By Daniel E. Stetson
So why did we place photographs amongst Art in Louisiana: Views Into the Collection?
Art history has a traditional way of discussing artworks using the simple concept of compare and contrast. When curating the Exploring Photography exhibition, we chose to add photographs to the permanent collection installations as commentary and as questions by pairing them with other works. Subjects inferred include issues of the Louisiana landscape, our environment, class, race, and American history and culture. Sometimes these interventions offer questions of the artworks around them as historic documents and sometimes they question them as artworks, but hopefully these combinations spur thoughtful reflections in viewers.
Introductory and Silver Galleries
Presented within the introductory gallery for Art in Louisiana are two documentary images by Debbie Fleming Caffery from a series she did in Baton Rouge following Hurricane Katrina. First, on an entry title wall for Exploring Photography is Where Will I Go?, a powerful image focusing on a woman’s face that appears deeply sad. She is sitting outside the River Center when it served as a shelter for Katrina evacuees. Directly behind her is an out of focus National Guardsman leaning against the wall. This image seems to ask the question—who is being protected, the woman or others in the community? She is situated to appear to be looking at the A.J. Meek image of a flooded Mississippi River. To the right on the next wall is a reproduction of the famous Persac map of plantations on the Mississippi River. Layers of meaning and questions can be found here about southern history and our nation; natural disasters and personal circumstance; and national and personal tragedy.
In the same gallery is another photograph by Caffery simply entitled X. This humble and elegant image shows an extended arm on a lap with a nearly impossible to see X made with a black marker on top of the outstretched hand. This mark showed participation in the shelter but may also be read in this image as referencing the “canceling out” of the hand and the person. This silver gelatin print is adjacent to our silver gallery. The bling in this marvelous gallery reflects another use of silver in these many beautiful and historic decorative functional objects. These pre-1860 and post-1860s objects were once polished and served by hands not unlike the one pictured by Caffery, an anonymous black person serving others. In Louisiana, in the South, and in our nation, troubled issues of race resonate and continue to ask us to consider our ongoing role in this American project.
We have placed two photographs in the landscape gallery, one that reflects on our immediate environment and the other alludes to the concept of “manifest destiny” and Native Americans of North America. A.J. Meek’s image of the refinery explosion is seen from across the river. The scale of this disaster is best understood when one notices the State Capitol tower to the right under the vast black smoke plume. This art work hangs among four beautiful paintings by Alexander John Drysdale of the wetlands and trees of Louisiana. Drysdale used kerosene and oil paint to create his signature style of the hazy, wet Louisiana landscape. These works relied on petroleum in their making as we rely on gas, oil and chemicals in our day-to-day lives. The environmental issues loom large in this photograph but there are no easy answers.
The second pairing involves an Edward Sheriff Curtis image of a Blackfeet tribal member from the northern plains, Iron Breast, Piegan. This work is from Curtis’ monumental project to document The North American Indian through photography. It is installed next to Alexander-Francois Loemans’ painting Canadian Rockies with Native Americans. The photo is from 1900 with the painting producedless than a decade before the photograph. Curtis’ goal was to document the “vanishing race” while Loemans’ is less clearly defined. His style of rendering the Rocky Mountains enobles and romanticizes the landscape. Loeman places the figures of Native Americans on a promontory, small in scale within the larger power of nature, reveling in the the sublime of nature. Both works can be seen as artifacts of the time of westward expansion and “manifest destiny” made real. Both artists are in a way “tourists” of a time in history that we now reflect upon.
The next photo placement involves the most lauded artist of the 20th century and important decorative art and ceramics from Louisiana. Pablo Picasso’s 1954 portrait by Yousuf Karsh shows him with one of his decorated ceramic vases seven years after beginning work with the Madoura Potters in Vallauris, France. He worked there with the master potters as artisans to form the basis of his works in clay on and off for 25 years. The potters would make the work—a vase, plate, pitchers etc.—on request or he might grab something off the studio shelf to work upon. Picasso might alter the shape, but he then decorated them with his images, often fitting the image to the form, as is seen in this nude pictured on the large vase. The potters assisted with the glazing formulas colors and helped him realize his vision. For this portrait, Karsh reported that Picasso could see himself reflected in his lens and adjusted himself for this image to form the composition we see today.
I compare it to Irene Borden Keep’s Iris Vase from 1904. This high gloss, beautifully proportioned and glaze painted vase uses the full rounded shoulder of the form to express the splendor of a large white iris. Like Picasso’s work, Keep’s vase was also shaped by another, while both artists are the decorators/designers of the main images. One is referred to as “high art” by a master and the other is referred to as “decorative” arts and crafts-period pottery. What does this say about the medium of clay, the role of the makers, artwork as a group or team process and about gender?
The portrait gallery offers many opportunities to add photographs from our collection, as we are rich in landscapes and so are we in portraits. The first comparison has Nancy Webber’s double portrait comparison of Hans Holbein’s historic portrait of King Henry VIII and Jim McGovern, a contemporary longshoreman, who looks remarkably like him. Webber’s series Life Imitates Art finds a remarkable match here. This contemporary work from 1990 is placed on our salon style wall of historic British portraits that go back as far as the 17th century. To the right of Mr. McGovern is a portrait of Admiral Viscount Horatio Nelson from about 1788 by John Hoppner. This famous British naval hero is juxtaposed with a dock laborer whose job it is to load and unload ships. Here is Mr. McGovern amongst royals and nobles looking like he may have walked off a Hollywood sound stage readying for a role as Henry VIII. The differences in class and and economics can be felt and experienced by viewers.
On the wall with a group of Louisiana portraits, ranging from the 19th century to the 20th, we placed a photograph from the 21st century of Altheus and Bernadine Banks, At Home on Martin Luther King Boulevard, Central City, May 12, 2006 by retired LSU professor of photography Thomas Neff. It is to the right of another double portrait of a couple, Heldner and Colette by New Orleans painter Knute Heldner from around the 1940s. Both these couples make striking images of New Orleans residents, one a painted expressionistic image of love and tenderness, the other a proud document of survivors of Katrina on their porch at home. The wall pictured behind Altheus and Bernadine is graffiteed with what are now cryptic marks, placed by disaster response teams, that seem like vandalism in this image. This 21st century portrait of an African American couple looks out upon a room of portraits, including those who held slaves, and it seems to ask questions of the room and of all of us. Their honest and tender expressions reveals a vulnerability we all share with the always pending ravages of nature, and the hardships that can be experienced by all of humanity.
Complex issues with no easy answers abound. Our intention is to spur needed discussion and thoughtful reflection. The LSU Museum of Art is a place that prizes free speech and is a safe space for all people to gather and ask questions. Louisiana is an amazing cultural environment where we celebrate differences, are confronted by all the modern challenges of the environment, issues of race and class, as we also take pleasure in the food, music, beauty and joyous people found here.
Daniel E. Stetson is LSU MOA's Executive Director and curator of Exploring Photography.