Edward Weston and Ansel Adams set a high bar for classic, modernist photography, but the generation of image-makers who followed were driven to experiment, shake things up, and see where it all led.
Why not go back a hundred years and make new images with historic photo techniques (sun prints, anyone)? Has anyone tried embroidering photos? What about mashing up photo-silkscreen prints with readymade collages decorated with rubber stamps?
A stroll through the gallery shows a broad range of creative 20th-century minds at work, with at least one case showcasing some 19th century pioneers.
Meet Lady Mary Georgina Filmer, a London society gal who mastered the art of photocollage as early as the 1860s. A page from one of her albums shows how she merged topsy-turvey photo images, botanical watercolors, and text to tell stories her own way – a true stay-at-home pioneer!
Lady Filmer’s album looks out on dozens of other Americans who went back into the time machine to toy with making albumen prints, stereographs, hand-colored photos, drawing, and cyanotypes. Example: the arresting 1970s hand-colored gelatin silver print by Karen Truax where she ghosts-out her central figure.
For anyone curious about these old-timey methods, the curators have provided visitors with a place to relax, leaf through books about it, and watch YouTube videos on the gallery iPad.
Another gallery features artists who took photography mixed-media to the next level, like Rauchenburg’s litho that appropriates Bonnie and Clyde movie stills and an over-the-top abstraction by Thomas Barrow that combines gelatin silver print technique with a crazy-quilt of stencils, spray paint, and objects. So totally Eighties!
The third gallery displays lots of fool-the-eye and 3-D delights. What’s the most fun? Jerry McMillan’s photo-offset inside a “paper bag?” Betty Han’s Soft Daguerreotype of Xeroxed weeds on fabric? Probably Robert Heinecken’s T.V. Dinner/Shrimp. Hard to choose.
Other sections of the exhibition show how 1970s photographers made images in which photography itself was the subject and told highly personal stories.
And don’t forget the coda that features a dramatic images by more recent photographers that make provocative social statements and represent voices that were not fully represented within the university system during the 1960s and 1970s.
In the early 1980s, socially minded artists living downtown in New York couldn’t handle the news coming out of Central America and did something about it. The United States government was intervening in the affairs of Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and everyone was worried that the situation was going to devolve into another Vietnam.
In 1982, a group of New York artists collaborated with Latin American artists to create a show with contemporary art and cultural artifacts to draw attention to the escalating crises in Latin America. By 1984, organizers launched a national call to artists to raise money and awareness of what was happening.
Artists responded with performances, music concerts, films, poetry readings, and exhibition. In New York alone, over 1,100 artists participated in over 30 exhibitions.
Nationally, artists in 27 cities organized chapters and events and tried to build alliances in Latin America.
Videos, photographs, sculptures, paintings, and ephermera pulled from archives (like posters, buttons, mail art, and pamphlets) bring the story of artist-activists to life – their concerns about US government intervention, their efforts to organize artists across the United States, and their attempts to help artists living in oppressed Central American countries.
The Tufts University-organized show resurrects a largely forgotten story of artist activism, illuminates the tribulations of indigenous communities in Central America at the time, introduces us to contemporary works from artists inspired by their indigenous heritage, and gives us an idea of what’s happening in those countries now.
The three-floor show is packed with arresting images, works, and histories. The art work and documentation push and pull visitors between the international political crises of the 1980s and social-justice issues being addressed by artists today.
The installation features work by heavy hitters of the 1980s New York art scene – wall-size Vietnam-era work by Leon Golub, images documenting Ana Mendieta’s performance pieces, and Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s sketches, maquettes, and exploding-banana image that branded the Artists Call Against US Intervention initiative.
The first-floor exhibition area includes Nancy Spero’s dramatic scroll-like drawing that calls attention to the oppression of Salvadorean women.
Downstairs, there’s another 1984 work that similarly unfurls the length of the gallery – an accordian-book project led by Sabra Moore that is a collaborative reconstruction of a rare 16th-century Mayan codex by 22 women. It’s the first time the codex has been displayed since 1984.
The third floor packs a punch, installing revolutionary images and publications around the infamous (and censored) Hans Haacke piece that questions the aftermath of the 1983 US invasion of Grenada. Across the room, visitors pour over Carlos Motta’s 2005 wall-sized chalkboard installationBrief History of US Interventions in Latin America since 1946.
Although the 1980 artist-activists did not achieve all of their utopian goals, the contemporary selections show that social consciousness, pride in indigenous heritage, and artistic futures are still alive – including a beautiful feathered immigrant history dome by Batriz Cortez, stitched by a team of immigrant collaborators.
Learn more about how the curator Erina Duganne and her collaborator Abigail Satinsky created this remarkable show:
Art for the Future will be on display at Chicago’s DePaul Art Museum from March to August 2023.