November 25, 2008

Johnson Exhibit Highlights Resilience of Human Spirit

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As I walked down the wood-paneled hallway of the first floor in the Johnson, I spied the current resting place for a couple dozen or so photographs out of the world famous Martin Margulies collection. Mr. Margulies’ extensive anthology is based in Miami, but, until January 4, a presentation of photographs titled Silent but Not Quiet: The Message in Documentary Photographs stands menacingly in Bower’s Gallery, daring you to ponder what commonalities exist between the diverse arrangement of photos and how something can be silent yet still make a sound.
The exhibit features the works of five different artists. Eric Poitevin’s 1999 work, “Untitled,” is a photograph taken from the base of a massive tree, looking up at its network of spindly branches. The depth of this photo is its most unique feature. As you look deeper, you become caught in this spider web of twigs, and notice progressively minute details within the piece until you finally reach the sky — boring and overcast, nothing to offer. However, as you look from the sky back into the treacherous maze of wood, the dark side of the picture comes into focus. It is evident that the tree is dead or injured. Pieces of bark have been ripped off, exposing lighter wood.
Paul Caponigro’s photos from Portfolio of Stonehenge are next in line. At first glance, each photo is simply a different perspective of a mysterious monument. However, upon further investigation, your impression of the stones starts to morph:
With a distant shot, the circle of monuments looks to be a meeting place far away from civilization. A closer profile of one structure resembles a thinking woman. When looking at a couple of smaller stones casting their shadows on the silty ground, tombstones may come to mind. A super-distant shot reveals that Stonehenge is at the mercy of the elements; another overcast sky shows that storms have wreaked havoc and caused cracks in the mighty rock.
The centerpiece of the Margulies collection are photographs by Lewis Hine, depicting child labor and poor working conditions in factories, mills and fields during the early 20th century. In a majority of the photographs, kids aged 10 to 15 are lined up like sardines, either by themselves or in large groups, and stare with tough faces — ones that could easily be carved out of stone. In a few, there are glimpses of smiles, but mostly the children glare in defiance. Hine’s photographs give us a clear message: These children are dirty — parts of an assembly line or field workers living in run-down wooden shacks, the likes of which one could mistake for abandoned doghouses — but they are not broken.
It is in these pictures that the paradoxical name of the exhibition begins to remove itself from the fog that is literally present in most of the works. With his photographs, Hine presents these children, and U.S. citizens in general, as folk that won’t complain or whine about their conditions, but instead maintain a strong spirit. It is clear in these children’s faces that they have not lost their dignity or character.
Martin Z. Margulies, one of the more prominent names within the contemporary art world, lent many of the works in the exhibit, including: Poitevin’s “Untitled”; part of the Portfolio of Stonehenge; Hine’s photos; a huge photo by Paul Seawright depicting a burnt down, but still free-standing tree, surrounded by a warehouse; and two Edward Burtynsky ektacolor photos of a quarry. In addition, Margulies donated a steel abstract sculpture, titled “Double Variation” by the British sculptor Anthony Caro, which is now wedged in between White and McGraw halls on the “South Lawn.”
Even though there do not appear to be many parallels between groups of photos within the collection, each photo portrays fundamental virtues such as perseverance, determination and defiance within a somber environment. The landscape, be it a cut-up quarry or a Seattle-esque, cloud-enveloped sky, acts on the figures within each photo, but no one in the photos is taking the punishment lying down.
The works appear as though they were taken at the edge of humanity, but they all invoke deep-rooted feelings within each viewer. For this reason, the Cornell Margulies collection is worth visiting.