The KMA shows off some contemporary photography from its collection
by Matthew Blanshei
The Knoxville Museum of Art offers visitors to its new exhibit of photography from its permanent collection a special guide that attempts to map out how the works on display have â“transformed photography into a vital contemporary art medium marked by innovation and experimentation.â” The interactive guide asks visitors a series of questions that reveals much about photography today: â“Can you identify photographs that have been altered using digital software or darkroom techniques? Can you identify photographs that represent straightforward views of the subjects as they appeared? Can you identify photographs that depict places or settings that were invented or staged by the artist?â”
Before you get too far along in this game, you may get the sense that something fundamental is missing, that some question or set of questions hasnâ’t been asked but perhaps should have been. Or you may wish such questions could have been asked. Can you find photographs that present a beautiful, mysterious, original, disturbing, or in some way captivating image?
These questions were probably not asked because, unfortunately, the answer would more often than not have been no. It appears that the featured photographers were so preoccupied with, say, tweaking a famous painting (distorting a Caravaggio by taking a picture of it that uses only the existing light of the museum where it is displayed) or pulling a sleight of hand (photographing a chair set against shelves of wine corks that only become identifiable as you move closer to the image) or imitating a film still (an overly studied image of a woman who sits lost in thought) or imitating a 19thâ"century watercolor that they devoted too little attention to the image itself.
The end result of these formal experimentations is that, with one very notable exception, the subject, mood, and composition of the works on display lack the sense of detail, arrested motion, aura, and imminent disclosure which give an image the power to evoke something both photographer and viewer can feel without being able to control, possess, or identify. The exception: David Alleeâ’s stunning â“Stadium Light.â”
Alleeâ’s method is a simple one: Using a large-format camera to take pictures at night with long exposures (up to 20 minutes), he produces images that combine the artificiality of an Ed Ruscha pop-art painting with the documentary realism of an eerie urban setting illuminated solely by its own artificial lighting.
In the work on display at the KMA, â“Stadium Light,â” a partial rear view of Yankee Stadium taken from an anonymous, off-center, and mid-air vantage point turns a readily identifiable architectural monument into a snapshot stolen from a distant and alien world. The side of the stadium assumes the form of a shipâ’s bow, and the apparently empty seats have the appearance of an amorphous, miniaturized hologram. More striking still is how the absence of any material texture, conventional perspective, or natural color gives the cropped image of the stadium, subway tracks, bridge and street a flat, uniform quality that seems to place it in a dimension where photography and painting become distinct and yet inseparable realms.
Alleeâ’s photograph thus achieves what the KMA too generously credits to all the works on display: It explores the expressive possibilities of both painting and photography in a way that revitalizes both mediums. Moreover, he does so in a manner that is animated by a critical spirit which is conspicuously absent from the other works. In other words, the depiction of the artificial, lifeless, and empty stadium seems to suggest there is a dimension to it that individuals may at times get an intimation of, but then quickly dismiss. But precisely because this sense of unease isnâ’t normally seen or acknowledged, his photograph is capable of haunting our experience of modern life.
What: New photography from the KMA collection
Where: Knoxville Museum of Art
When: Through March 16
How much: $5
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