If “Outside/In,” the newest exhibition at the Norton Museum of Art, seems a tad overwhelming, well … that’s probably the point.
Tim Wride, the Norton’s new curator of photography, was himself overwhelmed upon taking the position at the end of 2011. Coming from his previous post at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he had just three months to introduce himself to Florida, become acquainted with the Norton’s permanent photography collection and curate an original exhibition.
“When I go to a new place, I want to know what the place about, I want to know the artists who are in the place, and I want to get to know my collection. And this was a project that let me do all three,” Wride says. “I’ve been getting as year’s worth of work done in three months.”
The result was “Outside/In.” Running through June 10, the exhibit presents the work of six Florida photographers from Miami to Pensacola, hand-selected by Wride from his travels throughout this endless state. He then juxtaposed selections from each of them with like-minded pieces from the museum’s permanent collection, thus creating a dialogue between past and present, national and local, established and emerging.
“Every artist has a body of work, so we can understand who they are and where they’ve been, and then begin to look at the permanent collection and fit the artists into the continuum of image-making,” Wride says. “The [outside] photographers came first. I was really looking for how artists in Florida are thinking about making images. That was prime importance.”
If there is a shortfall to this innovative exhibition, it’s that it simply presents too much of too many good things: Each of the Florida artists on display could easily have the entire gallery to themselves, which would offer their oeuvres in a broad scope rather than the confined snapshots Wride has given us. But it’s a small complaint when the work is this compelling – from photojournalism to deceptions of reality to innovations in photograms and surveillance video, the scope is vast, covering just about all the bases of the most liberal definition of “photography.” No matter what your taste is, you’ll have plenty to ponder when you leave the Norton.
First, there’s Christopher Morris, a combat photographer from Tampa whose war images speak a thousand words – the kind that spread over several column inches, above the fold. Morris risked his life to take this shots in Chechnya, but the photographs could have come from any country beset by unrest.
For me, the images Morris would shoot later asTimemagazine’s White House photographer have a more existential impact. He focuses on the Secret Service agents, ubiquitous but anonymous, patrolling infinite spaces of nothingness, seeing what none of the rest of us see. These meditations on loneliness are aesthetically pleasing and quietly moving.
Landscapes also form the basis for Alexander Diaz’s “The Mountains of Florida.” By playing with scale, Diaz photographed several Florida “mountains” – i.e. heaps of sand and construction material –that resemble impressive peaks in mountainous areas of the world. He essentially created ersatz Ansel Adams landscapes from our state’s flat topography, thus exploiting the deceptive possibilities of photography.
“That’s the beauty of photography – it’s always true and it’s always false,” Wride says.
The exhibition continues with Eduardo del Valle and Mirta Gomez, a Miami husband-and-wife team that shoots in the Yucatan. “They explore the Yucatan for its cultural relevance, for its ritual relevance, for its day-to-day life,” Wride says. “And they like to reference it back to the past.” Their most fascinating series on display here is called “In Vista,” a series of photographs of exhumed remains – actual skeletons, peaking out of their containers like jacks-in-boxes. This ritualistic “unburial” is disturbing to us, but it’s common practice for much of the world; we’re the weird ones.
Finally, there’s Miami’s Maria Martinez-Canas, whose impressive photo-based works include photogram totems and equally striking abstract paintings; and Pensacola’s Valerie George, who plays creatively with sound and surveillance video on her three provocative series. I found her piece “Schizophrenia” the most enthralling. It’s a video inspired by sensorial incongruity, wherein George recorded a series of ambient sounds from outside a car and mixed them with the sounds from inside the automobile. This journey of aural and visual mismatches plays with the natural sounds we take for granted in our isolated bubbles of noise, where the public and the private converge; here, the layered sounds take on still another layer when combined with the ambient museum noise around them.
“It’s that phenomenon that we’re all used to but never quite parse out – that as we drive to work every day, we’re dealing with machines on the other side of the windshield and NPR inside the car,” Wride says.
Throughout the exhibition, per Wride’s concept, are examples from the permanent collection, including pieces by Ansel Adams, Barbara Morgan, Man Ray, Stephen Singer, Bernd and Hilla Becher and other greats. If their presence accomplishes anything, it’s to situate these newer Florida voices into a conversation spanning more than a century of time and across the world of space.
“The idea that regionalism plays through it all is such a red herring,” Wride says. “We live in a global world. Every one of these artists is responding to an international dialogue of photography. They just happen to be here.”
“Outside/In” is at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach, through June 10. Admission is $5 students and $12 adults. Call 561/832-5196 or visit Norton.org.