Exhibit | On Paper: Picturing Painting
Artwork: Mickalene Thomas (American, born 1971). Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires, 2010. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Collectors Circle Fund for Art by African Americans, and Roger M. Dalsheimer Photograph Acquisitions Endowment, BMA 2010.36. © Mickalene Thomas, courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York.
Throughout its illustrious existence, the photograph has been categorized as something separate from the tradition of Western art, perhaps because the tool the artist wields is quite unlike the brush, the chisel, or the pencil. It is not a vehicle of stroke, but rather an complex machine that relies upon a hand-eye coordination so singular it makes the difficult look easy. Mechanical, if you will. Because the photograph is a duet of wo/man and machine (rather than tool), it hasn’t always received its proper due.
A new exhibition addresses photography within the tradition of Western art, drawing to attention the continuum that exists as tradition makes its way from the canvas to the print. On Paper: Picturing Painting, now on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art through September 11, 2016, presents four works that reinterpret masterpieces of painting as photographs. Curated by Kristen Hileman, the exhibition features contemporary prints by Rineke Dijkstra, Andres Serrano, the Starn Twins, and Mickalene Thomas, each of whom in turn references a classic from the Western cannon. This layering of meaning reminds us of the way in which artists return to the vaults for inspiration. The classic compositions and iconic themes find a warm welcome in our world. Whether homage or critique, references to high points in history are frequently celebrated if not revered.
Witness Mickalene Thomas’ Le dejeuner sur l’herbe: Le Trois Femmes Noires (2010), a brilliant reintepretation of Édouard Manet’s Le dejeuner sur l’herbe (1863). No longer is the picnic the playground of bourgeois white men; no longer are women mere decoration. In Thomas’s work, black women have come into the frame, gathered like the three graces and as direct as a Carrie Mae Weems portrait.
Andres Serrano’s Black Supper (1990, printed 1992) reenvisions Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1494–99). The work is a Cibachrome print that extends over five panels. Each panel distinguishes the groupings so that they can be individually known, creating a flow of tension and resolution that continuously moves through the work. As with many Serrano works, it is easy to forget that this is a photograph. As Serrano observed, “I am an artist first and a photographer second. My ‘medium’ is the world of ideas that I seek to present in a visually cohesive fashion. I think of myself as a conceptualist with a camera. In other words, I like to take the pictures in my head that may or may not have anything to do with photography.”
Also included in the exhibition is the Starn Twins’ Large Blue Film Picasso (1988–89), which recreate Picasso’s Deux femmes nues assises (1921) and Rineke Dijkstra’s Hel. Poland, August 12, 1998 (1998), which re-envisions Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (c. 1486). By tracing the threads as they move across the medium of painting and find home in the photograph, On Paper: Picturing Painting brilliantly reminds us that artists posses the singular ability to constantly reinvent the mediums with which they work infinitely.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.