Thursday, November 30, 2000
Color is emotion--it has the capacity to shock, seduce, envelop, divide. How we see color reveals who we are, what we believe. Color also can suggest new ways of looking at the world, as the "Faces and Places: Two Women, Two Views" exhibit of photographs at the Monterey Conference Center''s Alvarado Gallery makes clear.
Inspired by a lifelong friendship of shared experiences and interests, the collaboration of artist Jean Brenner and university professor Peggy Downes Baskin invites the viewer to discover some of the cultural riches they''ve witnessed during their travels. Brenner provides the "Faces," Baskin the "Places."
Wherever she goes, from Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia to India and Senegal, Brenner always learns the words for "wonderful" and "beautiful." The new knowledge enables her to communicate with the people she wishes to photograph--for the most part, women in the marketplace and, occasionally, their children. The faces she documents show the authentic joy of these fleeting encounters.
While one might initially describe these faces as "exotic," framed in a sense by things that make them seem "foreign"--jewelry, clothing, backgrounds-- what stands out most is the instantly recognizable shape of the human face. Throughout Brenner''s photos, one sees smiles and expressions of wisdom, goofiness, delight, wonder.
A photo from a market in Koalac, Senegal, Mother and Daughter, features a woman pleased, if perhaps a little embarrassed, to have suddenly become an object of beauty while she is selling her peanut butter. Her small child looks at the photographer with an expression of thoughtful concentration.
In Young Monk, another child, a boy living in a Buddhist monastery in India close to the Chinese border, grins out from the photograph, proudly showing his new teeth, oblivious to the political turmoil that swirls around his young Tibetan body.
As a woman Brenner is able to enter into some environments that would be blocked off to a traveling male foreigner. At the market in Nairiya, Saudi Arabia, close to the Kuwaiti border, she succeeded in taking a picture of a woman without her veil by offering the woman a picture of herself, forming a brief bond that was broken when a man came upon the scene. Brenner has captured the precise action of the woman repositioning her veil. This fascinating moment of cultural discovery is presented in two photos that have been framed together, Bedouin Women.
Brenner is fascinated by traditional cultures, and worries that many of them are being buried under a global tide of sameness that threatens to destroy what makes so many people and places unique.
The question of how--or even whether--to document distant pockets of traditional societies is one without easy answers. Brenner recognizes that by celebrating these faraway places she may inadvertently contribute to the process by which increased exposure to Western tourists changes the way ancient communities live their lives.
Is it possible to rejoice in the worldwide diversity of traditional crafts, practices and beliefs without altering delicate patterns of life that have endured for centuries?
Yet surely the greater, much more real, danger is that many communities around the world are simply being lost under the weight of "global culture." Ironically, Brenner''s photographs illustrate the value of honoring the traditions of distant lands by showing us how alike we all really are.
The Shape of Meaning
Baskin''s photos also offer new ways of seeing. Focusing on the "strong, pure and joyous colors" of Mediterranean countries, as she puts it, Baskin reminds us that even just a walk around the block can disclose unexpected moments of artistry: Every step, every glance can, to the attentive eye, reveal new compositions of color and shape and meaning.
In Venetian Armada, an exemplary work that displays Baskin''s keen sensitivity to form and color, Venice is no longer the soft, beautiful, enveloping city we know. Instead, its rows of gondolas, symbols of the city''s easeful living, are framed to show a surprisingly aggressive, military side. The photo doesn''t necessarily make a comment about the character of the city, but it does uncover something hidden, a perspective that encourages one to look at the world with eyes washed clean of old habits and cliches about how things "ought" to appear.
Many of Baskin''s photos record private moments, frozen glimpses, to which she brings her identity as a woman and a lifelong resident of the Monterey Peninsula. The photo Beached Fishing Boat in Sessoira, Morocco is a close-up of what essentially is wreckage, yet this frail, failing craft is still in use.
Baskin imbues the photo with a sense of pathos. The boat is used by sardine fishermen, hardworking, muscular men, whose lives are bound to a fragile craft, and perhaps to a fragile livelihood: Baskin can''t help but remember how, years ago, all the sardines disappeared from Monterey''s waters, abruptly ending a thriving industry. What had seemed permanent became ephemeral. Into a small section of wood, Baskin imprints with her camera''s eye all these associations, public and private. The photo is beautiful and quite moving.
The power of Baskin''s photographs derives in part from the endless openness of abstract art. From the smallest fragments, each of us can create a different whole, a different lens on the world. There is in Baskin''s art almost a rebelliousness, a desire not to accept the same tired old ways of seeing and doing things. Two photos of graffiti in a Barcelona alley uncover beauty where some might just see an eyesore to be painted over. Other photos look at familiar surfaces so closely they become strangely exotic.
Brenner''s and Baskin''s juxtaposed photos complement each other. Brenner''s faces look out at the viewer with open eyes. Baskin''s photos ask us to follow her, eyes wide open, to the secret corners of the world. From open eyes come open minds.
When so much about the world seems confusing, this marvelous exhibit asks us to spend a moment thinking about all that is worthwhile and precious--all that is beautiful and wonderful--in any language.
"Faces and Places" can be seen Monday-Friday, 9am-4pm, at the Alvarado Gallery through Jan. 8.