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Category: Curator Statments

Portfolio Showcase Volume 13 | Curator’s Statement

Posted by staff on May 11, 2020

Portfolio Showcase Volume 13 | Curator’s Statement


Thinking over this year’s Portfolio Showcase submissions, I was surprised by how many are keenly relevant to life during the COVID-19 pandemic. The photographs were made and submitted long before any of us heard of the novel coronavirus and were juried as it was just beginning to be discussed. A wide variety of types of photography were submitted to the competition—landscapes, formal exploration, abstraction, documentary, staged works, still life—but relationships and emotions were dominant topics and yielded some of the strongest portfolios. Perhaps the national mood was already turning inward, perhaps it was merely chance. Either way, the chosen portfolios have much to offer us as we ponder our current situation.


Intimacy and distance are topics addressed by Carl Bower, David Obermeyer, and Suzette Bross. Bower’s powerful yet reserved portraits in Private Fears document individuals reflecting on the anxieties that shackle them and shake them to their very cores. Before asking his subjects to bare their emotions to him and his camera, he shares his own fears with them. The intimacy that Bower established is rewarded with deeply insightful portraits. David Obermeyer’s shots of at-risk young people are more documentary in aim, and his sitters far more guarded. These youths, enrolled in a church program that helps them reconnect with society through full-time employment, are wary about revealing any vulnerabilities. In Suzette Bross’s series For the Glass, fingertips and faces press against the glass of a scanner. Her sitters seem to try to establish physical contact through the picture plane, an impossible task and a poignant one in this time of physical distancing. Bross prints these images larger than life size, enhancing the tension between intimacy and a sense of remove.


The closeness—which sometimes become claustrophobia—of family and home is explored by three of the selected artists. Sharon Draghi’s staged and candid color shots of her family are set in her home and on her street, echoing the collapsed universes and state of interiority most of us have been experiencing during quarantine.  Colby’s black-and-white series The Fragility of Fatherhood subtly suggests the depth of love, hope, but also uncertainty and restlessness within the tight bond between the artist and his son. A similar attachment is the subject of black-and-white portraits by Anna Grevenitis of the artist and her daughter, who has Down syndrome. Contrasted with their closeness is the presumed curious gaze of the outsider/viewer. It is unabashedly returned by Grevenitis, who stares directly into the camera.


As sheltering in place orders caused  us to withdraw into our homes, cities became skeletons stripped of the chaotic, life-giving flow of people and traffic. This emptiness is presaged in Dave Jordano’s haunting scenes of a deserted Cleveland at night. Here and there a lone figure guards an open convenience store, and the palette is warm, but the barren streets nonetheless invoke an otherworldly chill. A stunning contrast—and a reminder of the “old normal”—is found in At Table by Glenna Jennings. These vibrant scenes evoke not just the gustatory but also the social pleasures of dining.


The final two selected portfolios, quite different in tone and approach than those discussed above, speak to the history and nature of photography. Mid-twentieth century charts for establishing exposure and other settings are the starting point for Andy Mattern’s Average Subject/Medium Distance, who digitally strips away their explanatory notations. The once functional, physical objects—analog tools for analog photography—become self-referential digital photographs—objects both beautiful and ironic. Walter Plotnick’s Surprise Inside also combines analog and digital processes and harkens back to an earlier photographic era. His Bauhaus-inspired montages, printed on opened cardboard boxes, echo in their composition and choice of imagery the energy, physical release, and delightful surprise of the act of opening the boxes.


It was a pleasure to peruse all the submissions. There was so much strong and meaningful work that it was difficult to narrow my selections down to ten portfolios. I congratulate all who entered and thank you for your dedication to photography. Now, more than ever, the world needs artists to help us reflect, analyze, and understand our emotions and to give us moments of sheer visual joy.


Barbara Tannenbaum

Chair of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs and Curator of Photography
The Cleveland Museum of Art



Image Credit: Troy Colby

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Lisa Volpe’s Curator’s Statement for Female in Focus Exhibition

Posted by staff on May 8, 2020

Lisa Volpe’s Curator’s Statement for Female in Focus Exhibition


What does it mean to be female? The simplicity of the question masks its importance. After all, there is a significant price to pay for getting it wrong in daily life: violence on one end of the spectrum, social marginalization on the other. Yet at various times, all women will get it ‘wrong’ because the boundaries of femininity are not only moving targets, but are also in the eye of the beholder. Gender, after all, is merely a method of distinction. It is a differentiation of symbols that a particular society assigns as masculine or feminine. It is not a naturally occurring variance, but an active, man-made effort to produce and maintain difference.


This assignment of gendered difference and symbolic meaning is perhaps most evident in the realm of art. As theorists Griselda Pollock and Laura Mulvey so brilliantly explained, in art, the female body is traditionally utilized as a sign, ripe for constructing meaning—the result of a long history in which women were mere tabula rasa upon which men could project their fantasies and messages. From the anonymous saintly figures, archetypes of virtue and fidelity, of the Renaissance, to Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, in which women, reduced to mere body parts, are reassembled for a modernist (male) eye, women have been treated as mere symbol for a masculine statement.


The work in “Female in Focus” opposes tradition by placing female subjectivity at the center, tackling the difficult question: “What does it mean to be female?” The 35 works of art in this exhibition were chosen from an exceptionally strong pool of entries. The artists featured embraced photography as a means of confronting the tangled definition of the feminine. While some of the photographs deconstruct tradition, others rethink cultural, biological, and psychological “female” spaces. They represent a broad definition of ‘female’ as a fluid grouping equally influenced by bodily experience as it is by psychology and contemporary life. Together, these works present a “Female in Focus,” characterized not exclusively by sex or difference, but by unending transformative possibilities.


Lisa Volpe

Associate Curator, Photography

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston



Image Credit: Toni Pepe

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