‘Mutuality in Dichotomy’: Come for more than the Kandinsky

Vivienne Yixuan Shi PO ’19 curated the Pomona College Museum of Art Fall 2018 exhibit “Mutuality in Dichotomy” as part of the continuing series of exhibitions under the Janet Inskeep Benton ’79 Summer Undergraduate Research Program. (Chloe Ortiz • The Student Life)

The Pomona College Museum of Art’s “Mutuality in Dichotomy: Photography from the Permanent Collection,” which opened Sept. 4, is the fifth in a series of student-curated exhibits featured by the museum.

Vivienne Yixuan Shi PO ’19 developed the exhibit last summer, and she focuses on the dichotomous relationship between aerial and close-up photography, revealing that the two modes are more congruous than suggested by their differences in scale and objective.

The exhibit consists of works drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, which Kathleen Howe, the museum director, totals at around 15,000 objects.

According to Shi, deciding which pieces to include was not easy: “In the final stages of developing this exhibit, we were still choosing from nearly 100 different pieces. … It was very difficult to have to exclude some of my favorite artists.”

At first glance, it might not be immediately clear what the photographs in the exhibit are portraying, or that they are photographs at all.

Libby George PO ’20, who attended the exhibit’s opening reception last Saturday, said the featured Barry Anderson piece, “Kentucky” (an aerial photograph of a Kentucky landscape), reminded her of eggs. Babs Peisch PO ’19, another attendee, said Anderson’s work looked like egg-breasts.

The photographs on display are united by their abstraction of concrete subject matter.

Aaron Siskind’s “Detail of Peeling Paint” is a black-and-white close-up of chipped wall paint that could easily pass for an aerial photograph of a beach or even an abstract painting.

Similarly, Barry Anderson obscures reality in “Alabama,” a piece notable for its swirling, fantastical color composition and visually striking effect. This whimsical work clearly has little interest in realistically representing the Alabama landscape which it depicts.

Vivienne Yixuan Shi PO ’19 contemplates her exhibit. (Chloe Ortiz • The Student Life)

In the brochure accompanying the exhibit, Shi puts “Mutuality in Dichotomy” into conflict with a statement that 19th-century poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire made about photography: “This industry, by invading the territories of art, has becomes art’s most mortal enemy.”

His argument centers around the idea that photography is meant to capture the physical world, and therefore cannot create and express at great depths in the way that other artforms can.

Shi’s inclusion of pieces that deliberately focus on form and framing deconstructs reality, debunking Baudelaire’s idea that photography exists merely as a form of “mechanical reproduction.”

“These photographers actively explore the aesthetic potential of topography as abstract form. Their work may be visually mystifying, psychologically soothing, or hallucinatory,” Shi wrote in the brochure.

The mutuality between abstract art and photography is highlighted in Shi’s inclusion of “Kleine Welten (Small World),” a piece from a series by Wassily Kandinsky. World-renowned Russian contemporary artist Kandinsky uses angry, twisting lines, and hectic overlay of shapes to convey a sense of existential chaos.

The work throws reality into question much in the same way that the photographers, such as Anderson and Siskind, do in their works, which transform the ordinary into the strange and the unfamiliar.

As for the Kandinsky piece itself, Shi remarked that it isn’t the artist’s “most representative” work, as she explained that Kadinsky’s art theory is incomplete without discussing colors, while the piece in her exhibit is in black and white.

Shi added that big names draw big crowds, but that Kandinsky’s abstraction provides for the context of the exhibition. “The ‘world’ depicted in Kandinsky’s prints is not constructed as a straightforward representation, but conveyed through idiosyncratic marks and symbols,” Shi writes in her exhibit’s brochure essay.

She continues: “This is an alternate mode of representing reality. It is an approach that asks the viewer to re-think ways of representing the world that they take for granted. That same approach, one which prompts us to re-view our world, is used by photographers who do not depict the external world conventionally, instead choosing non-standard points of view, such as in aerial photography, or by excerpted fragments.”

On the whole, Shi’s collection has little to do with ‘big names,’ or for that matter, any of the 16 individual works featured in it.

The exhibit relies instead on Shi’s ability to connect the pieces to one another, ultimately working to ask the question: what is the role of photography in modern art?

For those open to a conceptually interactive experience, this exhibit is sure to provoke the mind. Those who are not interested in engaging Shi’s narrative might want to look elsewhere.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Vivienne Yixuan Shi PO ’19 curated this exhibit as part of her senior thesis project. This article has been updated to reflect that Shi curated the exhibition as part of the continuing series of exhibitions under the Janet Inskeep Benton ’79 Summer Undergraduate Research Program. It has also been updated to add context to her remarks about Kandinsky’s piece. TSL regrets this error. 

This article was last updated on Sept. 27 at 9:49 p.m.

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