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Friday, September 2, 2011

Regarding Place and Wolfgang Staehle at University Art Museum

Marilyn Bridges - Castillo from Perpendicular, Yucatan, Mexico 1982
The University Art Museum is blessed with a pretty impressive photography collection, and has been showcasing a sizable chunk of it through the summer under the title Regarding Place: Photographs from the Permanent Collection. Paired with three digital projections of web- or video-derived color images by the New York City-based, German-born Wolfgang Staehle - who will give a talk at the museum at 7 p.m. on Wednesday (Sept. 7) - this offers a nice opportunity to take in a nearly century-long swath of fine photography.

Regarding Place includes over 100 black-and-white pictures by 17 artists, some of them iconic, some cult favorites, some little-known. The great majority of the prints in the show were donated to the museum’s collection over the last few decades by the Brown family, whose two children attended UAlbany in the 1980s and 1990s, and the show was organized by UAM curator Corinna Schaming, giving a sort of bi-level structure to the selection process. The result is somewhat uneven, but of a very high quality overall, and the installation takes on a subtly intriguing life of its own, as framed prints are variously grouped in rows, stacks, and grids, sometimes loosely spaced, sometimes tightly packed.

Andreas Feininger
Elevated Trestle, Division Street 1941
The premise of the show is, frankly, half baked. Many of these pictures struck me as being fairly indifferent to setting, or distinctly not about place at all – and the trouble it took to try to come up with a unifying theme for the show seems forced. This is evident in the rather tortured language of the press materials – for example, Schaming writes that these photographs “consider the resonance of a given site” and “foreground the direct and emotive appeal of black and white photography, while also informing current photography’s renewed interest in faithfully reproducing the visual world.” I’m sorry, but this is not my idea of meaningful description.

I’d be more comfortable with a less presumptuous approach – such as “here’s some really nice stuff from the collection, and isn’t it great to have a chance to look at it together on the walls instead of leaving it safe in a file drawer in the dark?” I mean, who needs all that theory? The bottom line: Photos like to be looked at, and it's very good to see these photos out of storage.

Highlights abound, including seven small prints by the ageless Manuel Alvarez Bravo that span the 1930s to the 1970s in a carefree leap; five big, bold prints by Andreas Feininger (two of which are also seen in the current New York, New York! show at The Hyde Collection); an appropriately random-seeming set of 10 images by Andy Warhol (these were donated by the Warhol Foundation in 2008); and five Joel Meyerowitz prints from the 1960s - before he discovered large-format color.

Three photographers are represented by a whole portfolio of 12 or more images: Marilyn Bridges, who makes precisely composed aerial pictures of famous sites; Douglas Huebler, a conceptual artist of the unassuming type; and Sally Gall, whose landscapes are lovely, if perhaps a bit sentimental.

Joel Meyerowitz - JFK Airport (Caddy and Christmas star) 1968

Not at all sentimental are the projections by Staehle, though they are also calm and sweet in their way. His pieces, which consist of 24-hour web views of two scenes (one rural, one urban) captured at short intervals and an hourlong continuous loop showing Niagara Falls (with pleasantly roaring soundtrack), struck me as being simply and singularly about the passage of time. Staehle’s cool gaze, aided by Internet technology, allows the viewer to contemplate at leisure a very quietly unfolding drama. Not particularly innovative or unique, in my opinion, but worthy of attention.

Note: If you want to see the Regarding Place and Wolfgang Staehle shows, you must act quickly - they end on Sept. 10.

Rating: Recommended

Wolfgang Staehle - still image from Eastpoint 2004

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