Still Points of the Turning World
The Maine Jewish Museum is set back from the street behind a wrought-iron fence and a small courtyard at the intersection of India and Congress, at the base of Munjoy Hill. I’ve walked past it hundreds of times over the past three years, giving it only a casual glance. It took an eclectic exhibition of seven contemporary Maine Jewish photographers to get me to stop and cross the threshold.
Still Points of the Turning World, curated by Steve Halpert (who ran The Movies on Exchange with his wife, Judy, for many years, and now screens films at the Portland Museum of Art), is a surprisingly fresh, engaging exhibition. The show includes work by Arthur Fink, Judy Glickman, Tanja Hollander, Philip Isaacson, Nanci Kahn, Victor Romanyshyn, and Ruth Sylmor. Although there is nothing overtly religious or spiritual about the artists’ individual pieces, the combined effect is transcendent.
Romanyshyn creates still-life images by positioning studio tools, food, maps, kitchen items, plants, and his own abstract paintings to create intimate compositions. To Romanyshyn, these images hover between photography and painting. There is a muted quality to much of the work, but his capture of natural light is phenomenal. The viewer has an almost palpable sense of the presence of the artist behind the lens and the thought invested in each photograph.
I am decidedly not a fan of contemporary still life, the exception being the work of painter Christian Rex van Minnen (his Great Western Buffet is, hands-down, the best execution I’ve seen). But several of Romanyshyn’s images won me over with their integration of the materials of the artist’s life. In one piece, he positions a dog-eared book of maps alongside a recent watercolor sketch and a worn-down colored pencil. In “Untitled #8,” he’s carefully arranged a white tablecloth, a spoon and a halved lemon, evoking the rich history of Dutch still-life painting. My favorite of his contributions, “Untitled #6,” is positioned on the wall along the stairs but is best viewed from the ground floor. It’s a sparse image of the ends of a collection of colored pencils, gathered together with a rubber band. The depth of color and minimal composition are fantastic, transporting the viewer to a space of solitary creativity.
With her latest series, Upon Reflection, Judy Glickman, internationally recognized for her black-and-white photography, makes a leap as striking as Dorothy’s entrance into the Technicolor land of Oz. In a selection of provocative works, she explores the power of color, abstraction, and her own reflection and shadow. Glickman’s trademark graininess and intense contrasts are enhanced with saturated color. The best of these images are dense and edgy.
My first viewing of this series was a bit of a “Where’s Waldo?” experience. I kept searching for her shadow, and then questioning its presence, distracted from the full composition. I found myself assessing how her figure within the frame altered each image’s impact. The works I initially responded to most strongly were those in which I couldn’t find her form.
In “Jessica’s Studio, L.A.,” a saturated blue light emanates from an opened door on the left side of the image. A small dress form sits atop a desk with a glowing television beneath. A tiny, fiery orange speck glows from a power strip on the floor and orange light borders rectangles above the door, but otherwise the image is almost entirely black and brilliant blue. I’m not certain whether I’m looking into the woman’s studio or at a reflection superimposed upon it, and this sense of displacement relieves the impulse to locate the photographer’s silhouette. “Taxi, L.A.” is another fantastic work, comprised mostly of abrupt angles, hot red and cool green.
Like much of Glickman’s previous work, the images that contain her figure are haunting, but in a decidedly personal way. We receive glimpses of everyday explorations and are consistently drawn toward the trace of the photographer’s physical presence. That Glickman is a woman inserting her image into the frame is significant. Beyond gender, these works bring up myriad references, from a probing of mortality to a teasing out of Lacan’s theory of the “mirror phase” (the turning of oneself into an object through one’s reflection) to the simple playfulness of a shadow.
Arts writer Philip Isaacson’s photographs are more straightforward — close-ups of architecturally significant buildings, using light, shadow and form to communicate the essence of a structure. Many works are carefully considered and composed, but the small scale in which they are presented diminishes their power.
After feeling over-saturated by Tanja Hollander’s most recent body of work, the Facebook Portrait Project, it was refreshing to return to the serenity of her earlier landscape pieces, five of which are on view on the museum’s second floor. Her landscapes are stunning in their simplicity. While the Facebook portraits include remarkable images with a wealth of conceptual process and depth, these landscapes are perfectly contained within their frames, meditative gifts bestowed upon the viewer.
Nanci Kahn’s images of extreme weather don’t quite live up to the eloquence with which she describes her working process. “Fog” and “Midnight Snow” begin to evoke the spiritual presence she references in her statement, but most of her photos read more as straight landscapes than as encounters with intense weather or natural powers. They are beautiful, but bear little trace of the extreme.
Arthur Fink’s images of dancers are, for the most part, more of the same. He writes about the spiritual nature of the preparations leading up to a performance, and of his desire to highlight this overlooked aspect of dance, but this quality is rarely visible in his work. The one stand-out among his contributions is “Help Truth,” the only image of Fink’s I’ve ever seen that incorporates text, presumably written on the set upon which the dancer is performing. The result is a fresh, hip photograph.
Ruth Sylmor also writes about spiritual experience, but hers takes place in the darkroom while making “images that respond both to my inner life and exterior life.” Her black-and-white photographs of Venice and Paris are timeless and transporting.
Taken together, the works of these seven photographers offer fantastic depth and diversity. Don’t pass the Maine Jewish Museum without stopping to experience this exhibition.
— Sarah Bouchard
Still Points of the Turning World shows at the Maine Jewish Museum, 267 Congress St., Portland, through April 26. Open Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.–2 p.m. (First Friday from 5 p.m.-8 p.m.), or by appointment or serendipity. 329-9854. mainejewishmuseum.org.