scenes. You get the sense it would be fun to spend an evening with them, to take part in the chaos of their meals, games and merriment, while at the same time having the freedom—like an aunt or an uncle—of being able to leave the house at the end of the night.

It also seems Blackmon could revisit this work over and over again, dreaming up more scenarios for her family to act out without the images becoming repetitive. You can just imagine scenes of kids getting ready for school, a baby screaming after dropping its pacifier, toddlers sitting on the kitchen floor and struggling to tie their shoes, little boys chasing frogs or fireflies on the front lawn on a summer evening and little girls standing in front of a full-length mirror, modeling their mothers’ clothes and jewelry.

The one question I keep asking myself again and again in rethinking this exhibition is, for each photograph, how long did it take Blackmon to get the kids to pose exactly as she wanted? And did she have to bribe them with promises of ice cream sundaes or trips to a local water park?