Those familiar with Joslyn Art Museum know that photography is but a small part of its collection. A peruse around the museum at this moment reveals few photographs, with the notable exception of a mixed media Doug Aitken piece, titled “Hot Mess: Aperture Series,” and a set of Polaroids by Andy Warhol among its permanent collection. So an exhibition solely focused on photography, especially one that was developed specifically for Joslyn by its own staff, is always welcome.
Fact and Fiction in Contemporary Photography is one of two special exhibitions opening at the Joslyn (the other, a solo show by Amy Cutler at the Riley CAP gallery) this year. Curated by Joslyn’s chief curator and Holland Curator of American Western Art, Toby Jurovics, the show is principally focused on the credibility of photographs, especially when digital and print images are presumed to have been manipulated or altered in some manner.
The artworks in the show are highly varied in both production methods and composition styles. Some images are total abstractions, while others are so naturalistic, they appear too detailed, too real to be authentic. Most photographs are made with standard equipment — a camera — but some were produced without one, like those relying on sunlight alone for their visual content.
There are familiar names in the show, such as Mickalene Thomas, whose work was exhibited in 30 Americans, which was presented early last year and, more importantly, became part of Joslyn’s permanent art collection in the contemporary galleries. Other notable artists in the show include Carrie Mae Weems, who was also featured in 30 Americans, David Taylor and Marcos Ramirez ERRE, Richard Misrach, Richard Mosse, Lalla Essaydi, Thomas Ruff, Mark Ruwedel and Trevor Paglen.
Thematically, the show focuses on two major areas: identity in relation to race, gender, nationality and the policing of it; and landscapes, and how they have changed due to human impact. Tying these two concepts together is violence enacted on humans through militaristic surveillance of the landscape.
Carrie Mae Weems’ highly impactful pigment prints present both these ideas. “The Capture of Angela” (2008) and “The Tragedy of Hiroshima” (2008) are part of Weems’ “Constructing History” series, in which she explores how historical and contemporary systems of power impact racial, gender and sexual identity. This series restages pivotal moments from 20th-century human rights movements that seismically changed the world.
“The Capture of Angela” presents a salient moment during the Black Power Movement, the apprehension of Angela Davis, a former member of the Black Panthers and the Communist Party of America. While her legacy has been neglected in popular media, those knowledgeable about black American history will understand the impact of this image. In the 1970s, Davis became a fugitive and went into hiding after a courtroom shooting, which she had no involvement in besides ownership of the weapons used. After months of hiding, Davis was captured, and her subsequent imprisonment sparked the “Free Angela” campaign.
Decades earlier, the detonation of nuclear weapons on two Japanese cities forever changed the psyche and soul of the human species. Weems made one of these explosions the subject for “The Tragedy of Hiroshima,” grounding her work in art history, composing a pietà with two Japanese women — one woman taking the role of the Virgin Mary clothed in a kimono, the other in a state of nudity.
The political overtone of the show is reflected in the photographs relating to the Mexican-American border, specifically those made by David Taylor and Marcos Ramirez ERRE, and Richard Misrach. While the works primarily focus on the control of human movement on the North American continent, they also pose questions on the environment concerning the flora and fauna of the borderland.
This is most clearly seen in Richard Misrach’s “Wall, near Los Indios, Texas” (2015), a photograph of a proposed wall to delineate the southern boundary of the United States. The work is a retort to the idea of fencing off the breadth of an entire continent, with all its intended and unintended consequences. Considering that the wall section stands on green grass speaks to the human impact on the natural world — the surrounding dirt is streaked with the residue of passing tires. The scene is totally devoid of animalia.
“DeLIMITations Obelisk 12” (2014) and “DeLIMITations Obelisk 20” (2014) are two works by the duo David Taylor and Marcos Ramirez ERRE about the flux of the Mexican-American border. Recalling that one-third of the United States once was under Mexican authority, the artists consider the boundaries’ impact on those living along the borderlands. The artists placed 47 specially crafted sheet-metal obelisks, mimicking those at the current border between the United States and Mexico, along the 1821 border from Northern California to eastern Texas.
War and surveillance are underscored throughout the exhibit. Richard Mosse speaks about the exploitation of cameras in the armed forces in his work. In “Yayladagi, Turkey” (2017), Mosse used a military-grade camera that detects thermal radiation, originally designed for battlefield surveillance, border enforcement and to track insurgents, to shoot a town’s landscape.
Trevor Paglen, too, touches on the ubiquity of the military’s global surveillance in “Untitled (Reaper Drone)” (2010), presenting a Reaper drone as its subject. The drone only exists through its residual contrail — speaking about the military footprint occupying the globe, even in lands that are not experiencing conflict.
“Jpeg nt01” (2004) by Thomas Ruff succinctly summarizes this theme in one abstracted work. Ruff originally sourced his photo from an image search, enlarging the scale of the work, leading to its pixelization. This particular piece is an appropriation of a photograph of a thermonuclear test in the Pacific Ocean.
In its entirety, the exhibition speaks to major aspects of 21st century life. It cannot be understated how important this exhibition is in Omaha for its ambition and topical importance. One has to hope this inspires the Joslyn to continue to acquire photographs for its collection, just like the recent acquisitions prompted by 30 Americans.
Fact and Fiction in Contemporary Photography runs until May 10. Regular museum hours are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with extended hours on Thursday until 8 p.m. While general admission at Joslyn Art Museum is free, there is an additional charge for special exhibitions. For more details, go to joslyn.org.