With subjects ranging from Mennonite women to Italian Mafiosi, the five international photographers showing their works in the Norton Museum’s newly opened “Rudin Prize for Emerging Photographers” exhibition cover a lot of ground. Selected by a group of esteemed panelists (who are also art-makers in their own right), each photographer has taken a different and powerful approach to his or her craft, but, like in reality TV, only one will walk away with the titular Rudin Prize – aka $20,000.
Of course, like they say at the Oscars, it’s an honor just to be nominated, and the five inductees into the year’s inaugural Rudin Prize race represent the collective pulse of modern photography – a medium that is no longer segmented from the other visual arts, that can now encompass video and abstract painting in an the ever-expanding platform of “photo-based artwork.” The styles can be so diametrically opposed to each other that any one viewer may be hard-pressed to love all five of these photographers’ approaches, but that’s OK. Jolting spectators from their comfort zones of complacency is part of what art is all about.
The show begins with Eunice Adorno’s “The Flower Women,” a series documenting the lives of Mennonite women in the artist’s native Mexico. We see the ladies driving trucks, eating ice cream, attending singles gatherings, jumping on a trampoline and otherwise radiating the pleasures of simple, uncluttered lives – albeit with the occasional digital device reminding us that they’re living in the 21stcentury. Providing a complete ethnographic understanding of Mennonite customs is impossible in a short series of photographs, but Adorno comes as close as anyone can by focusing in the recurring imagery of flowers, which constantly adorn the women’s dresses and homes, and their Rapunzellian hair, which can stretch all the way down to their feet. Adorno seems enraptured by both aspects, and her interest rubs off on the viewer of these images.
Next up is England’s Bjorn Veno, whose contributions are sure to be the show’s most divisive. Veno is a performance artist who creates art out of his numerous disguises. Splashy, large-scale photographs depict Veno dressed as a shirtless “king” in a makeshift crown; a bearded sea captain, his exposed penis dangling out of jean shorts; and a vacuous general with an autistic drool of saliva clinging from his lip. The shots are accompanied by videos of Veno acting the three parts, the audio from which projects annoyingly into the Eunice Adorno show next door.
The work is brazenly disgusting, but I can’t say it’s solipsistic because it doesn’t cohere enough; it’s deliberately all over the place. But if you can get past the vulgarity and nihilism of these works, the Veno images on the opposite wall are stunning, showcasing the artist’s vision for panoramic pictorials and his elegant interplay with nature.
Moving along, I won’t pretend to comprehend the work of Analia Saban, an artist who creates colorless, dense, original and frenzied abstract art out of photographic emulsion. Curator Tim Wride’s impenetrable essay accompanying Saban’s work is strictly for the photo theorists, bogged down as it is in thickets of academic diction. But there may be no way to translate the artist’s apparent genius in laymen’s terms, because it’s just that difficult. I will say that I admire the anti-clarity of her style and the innate censorship contained therein – most of the photographic faces are smudged out, like redacted text, while other photos have been thoroughly de-prettified.
The exhibition concludes with two artists whose approaches are more journalistic than painterly. For Mauro D’Agati’s “Napule Shot,” the photographer was granted exclusive access inside an Italian mafia establishment, resulting in a 22-chapter narrative. The selected works are just a fraction of the enticing whole, mostly capturing mobsters at rest and play. Violence is absent, but the images exude menace. A low-angle shot of a mobster smoking a joint emphasizes his sense of untouchable power, and in another shot, a gangster gazes into the camera with a look that says, “I could kill you with a straw.” D’Agati doesn’t editorialize on his subjects, though the images (and one video) implicitly express the irony of Christian iconography, like dangling crosses, setting a frequent backdrop for rather un-Christlike activities.
Mexico’s Gabriela Solis ends the show on a somber note, surveying a blighted region in her country that is proposed to be destroyed by the construction of a superhighway. This is photography as muckraking – as social justice perhaps – shining a light on a penurious area with its sad edifices, graffitied garage doors, ownerless dogs and a playground in disrepair. Tellingly, there are no people in Solis’ images – this is about the land; now you see it, and tomorrow you may not.
You’ll be inclined to walk away with a favorite artist in mind, and for once, that’s kind of the point this time. The winner will be announced in December. For what it’s worth, Mauro D’Agati has my vote.
“The Rudin Prize for Emerging Photographers” is on display through Dec. 9 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. For information, call 561/832-5196 or visit Norton.org.