At the Nasher, the power of the image

Jul. 18, 2013 @ 02:33 PM

“The Cinematic Impulse,” Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, through Sept. 8. Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. For information, call 919-684-5135. or visit nasher.duke.edu.

There is no question that mechanical reproduction, which was invented in 1839, set in motion a revolution in image making which continues to this day. Yesterday it was the moving picture, today it is television and the telephone and who knows what there will be tomorrow. What we do know is that each generation of images becomes an extraordinary influence on our culture.
To capture that revolution in a small exhibition is the theme of the show created by Renee Cagnina Haynes, exhibitions and publications manager at the Nasher Museum of Art. It takes up the central gallery in the museum pod reserved for works from the permanent collection. Haynes walked me through and spoke about the genesis of the exhibit. It was suggested she go through the modern and contemporary objects in the permanent collection, think about new connections, and make an exhibition. 
Much of the contemporary collection is photography and video; the relationship one with the other is certainly a given. Taking disparate images, however, and making them into a cohesive whole requires considerable expertise, and Haynes has done the job well.
In the show there are several videos, one created by the artist with his own camera and one created by an artist of bits and pieces from Hollywood movies. There are single images influenced by the movies and single images by artists taken from their own projects. There are also series of photographs, one of seascapes around the world taken with very long exposures, and one of someone putting a record on a turntable in a sequence of nine photographs.             
The idea of cinema being a series of individual frames moving together seamlessly is certainly one of the underlying themes. For example, the most engaging of all the work is the video “Telephones,” 1995, by Christian Marclay (b.1955). Here Marclay has taken snippets from various old movies when the ringing telephone becomes the center of the action and woven them into a seven-and-a-half-minute video. As you watch, it is hard to be analytical when stars like Shelley Winters, Humphrey Bogart and Ray Milland keep popping up on the screen and into your memory.  
Haynes points out that cinema actually slows time down. If the movie is a combination of a series of stills, the viewers must slow down to accept this compilation, look at it or not, but they must spend more time here than on the single image, framed and placed on the wall. Time, then, becomes another underlying theme.
“Time Exposed,” a portfolio of 50 seascapes, by Hiroshi Sugimoto (b. 1948) is a series of long exposures of various bodies of water around the world, with stops at places like the Pacific Ocean, the Sea of Japan, the Tasman Sea and the Bay of Biscay. As spectators we see a body of water with no trace of the shoreline; it could be a view from a ship, but, in fact, the camera is on shore in many different locations set for an exposure time of at least three hours. These are not just seascapes from around the world: Each is a story about the time it took to take these images, to move from one location to another, to slow down.
In another multiple image of prints we see Robin Rhode (b.1976) take the idea of playing a vinyl record on a make-believe turntable with a chalk drawn make-believe arm and needle into a sequence of movements.
But this exhibition is also about how images from the movies have become key elements in our society and are instantly recognizable. In one, from his series “Wild West,” 1987-89, David Levinthal (b. 1949) uses toys to create his iconic photographs of the cowboy and his horse racing to do good in the great American West. Only when you get up close do you realize this cowboy and his horse which he rides perilously are two plastic toys, blurred in cinematic magic.
An image from “Fairy Tales,”1985, by Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) is included.  This cowering figure, half woman, half beast, seems to come from a 1960s horror movie, where the angle from above focuses on the vulnerability of women. Sherman takes the stereotype of the weak but beautiful woman, makes her part monster and turns everything upside down.
In “Encore (Paradise Omeros Redux)” 2003-2004, Isaac Julien (b. 1960) has recaptured
parts of one of his longer videos in a 4-minute, 38-second loop. This is another variation on the theme: the artist cuts some favorite images from his original piece and presents them in a smaller version. Xaviera Simmons (b. 1974) worked on the project “Thundersnow Road, N.C.” in 2010. She took acting lessons to learn how to generate sincere emotion and then traveled all over the state taking pictures of herself as an itinerant musician. When she finished the photographs, she sent them to a group of musicians who produced a vinyl record which spoke to the places she chose and to the South in general. Photography and music, why not?
And then there is the still from the film “The Rape of the Sabine Women” by Eve Sussman (b. 1961). The film is a modern version of one of the ancient myths about the founding of Rome. Sussman selected a few scenes to make into chromogenic prints. The one here shows us men, dressed in black suits and ties, and a wolf walking through Berlin’s Templehof Airport.
In this exhibition the moving image feeds on the photograph and vice versa and over it all those images have become more important symbols of our culture than eating apple pie or reciting the ABCs.
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.