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In this complex, modern world, we are treated to loads of sweeping generalizations to help us negotiate our busy lives. But the devil, as they say, is in the details, the places where life is actually lived. Happily, angels dwell there, too. You can find them gracing the walls at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (ICA) within the Nicholas Nixon solo show, “Persistence of Vision”, on view through April 22, 2018.
For over forty years, from 1975 through 2017, Boston-based photographer Nicholas Nixon has taken an annual, large-format B&W photograph of “The Brown Sisters”, his wife Bebe and her three sisters. The ICA show is anchored by the entirety of this seminal and forthright series, presented in an eye-level ring around the gallery, with each image displaying the sisters in the same left-to-right order: Heather, Mimi, Bebe, Laurie. That’s the sweeping generalization. It is in the fine details of Nixon’s frank portraits that angels appear, bestowing an aura of gentle compassion. It is in the open trust on the Brown sisters’ faces, in the easy intimacy of their gestures, in the mortality of perceptible changes with each passing year, that Nixon invites us to share in the evolution of one close family and, by extension, our own humanity. This is no small gift.
Nixon’s direct approach was established early on. In 1975, as one of only eight young American photographers selected by curator William Jenkins, Nixon’s B&W work appeared in the renowned exhibit, “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” at the George Eastman House (Rochester, NY). The influence of this pivotal show is still felt in the genre, as it introduced fresh views of the American landscape that were stripped down to a basic, almost topographic state, eschewing beauty, emotion and opinion, and reveling in “unimportant” subject matter, often with a sense of irony. I never sense irony in Nixon’s work and, although he has transitioned primarily to portraits over the years, his early stylistic leanings are apparent. Nixon still goes for the nitty gritty.
You don’t have to know a thing about Nicholas Nixon to recognize that he gains his inspiration from intimate relationships, starting with his own family. Exemplified by “The Brown Sisters”, family is the most constant source of subjects throughout Nixon’s acclaimed career, but by no means exclusively so. “The Brown Sisters” portraits circle the gallery in chronological order, each one flanked by one or two other images that Nixon took that year. These other photographs serve as a kind of tether to the outside world, marking his children’s school years, the AIDS crisis, even Boston’s Big Dig. But more than that, they underscore Nixon’s dogged inquisitiveness into the mysteries of life and death and his penchant for picturing the angels of our humanity: the fragility, resilience and hope that arise from our human connections. They aren’t always pretty, but their beauty is resounding.
Nixon’s camera finds a premature baby struggling for life, as well as the aging and dying, clinging to this world. We see children challenged by poverty, blindness, or the classroom. Nixon delves into the homes and private lives of anonymous couples and their romantic engagements. Over and over, candid portraits of Nixon’s family serenade the lovely, aging “Brown Sisters.” In my favorite of his recent explorations, he turns the camera on himself and his stalwart wife Bebe in a series of unapologetically fleshy close-ups, “a joint effort to let our aging, happy coupleness be the subject.” The ICA’s exhibition title, “Persistence of Vision”, is an apt description of the compassionate revelations that appear so consistently across time in Nixon’s imagery. Individually and as a whole, Nixon’s photographs bare the details of his innate curiosity and invite us to share in his profound sense of wonder.
Barbara Lee Chief Curator Eva Respini and Curatorial Associate Jessica Hong have created an elegant, fluid exhibit. For more information, go to: https://www.icaboston.org/exhibitions/nicholas-nixon-persistence-vision?gclid=Cj0KCQiAsqLSBRCmARIsAL4Pa9S5biY_4HWdwi41meGL0v0xOxHGANBoQUvFK3Ro_Yw7qqBxEFbDG74aAt3oEALw_wcB
Feature Image: “The Brown Sisters, New Canaan, Connecticut, 1975” (Detail) by Nicholas Nixon (courtesy of the artist and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco).