the voice of Frederic Edwin Church: Lynn Davis’ Fata
By Nadine Wasserman
Passages: Lynn Davis at the Sites of Frederic Edwin Church
Institute of History and Art, through Sept. 2
The “places to see before you die” phenomenon has spawned
a plethora of books, television shows, articles, and Web sites.
But to visit even a few of the more popular sites such as
the Colosseum, the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat, Machu
Piccu, and the Grand Canyon would take considerable time and
resources. As if that weren’t daunting enough, many of these
manmade and natural wonders are in danger of disappearing.
They are being altered by climate change, neglect, indifference,
and ironically by the very tourists who are thronging to see
them “before they die.”
The sense that nature is being altered and that we are losing
our most treasured sites is not just a contemporary concern.
In the 19th century the artists of the Hudson River School
wanted to capture the landscape in its “purity” before the
industrial revolution spoiled it. They saw the wilderness
as something innocent and sublime, a divine representation
and a source of moral inspiration. They wanted to portray
scenic beauty as an ideal. At a time when people of some means
could begin to travel to see such wonders as Niagara Falls
and the Catskills, these artists were interested in depicting
them accurately while diminishing the human presence in order
to emphasize a romantic view of the natural world.
In this region we are fortunate to be able to see many fine
examples of work by Hudson River School artists and to also
experience the same scenery that inspired them. The Albany
Institute of History and Art has a new installation of selections
from its permanent collection of first- and second-generation
Hudson River School artists. This new installation is complemented
by Parallel Passages in two neighboring galleries.
Made up of 17 large-scale photographs by Lynn Davis in one
gallery and relevant paintings, drawings, prints, oils, sketches,
and letters by Frederic E. Church in another, this exhibition
offers a sense of continuity between two different artists
working more than a century apart and in different mediums.
Church, whose home Olana is visible when traveling eastward
on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, traveled extensively throughout
the world sketching vegetation, waterfalls, volcanoes, and
rivers, as well as man-made monuments, which he then used
to inform his paintings. Like Church, Davis photographs the
world’s most compelling architectural icons and natural wonders
in order to capture their spiritual essence and their contemplative
Davis’ photographs are influenced by a formal abstraction.
She creates her compositions using dramatic angles and lighting
and masterfully uses the photographic process to enhance the
emotional content of the image. Focusing in on the structure
or natural formation with little evidence of humans, Davis
mirrors the 19th-century landscape tradition. But rather than
rely on color, she uses tonality to emphasize the drama of
the image and to lend it an aura of romanticism and subdued
majesty. Her sparse compositions are nonetheless richly detailed
and are all the more transcendent for her choice of processing.
The pieces in this show are selenium or gold-toned gelatin
silver prints or Piezo prints. Her images of icebergs, waterfalls,
and archeological sites are often paired with excerpts from
Church’s travel journals and correspondences. These are intended
to give the viewer perspective on how each artist has interpreted
the same or similar locations. Some of the pairings of text
and image are more successful than others. One that does work
well, for example, is for Davis’ Giza III, Dynasty IV,
a selenium-toned gelatin silver print that depicts the pyramids
from a distance with a diminutive camel train passing by.
The serene yet brooding quality of the image is juxtaposed
with Church’s complaints about Alexandria which he found to
be “the noisiest and dirtiest place I was ever in, everything
talks, or gabbles, or squeals, or groans, or screeches, or
howls perpetually.” Another effective pairing is Davis’ Upthrust,
Palmyra, Syria, a dramatic image of a sweeping hill. Church
writes “Syria, with its barren mountains and parched valleys
possesses the magic key which unlocks our innermost heart.”
The exhibition would have worked just as well if the Church
quotes remained with the Church material in the other gallery.
The connections are clear enough and Davis’ photographs need
all the space they can get, particularly her Disko Bay icebergs.
Davis’ work de picts the power of nature and the significance
of architecture. Her imagery suggests something transcendent
as well as impermanent. The monumentality of the places depicted,
such as Machu Picchu and Petra, Jordan, is underscored by
the reality that these and so many others have at one time
or are now currently on UNESCO or World Monuments fund endangered
watch lists. In addition, the places of natural beauty are
also threatened by climate change and by human expansion.
By comparing Davis to Church the exhibition is a reminder
that the sources of inspiration for both of these artists
still exist and we ought to act now to preserve them while
there is still time.
peripheral vision this week-