Sometimes I am absolutely overcome with a feeling of intense pride for our city of Chicago; on such a day this week, I stepped out of the downtown rain and into the Chicago Cultural Center—Tiffany glass dome, mosaic tile-work, gold leaf plaster motifs, winding staircases. On the fourth floor: Barbara Crane: Challenging Vision, a 60 year retrospective of the Chicago-born photographer. Witnessing Crane’s immense oeuvre—some 300 photographs, representing samplings over 64 distinct bodies of work—I felt like one who discovers the evidence of mysterious, prolific, totemic relics—treasure in a cave. Yet here the “devotional” array does not sparkle garishly like rubies; rather, Crane’s work is crowned with a sort of humility. Branches, bones, fungi, flowers, regenerative accidents (the Wipe Out series), amorous scenes at fairgrounds and beaches—a massive, yet attentive, gathering of the fecund stuff of our world.
On Thursday, I attended a thoughtful, inspired gallery talk led by Abigail Foerstner, essayist on Barbara Crane.
The exhibit hall’s grand space, with its gold leaf plaster ornamentation reminiscent of natural motifs, finds harmony with Crane’s own rather organic “ornamentation”—repeated frames of human activity, building structures, and natural matter become a strangely reverent and “decorative” treatment. Her works are also reminiscent of nests, in the sense that their composition finds origin in the regenerative array of cast-off materials used to support new growth.
Foerstner shared charming, little stories about Crane—for many years, one could recognize Crane pulling her red golf bag filled with her camera equipment through downtown Chicago streets; in more pastoral settings, she carries her Deardorff camera in a red wagon through the woods. At the Polaroid studios in New York City and Cambridge, MA, she used one of only 4 cameras (and one proto-type) in the world which uses 20 X 24 peel apart prints (used for her photograph Potpourri). Some of her methods include photographing out-of-doors in the late night woods, while casting a strobe light on branches; when photographing pigeons, she held her camera in one hand and threw birdseed overhead with the other!
John Rohrbach comments on the experimental feel of her work: “On one level, the work is reminiscent of early snapshot photographs where people played with the camera rather than staidly following Kodak’s dictates of family vacation record keeping” (Foerstner 11). Alternatively, if one were to view Crane’s oeuvre through the lens of a “family vacation record”, one could witness the family of humankind, as it commutes downtown, partakes in beach-side romances, and journeys through national parks. Crane brings the feeling of the cosmic to a leaf or a stick, a bone a feather—Abigail calls her work a “parallel universe”—in her work we find the stuff of the everyday, and yet she confronts the most mundane with an attitude of such supreme attention, we feel as if we are witnessing peculiar, holy vestiges.
Abigail calls Crane’s studio itself—on the first floor of a converted Singer Sewing Machine Factory—a “universe,” and identifies the artist as “Barbara the Great Collector.” When Foerstner met Crane 25 years ago, the artist invited her into her kitchen for coffee—on the walls were installations of hub caps and feathers, broken glass, nuts and bolts in glass jars on the window sills; Crane told Foerstner: “Everything’s useful for a photograph.” The photographs which resonated with me the most are her On the Fence series, which Foerstner identifies as “sculptural” groupings (Foerstner 18). During a Guggenheim fellowship in Tucson, and without a darkroom, Crane forged a relationship with Polaroid Corporation, and began to take 8-by-10 inch Polaroids of various objects displayed on a backyard chain link fence.
Seemingly democratic in her affections and attention toward cast-off items of the natural and human world, she photographed the head of a cactus, held in place with twisty-ties, shiny black feathers wound through the links, a slide tray, a “Grandmother-to-be” tee-shirt, a dead rabbit. Her use of the expression “on the fence” speaks to me in terms of ambivalence and the liminal—the photographs are a strange temporal display of decay, re-use, the kitsch (I love the green twisty-ties as fasteners with the cactus!), the tragic (the rabbit) all weighted equally because of the continuity of the framework (the chain-link fence)—and yet each have different emotional resonance.
I was quite interested in Abigail’s comment that Crane’s Neon Series showcases a “mask-like ritual property.”
In the vein of imbuing strangers and public spaces with a sort of spiritual attention, Crane used 1500 sheets of film in the process of making People of the North Portal—folks exiting through a doorway at the Museum of Science and Industry. Here we see Crane’s motifs of repetition and rhythm, also found in such works as Commuter Discourse, in which she photographed, in the dazzling words of Abigail Foerstner: “the stampede facing west while the sunlight pours like a tsunami across the east.”
Armed with an enormous Super Speed Graphic camera, and hoping the local folks would consider her on hire for the parks department, Crane also embarked on capturing the Wrightsville Beach series.
I love Abigail’s perfect description of this series: “A magnetic field of coolers, jewelry, radios and sunglasses” punctuated with “intense body language.”
Other striking, novel arrangements of form, pattern, and repetition are developed in such works as Whole Roll: Albanian Soccer Players and in the series Urban Anomalies.
I am interested in the manner in which whole groups of pages in a novel can constitute the climax or the denouement, and yet the photograph is fragmentary yet has the feel of a whole world, a field of living action. Foerstner aptly identifies the “dramatic effect” created by the very nature of “photography as a medium that fragments each moment it records” (Foerstner 245). “Art critic Kirk Varnedoe characterizes the use of repetition and fragmentation in modern art as both liberating and imprisoning:
“On the one hand, the thing ripped from its former integral context, and given independent life, as indicative of the disruptions of new individual freedom; and on the other, the form recurring in exact or near-exact identity, as indicative of new conceptions in collective order” (Varnedoe 180).
Barbara Crane’s use of repetition builds rhythm and music:
“While doing the Repeat and the Petites Choses Series, I was taking notes at the symphony as visual diagrams of the crescendos, legatos, and staccatos in order to widen my visual experience” (Foerstner 243).
Consider Still Lifes (diptych)—the animal, photographed on both sides and doubled in self-confrontation.
A fellow artist, the sculptor Ann Bannard, gifted the opossum skull to Crane as a wedding present—with a note: “you are the only person in the world I could send a dead animal skull” (Foerstner 247). I admire Crane’s novel interpretation and enlivening of the still life trope—her graceful undoing of romantic notions concerning hermetic arrangements of beautiful objects—in the series we see fangs and frozen whiskers, delicately patterned wings, abstract animal matter. Her series Visions of Enarc similarly disrupts our sense of the romantic, as the towering floral life appears rather threatening:
The Barbara Crane exhibit is ongoing through January 10, 2010. Upcoming related events:
Thursday, December 17, 12:15 p.m.
Gallery talk led by Whitney Bradshaw, Curator of Photography for the Bank of America Collection
Thursday, January 7, 12:15 p.m.
Gallery talk with the artist
Make plans to visit the Chicago Cultural Center, free and open to the public, and MIR Appraisal Services, Inc.—mere blocks from the exhibition! Please make an appointment to see some of the works in our gallery, featuring several works by Chicago artists, including the late Ruth Duckworth, Emmanuel Viviano, among others...
307 N. Michigan Avenue, Suite 308
Chicago, IL 60601
Phone: (312) 814-8510
Foerstner, Abigail and Rohrbach, John. Barabara Crane: Challenging Vision. Chicago Cultural Center. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Varnedoe, Kirk. A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern. New York: Harry N. Adams, Inc., 1990.