Guy Mendes

Arts

not-your-grandmothers’ Nude Show

Heads up, Lexington! Just when the winter’s cold and grey was starting to get your seasonal affective disorder riled up, along comes a blast of heat and light, courtesy of the Lexington Art League’s new exhibit ARTIST:BODY.

Drawn from artists and private collections in the region by guest curator Julien Robson, the show is a selection of self-portraits, most of them nudes. No, this is not a replacement for the long-running LAL annual exhibit, The Nude, which was put out to pasture a couple of years back for a well-deserved rest. ARTIST:BODY is something else again, and definitely not-your-grandmothers’-Nude Show.

Photos courtesy Guy Mendes

Board member Haviland Argo felt compelled to make two things clear: “There are representations of nudity in this show.” And, “There are NO representations of sex in this show.” He added: “It is not a show of titillating images and objects. It is a thoughtful explication of the artist’s complicated relationship to the body.”

The images to be found in ARTIST:BODY are more of the in-your-face variety, provocative but also poignant, occasionally whimsical, and sometimes funny, even with death looming. Anette Messager gives new meaning to the term Bearded Lady. Shinique Smith turns work clothes into a bound-up version of the Venus of Willendorf. Leslie Lyon’s idyllic three-panel romp ends with an unexpected inversion. Julius Deutschbauer’s beefy real self against an impressive bookshelf is as good as it gets. Annie Sprinkles’ inventive Bosom Ballet is followed up by a more documentary tone in her Beats Cancer Ballet. And Martha Wilson and John Coplans remind us that time takes its toll on us all.

Robson, formerly a curator at Louisville’s Speed Museum, says, “Artists have increasingly employed themselves as both the subject and object of their work. This type of art can be seen as a form of self-portraiture that addresses identity…and how an artist deals with the nature of beauty, desire, sexuality and mortality.”

Louis Zoellar Bickett, What I Read, Inkjet Print

Louis Zoellar Bickett, What I Read, Inkjet Print

Robson purposely mixed works by international art stars like Kiki Smith, Cindy Sherman, Francesca Woodman and Sam Taylor-Johnson with regional artists to put them in a broader framework. Hence, we are fortunate to have Louis Bickett showing us what he’s reading-in-the-raw, Mare Vaccaro contemplating her lovely self-portrait-within-a-self-portrait, Carrie Burr’s form pressed into a large pile of Forbidden Black Rice, and Chris Radtke’s dual self-image made up of wooden boxes and broken glass.

Also on display, in effect, are the collectors, the largest of which is the 21c Museum Hotel Foundation. To see its contributions to this show gives Lexingtonians some idea of what they’ll find at the new Lexington 21c, which opens with a ribbon cutting on February 29th at 3 pm.

ARTIST:BODY features 27 artists, including Thaniel Ion Lee, Cynthia Norton, Gabriel Martinez, Rene Pena, Hannah Wilke, Xaviera Simmons, Penelope Slinger and Mark Boyle.

There is much for the eye to contemplate, and for the mind to see.

Besides producing high quality exhibits, the LAL has been building wider support for artists in Kentucky, with its Community Supported Arts harvests and sales, (some of which are still available on their website) as well as their periodic auctions for collectors, both of which have benefitted area artists.

Arts

VIVIAN MAIER: ON THE STREET

University of Kentucky Art Museum

Through July 26

A Review for Under Main

First and foremost, there is the work. The photographs of Vivian Maier on exhibit at the University of Kentucky Art Museum are immediately arresting, thanks to her eye for formal composition. They are compelling, because of the crazy quilt mix of people depicted in the 1950s U.S. metropolis. And they are charming, owing to an arch sense of humor and an abiding affection for women and children. Seeing this small but insightful show leads one to a greater appreciation for the unconventional and ultimately unknowable woman we see peering out at us from deep inside her own obsession.

But the afterimages that linger beyond the viewing are as much about the backstory, or the Vivian Maier Mystery (as a BBC documentary calls it), as they are about the images. If you spend a couple of hours on the internet in Vivian Maier Land, it’s easy to see there’s trouble ahead and trouble behind. Nanny Strangest! cries a Wall Street Journal headline. The Greatest Street Photographer You Never Heard Of, says Mother Jones. Legal Battle Over Vivian Maier’s Work, reports the NY Times. In the six years since her death, there have been two films made about her, and five books of her photographs have been published, all thanks to a few collectors and dealers who found her work in dispersal sales and have been promoting it ever since. There are, of course, lawyers arguing over who should get the proceeds, competing genealogical researchers have identified different French heirs, and late word has it that a long lost brother, Charles, has turned up and been awarded the rights to the photographs by the Cook County (IL) Probate Court, which wants its own cut of the action.

Meanwhile, Vivian Maier’s life has been scrutinized and called into question. Because she made 150,000 negatives over four decades, showing them to no one, stashing them in storage units, only to lose them when she couldn’t pay the rent, she is now assumed to have been “a private, unhappy person” who left us with “the riddle of her sad life” (WSJ). It is reported that she wore men’s clothes and boots, and that some of the kids she nannied nicknamed her “Bird Lady.” Some of them loved her, to the point of taking care of her late in life, and others say she was cruel and abusive and speculated that perhaps she had been abused as a child. One person who knew her says she might have been in the autistic spectrum. The fact that she hoarded newspapers and other items along with her negatives, and that she became more temperamental with age led one writer to surmise that Maier’s behavior was symptomatic of “a haunted, morbid psychology.” But a piece in The New Yorker cautions that neither was she a Mary Poppins, nor a surrogate Mommie Dearest. “To suggest her choices were the result of some as yet uncovered emotional trauma is to assume that her life was lived in reaction to pain.” Poor woman–she didn’t ask for this dissection of her psyche. She has been made into a public figure, without her permission.

Vivian Maier was a spy in the house of love. With her French accent and German camera, she was a kind of foreign correspondent, disguised as an au pair, who amassed a voluminous dossier on urban American life, and then filed it away, her obsession satisfied with the acquisition and collection of images—and not with the dissemination of them. Perhaps she found her joy in seeing the world through the camera and making the exposure. When an image comes into focus on the ground glass, the world is seen anew. To look through a cameral is an adventure, and a form of play. When the shutter is tripped, a photographer feels that anything can happen. Vivian Maier’s twin-lens Rolleiflex was her passport into other peoples’ lives. It gave her the access she craved, but at the same time kept her at some remove—the strategy of a consummate observer.

Among the things she took pleasure in observing were reflections of herself. One of the self-portraits in this exhibit reveals a rare glimpse of her enjoying the chase. In it a worker lifts a mirror out of a truck, seemingly unaware that there is a woman in the mirror taking a picture. For 125th of a second, a smile plays across her face. That’s the woman that three of her former charges spoke of when they wrote this death notice for the Chicago Tribune: Vivian Maier, proud native of France and Chicago resident for 50 years, died peacefully on Monday [April 23, 2009]. Second mother to John, Lane and Matthew. A free and kindred spirit who magically touched the lives of all that knew her. Always ready to give her advice, opinion or a helping hand. Movie critic and photographer extraordinaire. A truly special person who will be sorely missed but whose long and wonderful life we all celebrate and will always remember.

As for the industry that has grown up around her work, it has endowed a Vivian Maier Scholarship to allow emerging female photographers to attend the prestigious School of the Art Institute. And without those collectors and gallerists—in the case of this exhibit, John Maloof and the Daniel Greenberg Gallery–no one would have ever heard of Vivian Maier in the first place. Are we to canonize her and place her in the pantheon of photographic heroines of the 20th century? Lord knows she may have suffered enough. Imagine what she went through when her archive was sold out from under her. But is she to be mentioned in the same breath with Helen Levitt, Margaret Bourke-White, Diane Arbus, Lisette Model, Ruth Orkin, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post-Wolcott, Imogene Cunningham, Bernice Abbott, Laura Gilpin, Evon Streetman, Francesca Woodman, Carrie Mae Weems, Mary Ellen Mark, Linda Connor, Annie Leibovitz, Lorna Simpson, Susan Meiselas, Donna Ferrato, Deborah Luster, Debbie Fleming Caffery and Sally Mann? Perhaps. We have seen only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to prints from Vivian Maier’s thousands of negatives. Hundreds of rolls remain undeveloped. When the legal wrangling is all said and done, we can expect that more of her work will be brought to light.

Other Streets: Photographs from the Collection

Speaking of wanting to see more, the UK Art Museum has put up an excellent selection of street photography from its collection to help place Maier’s work in a broader context. As you leave the thoughtfully-sequenced Maier exhibit, take a right and you will find prints by Magnum great Bruce Davidson. Take a second right down the next hallway and you’ll see images by Lexington Camera Club members Van Deren Coke, Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Robert C. May—early documentary work from the 1950s. Several of Garry Winogrand’s “Women Are Beautiful” photographs are on the opposite wall.

Together, the two exhibits remind us of the important role the UK Art Museum has played in the regional photographic community, especially over the past 18 years, since Bob May’s bequest begat the excellent lecture series that bears his name, and funds were earmarked for exhibits and the purchase of prints. The museum has expanded its collection and made photography a point of emphasis in its programming. We can thank Bob, and the museum staff for that.