Get Visual is the grateful recipient of a grant from The Christos N. Apostle Charitable Trust

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Roma-Bravo connection

An image from Alfonso Cuaron's Netflix film Roma

It’s in black and white; it’s in Spanish and indigenous languages, with subtitles; it takes place in early 1970s Mexico; and it is being distributed by Netflix. Yet Alfonso Cuaron’s autobiographical Roma sits atop many critics’ lists of the best films of 2018 and, improbably but also certainly, it will be a serious contender at next year’s Oscars.

Threshold by Manuel Alvarez Bravo
My friend Dick, who saw the film at home, urged me to catch Roma on the big screen if I could – in order to better experience its outstanding cinematography – and I am passing that advice on to you. In my case, I didn’t really have a choice, as I don’t subscribe to Netflix or any other media service (not even cable TV), so I was especially pleasantly surprised to learn that I could go to the Spectrum in Albany and see it there (it's also showing at Images Cinema in Williamstown, Mass.).

The Daydream by Manuel Alvarez Bravo
Though I have avoided reading any reviews of Roma until after I post this commentary, there’s no doubt it has been extensively covered in all the publications that offer such content, so I won’t try to add to those assessments here. Rather, I wish to share my perception of the connection between the work of the great 20th-century Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo and the imagery seen throughout Cuaron’s movie.

Striking Worker Assassinated by Manuel Alvarez Bravo
It can’t be coincidence – Cuaron (who did his own cinematography on this project) clearly was emulating Bravo’s content and style. And, why not? The film takes place in Mexico City (with a few short side trips into the countryside), where Bravo plied his trade for a remarkably long time (he was active until his death at age 100 in 2002), and where he made pictures of everyday life with a surreal twist, a description that could apply to Roma as well.

Sparrow, Light by Manuel Alvarez Bravo
From the floor-washing shots that open the film to the nearly endless still held under its closing credits, and throughout the rest of Roma, I was reminded again and again of images from the Bravo catalog. I present some of those images here as examples for those who’ve seen the movie (or plan to see it); I think you’ll agree that there’s a strong relationship.

title unknown by Manuel Alvarez Bravo
So, why should we care? Well, for one thing, Bravo deserves to be better known. If the attention this film is getting could also expand his following, that would be good for his legacy and for the new fans he will acquire. Admittedly, I have a bias (don’t I always?) – when I began making black-and-white photographs in 1972, Bravo’s work in photo books was among my earliest influences. And it nicely stands the test of time, as Cuaron’s film underscores.

Dog Number 20 by Manuel Alvarez Bravo
But there’s more to all this than nostalgia for a simpler time. Indeed, Roma describes a time that was brutally complex. But perhaps it takes a simpler medium – slowly moving black-and-white – to help us understand the meaning of that time, and ours. I thank Cuaron for making this film, though it is painfully sad; and I thank him for revering and re-creating the subtly powerful style of Manuel Alvarez Bravo, one of the greatest photographers ever.

The Eclipse by Manuel Alvarez Bravo

Monday, December 3, 2018

Katie DeGroot at Galerie Gris, Hudson

Blue Diva - watercolor on Arches paper 4'x3'
Sometimes, when I am explaining my aversion to spending too much time on the internet, I will tell people "I'd rather just stare at a tree." I wouldn't know whether Fort Edward painter Katie DeGroot cares for the web or not - but she has me beat soundly on the second count.

DeGroot's solo exhibition of prints and watercolors at Galerie Gris in Hudson is a delectation of trees: Their branches and leaves, along with the other living things that thrive in their company, including lichens, mosses, fungi, and ferns, are the stuff of her personal obsession.

Hah! - watercolor on Arches paper 30"x23"
DeGroot has spent many years now with her method of collecting intriguing fallen branches, or whole logs, and then lugging them to her studio, where she paints lovely, playful interpretations of their forms and colors on pure white grounds. This latest crop of paintings (all from the last nine months) is joined by a series of monoprints, aptly entitled Fall, that depict gatherings of leaves.

On a recent visit to the gallery, DeGroot explained to me that the monoprints are made by painting in watercolor on a polypropylene sheet called YUPO, and then transferring the paint to paper. The result has characteristics that are subtle in their differences from a direct watercolor on paper; and the process gives the artist a more spontaneous experience, both because the paint lays down in unexpected ways and because the image is reversed. I enjoyed the simple directness of this series.

Accessories III - watercolor on paper 24"x18"
But the paintings really captivated me. It's possible I brought a bias to the show - I'd just returned from the Olympic Peninsula in the state of Washington, where mosses et al reign supreme, so I was primed. But DeGroot's work is winning enough all on its own: Surprisingly colorful (she insists the shades are representational), dancingly gestural, at times outright goofy, and, in these newest pieces, often more textural and patterned than in the past, they reward close and repeated viewing.

I noticed that some of the paintings play less with chromatic range and more within a black-and-white palette. This is natural, as many of the subjects are birch branches, but it also appears to be a purposeful narrowing of focus by the artist.

Apart from the fun and fascination of the bigger works' colors and shapes, the details of these paintings reveal a world of plants (and things that may not be properly termed plants) that one not accustomed to the natural sciences may be surprised to discover. My amateur herbalist wife, for example, would immediately see and identify species here that I can only guess at - but even to the untrained eye, DeGroot shows how rich and real this world is, with its many characters living in symbiosis, and records it in a delightfully fresh way.

The show, informally titled "The Singular Elegance of Trees," after an article by DeGroot that was published last year (read it here), is on view through Jan. 18, 2019. Gallery Gris' hours are Friday-Sunday, 11-5, or by appointment.

Inonotus Obliquus Duet - watercolor on Arches paper 60"x45"