Over the weekend I attended the opening of the new Sally Mann show A Thousand Crossings at the National Gallery of Art. While there are pieces from previous bodies of work, including Immediate Family—the work that established her notoriety as a photographer—the show is not a retrospective, according to senior curator Sarah Greenough. Instead, it should be looked at as an exploration of “how Mann’s relationship with this land has shaped her work and how the legacy of the South—as both homeland and graveyard, refuge and battleground—continues to permeate American identity.”
As much as I love the Immediate Family body of work, I haven’t always been as much of a fan of Mann’s departure into landscapes, in part because I was unaware of both the context and the intent driving the work. For example, one photo in A Thousand Crossings shows a bridge over the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi. On a cursory glance, it’s a lovely photo, but as a viewer we could easily accept the image at face value and move on. It’s only when we look at the context that we begin to understand how that particular bridge is not just the scene of a heinous crime, but also an important marker of a horrific moment in our nation’s racial history. The bridge in the photograph is believed to be the spot where the body of 14-year old African American Emmett Till was dumped after being kidnapped, brutally beaten and tortured, and shot in the head for allegedly flirting with a white woman (Till’s killers were acquitted by an all-white jury and the woman who accused him of flirting later admitted that much of her original story was false). The events surrounding Till’s death had a profound effect on Mann—so much so that she even named her first-born child Emmett.
In the past, I’ve held to the belief that photography and art in general shouldn’t have to be explained to be enjoyed—for example, through an artist’s statement or by reading the info card next to the piece—and I still largely stand by it if we are focusing solely on aesthetics. But perhaps I have downplayed the importance of context in understanding art as a whole. That said, I find that in most cases, any sort of aesthetic connection I may or may not have with a piece is fairly certain and by and large immediate. If it doesn’t “click” with me straight away, seldom do additional viewings change my perspective. However, over the past year or so, I’ve been making a concerted effort to better understand art (or Art, if you prefer) and what qualities take the work from something that we only appreciate visually to something that we would call compelling or even important. So far, two things that keep coming up both in my own reading and in conversations I’ve had with curators and conservators are transformation and context. Transformation can refer to materials, ideologies, the artist him or herself, or the connection to or with the viewer, while context can be the way one piece relates to another or the story/narrative that the artist is trying to convey through the work. And though I don’t believe narrative can make bad art “good” from an aesthetic point of view, it can make it more interesting, relevant, or significant, either as a single work or as part of a series, body of work, or movement.
I feel like I’ve gone back and forth on so much of this, which by and large feels healthy. David Yearsley, a professor at Cornell University’s College of Arts & Sciences recently wrote, “Sometimes [the brain] has no choice but to wrestle with Art.” Maybe we’re hardwired to struggle with meaning—and perhaps it’s through the wrestling that greater understanding is allowed to emerge.
Can you think of examples where context changed how you feel about a piece of art or a body of work?
Old Norse is a brilliant, austere look behind the scenes of artist Conor Harrington creating a new series of murals in Vardø, Norway. Conor’s works on canvas are incredible, but seeing them looming on a wall or the side of a building is something else.
Conflict photographer Chris Hondros was killed, along with photojournalist Tim Hetherington by an RPG covering the 2011 Libyan civil war. A new documentary, simply titled Hondros, examines his life and legacy and why he chose such a dangerous line of work.
“You have to see the Mona Lisa” is the one thing that nearly everyone told us ahead of our trip to Paris late last year. Spoiler: neither of us had much interest in seeing her. That said, if you are a fan, perhaps you will enjoy this article from The Atlantic that looks at “how Leonardo da Vinci engineered the world’s most famous painting.”