Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Catholicity and the New Topographics III

(Grain Elevators, 1977 - Frank Gohlke)

I want to set up a little art historical context for the New Topographics since it is vital to their understanding and how I will ultimately address them.

It is widely commented that the New Topographics were reacting against Ansel Adams’ F/64 group which drew its name from the aperture of the large format cameras used by Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston and others of the group to capture sharpness in both the fore and background. Beaumont Newhall, the photography historian, notes that the F/64 group emerged as a later movement within straight photography as a reaction against the sentimentality of pictorialism.[1] The early straight photographers picked up as their slogan “form follows function” so that their photographs would actually look like photography. This was done in response, as noted above, to pictorialism which “forced photography to emulate the surface textures of pictures made by other media.”[2] What emerges is a new sort of objectivity and realism through a “hands-off” approach. Edward Weston wrote, “the camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself…the approach to photography is through realism.”[3]

Kelly Dennis suggests that the work of Weston and Adams’ images of unspoiled wilderness have often served utopian ends for Western myths and ideology.[4] This idea of the American Eden is prevalent in responses the F/64’s work. Chris Burnett’s recent paper at the College Art Association draws upon the work of Louis Marin and the contradictions of utopia in human imagination in Utopics: Spatial Play[5] (first published in 1973, just two years before the New Topographics exhibit). Burnett’s term, “degraded utopia” emphasizes the contradictions of “everyday scenes coexist[ing] with simulated landscapes…[to] reveal their mutual utopian destiny as both a ‘good’ and ‘no’ place.”[6]

[1] Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography (New York, Bullfinch Press, 1982), 192.
[2] Newhall, 167.
[3] Quoted by Newhall, p187-88.
[4] Kelly Dennis, Landscape and the West: Irony and Critique in New Topographic Photography. Paper presented at Forum UNESCO University and Heritage 10th International Seminar, “Cultural Lanscapes in 21st Century” 2005.
[5] Louis Marin, Utopics: Spatial Play (Palgrave Macmillan, 1984).
[6] Chris Burnett, New Topographics Now: Simulated Landscapes and Degraded Utopia, Presented at 2008 College Art Association National Conference.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Long Shadows Of A North Dakota Winter Day

Yesterday was a beautiful day around campus with temperatures in the mid-teens, bright blue skies with the sun casting long shadows over the ground from anything that rises vertically.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Catholicity and the New Topographics II

(Water Towers, 1980 - Bernd and Hilla Becher)

Sheldrake’s first chapter wrestles with complexity and diversity of place which makes it very difficult to pin down in theory and perhaps in practice as well.

Essentially, place “refers not simply to geographical location but to a dialectical relationship between environment and human narrative. Place is space that has the capacity to be remembered and to evoke what is most precious.”[1] Sheldrake is already weeding through common misconceptions of place as simple location as is used in common language today. Secondly, Sheldrake accurately points out the dialectic between the environment and humanity and its reciprocity. Humanity shapes and cultivates its environment which simultaneously impacts its local residents. Sheldrake also leans heavily upon narrative structured remembering and history accounts through Paul Ricouer. A third component of Sheldrake’s theology of place is rooted, to use a metaphor of place, in the evoking of what is precious. What is precious and how does this work? Memory and imagination, formed in the liturgy by the Eucharist will likely play a prominent role in answering these questions.

As I considered the “dialectical” component of Sheldrake’s work, I began to think about Genesis and the creation stories. God offers Adam dominion over creation and not domination. But in our technological age, have we lost the understanding of the “give and take” relationship we have with the environment? Has the earth become another means toward personal and global fulfillment? Another entity that those in power enact said power upon? Do we only recognize the reciprocity in the midst of tragedies such as the tsunami, hurricanes, tornados, and draughts?

So as I am reading Sheldrake’s work again I am continuing to direct my thoughts toward the New Topographics. In the introduction to my paper I’ve written,

“In 1975, William Jenkins, the Assistant Curator of 20th Century Photography at the George Eastman House gallery convened a landmark exhibit titled, “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape.” The ten invited photographers,[2] each with a distinctive approach, shared a common aesthetic through which they worked. By shifting their lenses from the pristine and Edenic West found in the work of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, they focused a documentary-like objective gaze upon the emerging banality of place under the shifting weight of industry and consumptive patterns. In turn, they ushered in a profound alteration in landscape photography. Despite the absence of humanity from the images, their work speaks prominently of anthropology and the human imprint upon the landscape.”

The subtitle caught my attention today after reading Sheldrake…”Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape.” If you have not seen any of their work, a common feature is the lack of actual humanity. I cannot recall any images of humanity even being in the show. But the human foot/fingerprint is readily present. Here, most prominently is one half of the dialectic; human imprints upon the world. Only, in a few of Robert Adams photographs, are we subtly aware of nature’s push back into human endeavors.

[1] Philip Sheldrake, Spaces for the Sacred, p.1.
[2] Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd & Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, Henry Wessel, Jr.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Catholicity and the New Topographics

(Holden St. North Adams, Massachusetts, 1974 by Stephen Shore)

Well now that Christmas day has passed and all the preparations that went into it, I feel as if I can finally turn my attention to research and writing the paper for CTS at the end of May. The paper is titled, Re-Viewing Place: Catholicity and the New Topographics which is an attempt to reconcile my studies in art, theology and place into a cohesive proposal. I am thankful that I have made good headway into researching the New Topographics this last semester in my 20th & 21st C. Art History Class. One of the struggles in this project is the relatively little engagement this group has received until a more recent resurgence in interest in the group.

My paper will examine Philip Sheldrake's Spaces for the Sacred as a potential hermeneutical lens, not only for place, but the landscapes of the New Topographics. Sheldrake's lens is one of catholicity formed by the Eucharist. My hope is to explore the implications of his proposal for mission, and to some extent ethics and ecology.

My hope is to fill postings here with my progress and musings over the next few months as I interact with these ideas. I am beginning with a re-reading of Sheldrake's text which I read in 2006 as part of a larger inquiry into sacred space/place.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Cavalcade of Bad Nativities

Well its that time of year again. Time for me to send around my annual link to Cavalcade of Bad Nativities. If you've not seen this before, make some room to laugh at the comments and kitsch.

"Is the baby Jesus made from mini marshmallows and those little Andes tingaling mints? And his name shall mean, Snacks Are With Us."

Friday, December 19, 2008

End of the Semester Musings and Re-considering the Source of the Artistic Idea

Ahhh…the first day of Christmas vacation. What a good feeling of completion and anticipation for rest. I cannot believe how quickly the semester has gone by. Yesterday I finished with a final in 20th and 21st Century Art History. The test preparations proved to be formidable with a larger list of artists and disparate movements which are simple more complex than early 20th Century developments. But I am quite sure I passed the test and may have done quite well if my one essay hits the mark.

This break will be a busy one with continuing work at the graduate school offices, research for the paper that was accepted to the College Theology Society annual meetings, and a few artistic projects as well.

I’ve already begun work on one such piece. I’ve been pondering the effects of our digital age upon memory for some time. I have finally broken through to an idea to wrestle that question in a visual manner. I am excited to get one version of it for entering in a few shows coming up this spring. The past week or two has been really productive in terms of conceptual ideas. I am not sure what it is, but I have had 3-4 totally new project ideas, and clearer direction with others.

This is the question that drove me to my master’s thesis wrestling with the source of the creative idea. Where does it come from? Why do certain periods prove to be so prolific in for artists? The second is a variant question but still has relevance to the first. My original thought when entering seminary was to look at the role of the Spirit in the artistic process. Despite writing a thesis and reading for the better part of a year on related subjects, I am just as confused, perhaps more, about the issue than I was then. I have considered returning to that subject again for some blog posts to hopefully generate some discussion among artists. I really want to give a balanced approach to the experience of being an artist, human giftedness and embodiment, and orthodox theology. Most approaches that I have encountered minimize the human too much that there is little difference between the Christian artist and that described by Plato in Timeus. This simply does not work for me or give significant enough emphasis on the human faculties.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Rein Vanderhill's Watercolors

This watercolor was done by Rein Vanderhill, my painting professor in college at Northwestern. It was Karina's Christmas gift that I picked up in Iowa last weekend. I had been intending to surprise her but when it didn't fit in our trunk I had to give it to her then.

I love Rein's work. I've never been any good at watercolors and to be able to create a photo-realistic work, with such amazing balance of lights and darks, and depth of field is simply amazing to me.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Ottawa Photos VII

One of the highlights on the trip was a stop at the Notre Dame Cathedral, (which is across the street from another "house of worship"...the Canadian National Gallery. Again the vaulted and ribbed ceilings with its blue domes and gold stars suggesting the heavens and cosmos which fall under the reign of Christ.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Modernism According to Clement Greenberg

Modernism picks up many of modernity’s philosophical trajectories as its guidance. Hazarding general definition of modernity we see an emphasis on the individual radically suspended in a dualistic and progressively rational, industrialized, urbanized and anti-historical society. Combining these factors with a profound sense of optimism in this new age of self-awareness, coupled with social upheaval produced a strange cocktail of utopian aspirations and existential despair. Cued by modernity, modernism cast off the perceived constraints of tradition, allowing solitary individuals and loosely connected tribes of like-minded others to pursue their personal visions, thus creating a staggering growth of artistic veins and ventures of innovation.[1] This perpetual evolution or revolution of creative discovery becomes one of the traditional (though now often contested)[2] hallmarks of modernism.[3]
For Clement Greenberg the essence of modernity, high art and summation for the artistic task meant a pervasive self-criticism or methodological doubt in order to eliminate that which might be borrowed from another media or previous form.[4] This in turn would secure an authentic or purity of artistic expression, its value and survival. This meant, according to Greenberg, that painting pursue that which belongs primarily to it alone: color, shape and most integrally the two-dimensionality of the surface.
Surface transformation in painting has been at the center of modernism’s developments. The painting surface which once functioned like a transparent window transporting the viewer beyond the image or surface itself[5] in modernism now impedes vision at the surface. It is not a rejection of space but a redefinition of it that is coupled with a progressive simplification and abstraction. Greenberg felt that traditional painting had sought an illusionary three-dimensional space whereas modernist painting reversed this impetus drawing an increased awareness and attention to the canvas surface.[6] The Renaissance tradition of scientific or linear perspective masterly imaged in Raphael’s School of Athens (1510-1511) is radically altered and essentially reversed through a series of artistic evolutions.
This tradition’s early beginnings can be seen in Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe (1863) by altering the scale of the rear bather combined with the shallow modeling the pictoral begins its continued collapse in modernity.[7] Just over a decade later, Monet’s radically tilted landscaped plain Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873) brings the depth closer to the surface. Seurat, while maintaining an illusionary depth of space, utilized pointillism to heighten the importance of the surface. Matisse’s work Open Window, Collioure utilized large and complimentary colors next to each other to reverse “the Renaissance notion of the picture as a window…canceling the illusion of deep space.”[8] The Fauves influence of large unmodeled color fields would remain a key component of Matisse’s work as obviously evident in Dance (1910) and The Red Studio (1911).
Braque and Picasso’s cubism draws upon Cezanne’s flat planes inventions thus abstracting their subject and reducing optical penetration to scans of the surface. Within synthetic cubism, both masters heightened interest in the surface by creating collage and papier colle respectively. Cubism attempted to balance “abstraction and illusion,” three-dimensionality condensed into a flat two dimensional surface.[9]
This continued evolution toward abstraction only heightened the importance of the image surface, replacing the significance of content for form of expression and experience. The holistic pouring method of Pollock, the flat color-fields of Newman and Rothko, as well as Reinhardt and Motherwell all brought a pure non-objectivity to coalesce with the surface. For Greenberg, this was the conceptual heart of modernism which was best evidenced in innovations and skepticism of the Abstract Expressionists and their successors who had progressively purged superfluous conventions to arrive at an autonomous and non-figurative art.[10] Thus through the progression of modernism, the optical illusion of looking through the image gave way to a progressively flattened[11] image where optics and surface converge in aesthetic experience.

[1] There is a strong irony within Modernism where it becomes a tradition of no tradition where old traditions were cast off in favor of newly created ones. This seems to suggest the reactionary cycle of the avant-garde.
[2] Pam Meecham and Julie Sheldon, Modern Art: A Critical Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2005), 31.
[3] According to Meecham, originality in modern theory is necessarily conjoined with authenticity and Greenberg’s sense of autonomy (Meecham, 13).
[4] Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting.” In Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology, ed. Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison, (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1982), 5.
[5] Sam Hunter, John Jacobus, and Daniel Wheeler, Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Photography (New York: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005), 10.
[6] Gail Day and Chris Riding, “The Critical Terrain of ‘High Modernism’” in Varieties of Modernism, ed. Paul Wood, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 193.
[7] Hunter, 16.
[8] Hunter, 105.
[9] Hunter, 148.
[10] Gaiger, XX-XXI.
[11] Greenberg notes that Modernist painting cannot ever be entirely flat because from the first mark made on the canvas destroys its virtual flatness. Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting.” In Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology, ed. Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison, (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1982), 8.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Great Plains Undergraduate Theology Conference (GPUTC) 2009

I’ve noticed in the recent weeks a good number of searches for the Great Plains Undergraduate Theology Conference landing here. Last year I helped with the marketing and arrangements for Sioux Falls Seminary's part of the conference. I have posted the basic necessary info for this years conference.

GPUTC is a great venue for young scholars to present their work, network, and receive some valuable feedback on their work. Students will have time to interact with other students from regional institutions as well. Over the first 2 years a variety of schools have participated including Augustana College, Briar Cliff Univeristy, College of St. Benedict, Concordia College, Dordt College, Grinnell College, Northwestern College (MN), Mount Marty College, St. John's University, Simpson College, and University of Mary.

If you have any questions, I would be happy to try to answer them or point you on towards Dr. Harrington at Briar Cliff.

Call For Papers
The Great Plains Undergraduate Theology Conference is an annual opportunity for undergraduate scholars to gather and present their innovative and creative work in the fields of Theology and Religious Studies. Students and faculty from the five-state region (Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota) are invited to participate in the lively, collegial and hospitable 2009 conference hosted this year by Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, and sponsored by Sioux Falls Seminary and Briar Cliff University.

Student presentation proposals are invited from papers in any of the following areas:
Moral Theology and Ethics
Historical Studies in Religion
Comparative Studies
Systematic Theology
Practical and Pastoral Theology

Students from all majors are encouraged to submit their theological and religious studies work. The deadline for presentation proposals is January 30, 2009.

Proposal Guidelines
The proposal itself must include a descriptive title and be no more than one hundred and fifty words long. A good proposal will summarize the argument to be clear and focused language. Presentations must not exceed twenty minutes (i.e. approximately nine pages of double spaced text), and presenters should be prepared to answer questions. Additionally, proposals must indicate what technological support is required for your presentations (such as an Internet connection or audio visual projection equipment). Concordia College may not be able to accommodate all technology requests.

Students must have a faculty sponsor for their proposal. Student should first consult a faculty member at their home institution. Once the proposal is in its final form, the faculty member will forward the proposal (in MS Word as a file attachment) to Dr. Linda S. Harrington (, phone 712.279.5475). Proposals should include the names of the presenter and the sponsor, institution affiliation, and a telephone number and reliable email addresses for both the presenter and the sponsor. The faculty member who sponsors a proposal does not need to attend the conference, but their sponsorship testifies to the merit of the proposal and the seriousness of the presenter. Faculty members are, of course, free to sponsor multiple proposals. The deadline for submitting proposals is January 30, 2009.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Ottawa Photos VI

One of the days I spent the entire morning walking an shooting and then met up with Karina and her mother Lydia at the Notre Dame Cathedral for a Eucharist service and then headed out for lunch. These two images were shot at the little lunch spot in Old Ottawa. Outside was a small market where the vendors were forced to cover and uncover their wool hats and gloves every few minutes as a snow shower would pass.

This shot came from the back of a pub. All the chairs from their summer customers outside has been piled up for the winter.

This shot was a few blocks from the cathedral. As I was shooting I was nearly run over by the woman who lives here. She was rather wary of my presence and questioned my intent with taking photos of her stairway.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Ottawa IV

I've have moved into crunch time, as are most students. Thus I feel I should apologize for the lack of original written thoughts and relying upon my photography to serve as a posting.

I began the printing of my 20 prints for my Threshold series last night...2 down...18 to go. So far I am adequately pleased with the results. I am printing on an archival matte paper and feel that the images may be better served by a semi-gloss instead. That said, the paper is lovely, and at 3 dollars a sheet it is expensive too.

These picts are from our recent trip to Ottawa and emanate from the tourist side of things. The top image is of course center block and the peace tower. The others are simple silhouettes of other buildings on the hill.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Ottawa Photos III

These are two of my favorite images from our recent trip to Ottawa. The first is another shot of the justice building steps. Less formal than the one I posted on Saturday, but still very structured. I love the angles of the railings especially where the rear railing ends centered between the two handrails of the nearest railing. What sets this image apart is the implication of humanity...the shadow bent over the stone as the figure, off the frame ascends towards the doors.

The second shot, taken in color, the grey day and stone produce a nearly full range from white to black. The figure again is set against the geometry and line, as nearly all humanity is in a city. But the
silhouette emerges from the dark to light making this simple nearly monochromatic image come to life.