Norton’s Final Exhibitions of 2018 Bring Photography Full Circle

From the origins of photography to the vanguard of video art, there’s a sense of full-circle completion to the Norton Museum of Art’s summer exhibitions. This feels appropriate, given that these exhibitions are the final shows on view before the museum closes, in July, for the next seven months, to accommodate its final phase of renovation.

The more educational of the two exhibitions, “William Henry Fox Talbot and the Birth of Photography,” celebrates Britain’s godfather of the still photo. Talbot was a pioneer whose discovery of the photographic process was not properly appreciated in its time, and who remains an obscure figure when compared to his contemporary and rival, France’s Jacques-Louis Mandé Daguerre. The exhibition makes the case that Talbot—a “true polymath: scientist, scholar, mathematician, astronomer, inventor,” in the words of the Norton’s photography curator, Tim Wride—should be just as lauded.

William Henry Fox Talbot
William Henry Fox Talbot

This isn’t my favorite of the Norton’s single-room “Spotlight” exhibitions, largely because there just isn’t much art to look at. It’s text-heavy to a fault. The Norton recently acquired some of Talbot’s so-called “photogenic drawing negatives” produced before 1845, but only one of them is on display: a fragment of lace on light-sensitive paper, encased in a box and hidden under a felt drape, thus preserving its mystique. Elsewhere, pages from Talbot’s ornate folio, The Pencil of Nature, which he used to explain and promote his invention of the negative/positive photography process, are printed on the gallery wall for our inspection, and there’s a digital slideshow of some of the very first photographs shot with Talbot’s methods. A couple of pocket-sized, silver-backed daguerrotypes, the branding developed by his competitor, complement the Talbot material.

Perhaps we shouldn’t expect much more from an exhibition that is about the means of production rather than the results of it. After all, Talbot was a mechanic, not an artist. That said, anyone with an interest in the technical side of photography will linger in this gallery longer than most, and revel in the minutiae and period quotes. In a statement reproduced on a gallery wall, Talbot humbly understated when he wrote uncertainly about the importance of photographs: “They will surely find their own sphere of utility.”

A couple of rooms over, “Unexpected Narratives: Videos by Chris Doyle and Muntean/Rosenblum,” expresses a playful, hypnotic and occasionally rapturous sphere of utility. Like the Talbot show, it requires little of your time: the three videos run only about 11 combined minutes, with Doyle’s “Hotel Bernini I” and “Hotel Bernini II” running simultaneously on square screens on the audience’s right and left, separated by an empty space.

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Each video depicts white sheets maneuvering atop a generic hotel bed in stop-motion form, all human agency removed. On their own accord, the sheets slither, roll, bunch up, spread out. The bed makes itself, and the next second it’s a mess, the sheets crumbling into a ball like discarded scrap paper. Sometimes they meander toward heart-shaped and humanoid forms, sometimes swallowing pillows or vice versa, possibly suggesting birth, death, rebirth. The best part about this “unexpected narrative” is the freedom to invent your own.

When Doyle’s videos finish, Markus Muntean and Adi Rosenblum’s “Disco” starts up in the previously vacant screen in the middle, like the center installment in an unofficial triptych. It has a more defined, if esoteric, narrative structure, set the morning after a raucous night at a discothèque. We see a cleaning crew sweep away the debris and eventually focus on a woman mopping the floor, when she’s struck by a vision. She drops the mop handle and falls to the ground, in throng to the scene that’s suddenly appeared before her: a pyramid of bodies strewn on the steps leading to the stage, organized in homage to Théodore Géricault 19th century oil painting “The Raft of the Medusa.”

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The directors make no efforts to conceal that the people appearing in the disco, sprawled on the ground and reaching toward heaven, are anything but models—breathing, blinking, trying their hardest to stand utterly still. It’s a beautiful meta-exercise in artistic appropriation, each shot an immaculate portrait, with Handel’s “Poro” contributing its otherworldly gravitas. If it’s the last thing I see at the Norton before it closes, I say hallelujah.

“William Henry Fox Talbot” and “Unexpected Narratives” both run through July 15 at Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach. Admission is free. For information, call 561/832-5196 or visit norton.org.