SNAPSHOTS, ONE SURREAL SHOW
Post Staff Writer
November 17, 2000; Page N66
Nov. 7, I, like the rest of you, spent much of the day watching a
great experiment in democracy, except this one actually worked.
because I'm not talking about the presidential cliffhanger that kept
much of the country biting its collective nails into the wee hours
of the night. I'm talking about a little art exhibition called "Snapshot,"
at the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore. Did I say little? Excuse
me. There are more than 1,300 pictures in this show and, trust me,
that's a lot of art. It takes up most of nearly every wall in the
museum--wait, make that literally every wall, minus the bathrooms
and the back office. It is by turns banal, scary, grotesque, cute,
surreal, silly, derivative and breathtakingly beautiful.
the pieces in the exhibit are, as its name implies, intimate or personal
photos of some kind, submitted by artists and art professionals who
were invited by the Contemporary to dig through their family albums
and junk drawers. Each entrant, whose contribution was primarily the
addition of some sort of a caption, was then invited to pass the solicitation
on to his or her associates, ultimately spreading the pool of submissions
to well more than a thousand people from 24 countries.
of the pictures are of recent vintage, though a handful date from
the 1960s and earlier. Many are candid (accidental-looking even),
while a few appear obviously staged. Some, I am convinced, were taken
by children. The interpretation of just what the term "snapshot"
means was left wide open, leading to pieces like the antique-looking
portrait of an Indonesian family submitted by Maria-Theresa Fernandes,
who appears to have sewn threads and punched grommets into her artsy,
than size, there were no curatorial criteria brought to bear on what
would or would not make it into the show. Every picture that arrived
by deadline (and that fit into the small plastic sleeve provided by
the museum) is hanging on the wall, arranged not thematically or aesthetically
or chronologically or geographically but alphabetically by name. Filmmaker
John Waters, who sent in a shot of actress Jean Hill and Divine celebrating
the late drag queen's 40th birthday, is down about knee level. Conceptual
artist John Baldessari's palm tree floats against a blue sky just
above your head (well, my head anyway). Any higher, or lower for that
matter, and you'd need a stepladder or cushion to see everything comfortably.
you will find here: some of the most gorgeous Kodachrome blues you've
ever seen, e.g. Pala Townsend's "Study I for Water Painting,"
Judd Tully's beach-house photo "Yves Klein Blue" and Angel
E. Lopez's "En la Alberca de los Perillos (At the Perillo's Pool)";
at least 27 Polaroid portraits with the caption "Satre's Shot
of Friday Night Dinner at Gabe's" (one of which has been submitted
by someone calling himself Roy G. Biv after the mnemonic device for
the colors of the spectrum); an elephant in the middle of a bowel
movement, a six-legged goat and a sexually aroused male dog (thank
you, Connie Imboden, Eric Swangstu and Nelson Santos Sarenco); and
Richard Margolis's "Driving by the George Eastman House 7,"
a handsome black-and-white picture taken through a rain-spattered
windshield that could easily hold its own in any blue-chip photo gallery.
big surprise? The "names" (some of them, like performance
artist Holly Hughes and photographer Andres Serrano, fairly notorious
ones) are no better than the "nobodies," but then again,
neither are they any worse. One camera, one vote. Petah Coyne, William
Kentridge, Pepon Osorio, Kiki Smith, Buzz Spector--if you don't happen
to recognize the famous moniker in the lower left-hand corner, none
of these pictures would stop you in your tracks anyway, with the possible
exception of Kentridge, who appears to have posed nude for a preparatory
figure study for one of his drawings. This equanimity, it seems, is
precisely the point. "Snapshot" attempts to needle our complacent
assumptions of what art is and how letting art institutions interpret--and
make exclusions about--what we see turns us into passive recipients.
individually, few of the pictures here would pass muster as art by
most conventional standards: There are far too many portraits of pets
(though I defy you not to at least crack a smile at Cecilia Biagini's
German shepherd "Sophia Loren") and family functions (and
I'm so glad Jane Ann Wynn was invited to "Marybeth's Wedding"
and not me). Taken as an aggregate, though, the show itself is the
real artwork, and a whip-smart one at that. Yes, it challenges us
to think about the nature of art and curatorship, but it manages to
do so without smothering its sense of fun beneath a blanket of artspeak.
of my favorite pictures in the exhibition is an inchoate silhouette:
a shadow of an object unidentified as either animal, vegetable or
mineral, although it looks kind of like it might belong to a playful
alien. Apparently found--not shot--by Scott Marvel Cassidy, the picture
is pure aura, and its aura is all the lovelier because it's something
that someone threw away--or lost.
of which resonates nicely for those with a Dada aesthetic (or for
those who, like me, have an extensive file of found photos at home).
Yet who else would give it a second glance in any other context than
on the wall at the Contemporary Museum is this quote from Susan Sontag's
seminal book "On Photography": "Time eventually positions
most photos, even the most amateurish, at the level of art."
not sure I buy that line about the power of time. The cloudy pictures
of my family and friends that I shot with my little Instamatic 126
when I was a kid still look cruddy to me today, but a hundred years
from now, who knows? I believe there is something else entirely that
makes "Snapshot" click, and wonderfully so.
do they do it, you might ask?
blurry picture of some guy's feet is nothing. An entire museum full
is a lesson in aesthetics.
-- Through Jan.
3, at the Contemporary Museum, 100 West Centre St., Baltimore. 410/783-5720.
Web site: www.contemporary.org.
Open 10 to 5 Tuesdays through Fridays; Saturdays and Sundays from
11 to 5. Admission is by suggested donation of $3. A searchable CD-ROM
catalogue of the show is available for $35 ($28 for museum members).
2000 The Washington Post Company