At the Nasher, a term paper in images

Jul. 05, 2013 @ 11:37 PM

“African American Close-Up:  Prints, Photographs and Works on Paper from North Carolina Collections,” online, through Nov. 30.  (Nasher Museum of Art website is www.nasher.duke.edu. Click on “Exhibitions” for the link to this exhibit.)   

Exhibitions of museum art on the Web are relatively new.  Currently, there is one on the Nasher Museum of Art website that Duke University art professor Richard Powell organized with 28 students from his class “Introduction to Modern and Contemporary African American Art.” 

The idea of an art exhibition which exists only in cyberspace is in its infancy and is an idea to consider seriously.  Yes, galleries often publish images of works they are trying to sell and artists put out images of their work, but an exhibition akin to a museum show is rare. 

 “African American Close-Up” is a show of 38 images, mostly by African-American artists, that are relatively small works on paper and are part of the collections at the Nasher Museum of Art, the North Carolina Central University Art Museum, the North Carolina Museum of Art and UNC Greensboro’s Weatherspoon Museum of Art.  The students did original research on these works of art they could see in person.  Their essays accompany the image on the screen. This was a first for this class and a first for Powell. 

The site offers a short introduction about the show and then invites viewers to click on any one of the images on the screen, read what the student wrote and, if they want to learn more, check out references included at the bottom of the page. We are given three views of each piece, the entire image and then two close-ups, but with that exception the field is static, flat, hardly more than a photographic reproduction.  

For example, when we click on William H. Johnson’s gouache, watercolor “Untitled” (Uninhabited War Scene), 1943, we see cannon, guns and helmets in simple forms and shapes that could be called primitive in style. There are no figures in the scene.  The artist is African-American but his painting offers no racial clues.  The student writer, Ryan Harding, describes Johnson’s flat style as abstract. 

On the other hand in “Blackface Series #DL 008,” 1995, by David Levinthal, a white artist, we see a toy doll of a black face clown.  His subject speaks to the shameless American minstrel shows which mocked African-Americans. Student Addison Malone tells us about Glenn Ligon’s oil stick and gesso “Study for Negro Sunshine, II, # 11,” 2011.  It is an in-your-face image, with the words Negro Sunshine written over and over in black stenciled letters.  There is Xaviera Simmons’ photograph “Session Four: Thundersnow Road,” 2010,  which student Sam Selig tells us was taken on Angier Avenue in Durham. 

The exhibit also has an image of “Jesus Christ,” 1963, in oil, ink and graphite by Minnie Evans (1892-1987). Student Lauren Busch writes that Evans was a self-taught artist who worked as the gatekeeper at Wilmington’s Airlie Gardens.

Rather than the conventional term paper, this exhibition is a wonderful substitute.  The question which follows is about art exhibits which only exist online.  Is anything missing?  Is this more or less than flat reproductions in an art magazine or a catalogue?

I asked several friends who love art and go to museums regularly what they thought about an art exhibition they can only see on their computer. The seniors thought it was a marvelous idea.  They saw work and read about artists they did not know and believe these images would be seen by an audience far larger than would ever be able to get to a museum. Each one said it would be a godsend for them because their driving is limited.
One said it could never substitute for the real thing, however, because the experience of looking at textures and brushstrokes would be missing.  She also said working online is a solitary activity, whereas her visits to museums were always shared ones.  Among the younger people one man felt the format presented the work as flat, two-dimensional and no more than ordinary reproductions.  His wife, however, thought the Web was a wonderful way to introduce new audiences to art and might even convince some who had never been in a museum to go.

In 1935, Walter Benjamin wrote “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” before computers or iPhones or the cloud.  The ubiquitous camera, he wrote, has changed the world of art.  With the camera such paintings as the “Mona Lisa” would be recognizable around the world. Benjamin asks, “Does this democratic recognition of the image add to or take away from the aura of the real painting?”  

He said the work of art has an aura which no reproduction can match.  We see it on the walls of the museum and we feel its power in time and space and understand its authenticity, yet the mechanical reproduction has changed all that.  The work of art was once created for the few and was to be revered as if it were a religious icon, but today the work of art is created to be a commodity to be exhibited and the photograph makes that easier.

This student-curated exhibition is fine but modest, both in technology and its limited subject matter, but it marks the way for more elaborate ones.  If permissions are granted, we could conceivably walk through a museum in visual reality, with voice over, and see, for example, every Leonardo da Vinci in the world. 

With that said, Powell and I agree there is no substitute for seeing art close up and in person, yet we know the Internet opens art to more people than would ever make it into a museum.  The trusted institution, therefore, advertises its cyberspace exhibition and we must guide the student and the ordinary spectator past Web trash to find it. 

The mechanical reproduction has redefined the aura of the art object; it substitutes the spirit of the art and the recognition of the makers’ talent for the original significance and function of the object.

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.