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Guest Blog by Suzanne Révy
In her inaugural show as Chief Curator at the Newport Art Museum in Rhode Island, Francine Weiss celebrates the museum’s reverence for its nineteenth century home and its mission to embrace 21st Century artwork in her exhibition of two contemporary Rhode Island based artists who employ ancient photographic methods. In New Light Through Old Windows, Weiss presents the exquisite platinum/palladium and other “alternative process” prints of Lindsey Beal’s delicate Venus figures along with Ron Cowie’s touching explorations of grief and devotion. Seeing their work together in this charming gallery space, housed within the elegant 1864 American “Stick-Style” Griswold House, kindles an intimate conversation about love, loss and faith.
Beal’s fascination with prehistoric Venus figurines – originally discovered in Europe and in the Middle East in the nineteenth century – led her to construct her own small sculptural figures. Fashioned from high shrinkage flax paper, Beal imbues them with autobiographic, historic and cultural references in the details. She then photographs these sculptures using the nineteenth century wet-plate collodion process and makes Ambrotype prints on glass plates from them. In addition to the photographs, she creates camera-less Alumitypes of the sculptures by placing them on a photo-sensitive plate, and exposing them to light, resulting in abstract and mysterious images of the figures. Several plates are installed in a staggered pattern on either side of a fireplace, and three of Beal’s small sculptures grace the mantle. In her handmade Venuses that recall ancient times, Beal explores the enduring “mysteriousness and power” of the female form.
Turning a corner, Weiss has mounted two more Venus figure images along with an image of a nightgown by Ron Cowie. From a distance, I mistook Cowie’s image for one of Beal’s, but as I came closer, the relationship between the three prints filled me with a sense of mystery, and led me to ask, who fills these empty dresses?
Along this same wall, installed on the other side of a large window is a selection of images from Cowie’s moving series, Inventory, which lovingly catalogs personal items that had belonged to his photographer wife Lisa Garner, who died in 2008 leaving Cowie with their young daughter. He was reluctant to disturb her belongings in the year after death, but eventually found that he needed to make room in a closet. We learn from his statement that he implored his late wife to tell him what to do with her stuff. Apparently Garner shared her husband’s dry wit, as her response came, “photograph my things in wet plate, and print them in platinum.”
Wet plate is a tedious process, and each image could take up to a day to complete. It clearly granted Cowie the time and space to grieve. The images are likewise tinged with an emotional charge, and we learn in captions what each item meant to his late wife. To me, the poncho she wore the day they brought their baby home from the hospital is a particularly moving picture – something in the folds and draping and how he has framed the garment emphasizes his profound loss.
In a final grouping of images, Weiss has displayed Cowie’s series called Leaving Babylon. A group of landscapes representing Cowie’s journey through disruption and change, these subtly atmospheric and detailed contact prints are made with a large 8”x10” camera, and presented as platinum/palladium prints. A transcendent sense of searching and meditation permeates each image, and, as Weiss notes, “explores the psychological terrain of how the artist lives a life of faith and fear.”
Finally, the show includes detailed descriptions of the nineteenth century processes these two artists employ, along with a small case displaying three early nineteenth century photographic objects, which gives visitors some technical context for this work. In a time of digital impatience, it’s a welcome respite to wander through the rooms of this small museum, steeped in history and filled with Beal and Cowie’s stirring renderings of love.
Suzanne Révy is a Boston-based fine art photographer whose work is represented by Panopticon Gallery. She writes the blog, A Grain of Sand. To learn more about Suzanne’s work, go to: http://www.suzannerevy.com/ OR http://www.panopticongallery.com/artist/suzanne_revy/#Suzanne_Revy_40.jpg
This exhibit will be on view through April 16th, 2017. For directions, hours and more information, go to: http://www.newportartmuseum.org/Exhibitions/Now-on-View/New-Light-Through-Old-Windows
Feature Image: “Letter Press Blocks, 2009” (detail) platinum/palladium print from the series Inventory by Ron Cowie (courtesy of the artist).