Sunday, April 14, 2024

Where’s the Bigger Picture?

If the Norton Museum of Art’s photography curator, Charles Stainback, is known for one thing, it’s digging beneath the surface of photography – finding artists who subvert the medium’s conventions and look at the photographic image in new ways. The museum’s latest exhibition, “Recent Acquisitions: Photography,” finds Stainback continuing to discover works that push boundaries, puzzling us even as they amaze us.

That being said, few photography lovers will leave the show feeling completely satisfied. As functional and unassuming as its title, “Recent Acquisitions: Photography” is practically buried amid the museum’s permanent galleries, with no description of the exhibition to orient spectators once they enter the small gallery. And the 16 works contained within it are mostly tantalizing tapas: intriguing samples in search of richer contexts.

The show opens, disappointingly, with a repeat: three images of evocative African hairstyles from Nigerian artist J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere that Norton followers may remember from Stainback’s “Stare” exhibition from last winter. But the rest is all-new. I found myself transfixed by Isaac Layman’s “Cabinet,” the first sign of the Stainbackian subversion of traditional photorealism. The image is of a blown-up bar cabinet in need of business: A sea of digital altered glasses are stacked on top of each other, gleaming with hyperreal cleanliness, the result of the artist’s painstaking process of assembling multiple images and perspectives to present the version of truth that Layman wants us to see.

Equally stunning, and equally manipulated, are the three images of Takihiro Sato’s tree trunks, with pixyish lights bouncing around them like descended stars. This effect was creating by fine-tuning natural reflections of sunlight; shot in black-and-white, the results look like close-ups of Ansel Adams’ woods imbued with a mystical playfulness. But the standouts of this show are undoubtedly the two works by Lisa Kereszi. Her photographs have such a convincing patina of paintings that double-takes are almost required to comprehend them. “Station Decals on Door” and “Shade in My Grandmother’s Bedroom” both resemble long-lost color field paintings, yet the images are deceptively simple evocations of banal entryways – doors and windows that transform into modern art under Kereszi’s gaze.

Many of the other pieces in the show don’t have the same stand-alone impact of these works, and thus come off as rudderless. Michal Chelbin’s image of a women sentenced for theft in the Ukraine has the aura of a professional portrait photograph, unusual for the fringe dwellers Chelbin loves to find, but I

walked away from it wanting to see the entire series from which it was taken. Ditto to Naomi Leshem’s two photographs of people sleeping – one in Germany and one in Israel – that, despite being attractively hung next to each other, don’t say much outside of the broader context of the artist’s corpus. Then there’s Jenny Holzer’s “Jaw Broken (Brown),” a five-panel, oil-on-canvas reproduction of an apparent American military legal document from the Iraqi occupation. Without any wall text to accompany it, this one’s lost on me; I have a pretty liberal definition of what constitutes photography, but I still don’t see how this falls under that umbrella.

As a survey of disconnected works recently purchased by the Norton, this exhibition is fine, and it contains some visionary pieces. I just hope Stainback will consider giving each of these artists the solo show he or she deserves.

“Recent Acquisitions: Photography” is at the Norton, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach, through Jan. 1. Call 561/832-5196 or visit Norton.org.

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