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Wellin Museum explores shifting borders of fine art and documentary photography in portraiture
Tom Hunter, The Way Home. Chromogenic print, 48 x 60.
CLINTON, NY.- This winter, the Wellin Museum of Art examines a genre of photographic portraiture that blends elements of fine art and documentary photography, and that has emerged over the past decade. In Context: The Portrait in Contemporary Photographic Practice features new works by conceptual artists, photojournalists, and social documentarians whose convergent approaches balance aesthetic and political goals to create art that is at once visually complex and deeply moving. On view February 1 through July 27, 2014, the exhibition is the first in a series of shows curated by Hamilton College Faculty, with the assistance of students as part of their coursework.

The exhibition is a unique forum that considers the commonality among diverse practitioners who, historically, have been considered independently. It features conceptual artists who appropriate techniques from photojournalists to frame an underlying sociopolitical agenda, and photojournalists and social documentarians who borrow conceptual strategies to subjectively shape the portraits they create. Artists whose work crosses these boundaries and are featured in the exhibition include: Chris de Bode, Magali Corouge, Ulrich Gebert, Jim Goldberg, Mishka Henner, Tom Hunter, Alfredo Jaar, Sharon Lockhart, Alec Soth, and Laura El-Tantawy.

“For the first time, works that epitomize this emerging genre are put in dialogue with one another,” said curator and Hamilton College Assistant Professor of Art Robert Knight. “What becomes clear is that the marriage of documentary and conceptual approaches creates work that forces viewers to consider the subjects in more complex and meaningful ways. Certain themes—abuse of power, cultural identity, dislocation—also emerge that seem particularly suited to this new style of photography.”

Highlights from the exhibition include Laura El-Tantawy’s Shadows of the Pyramids (2005–13), a series that captures the lives of Egyptians as their nation transitions from the rule of Mubarak, a revolution, and the persisting uncertainty of their new government. Ulrich Gebert’s Amerika (2010), also explores concepts of identity and power structures, chronicling the work of African immigrant day laborers as they harvest oranges in Valencia, Spain. The photographs highlight the tension between a system reliant on man’s control of nature and man’s control/oppression of another subset of society. French photographer Magali Corouge photographs a diverse range of subjects in post-Qaddafi Libya, pairing his images with text interviews which explore the history and future of that country from each individual’s point of view.

“The Wellin Museum is an on-campus laboratory for the creation and cross-fertilizations of ideas,” said Tracy L. Adler, Director of the Wellin Museum. “We are thrilled to be working with Professor Knight to inaugurate our faculty-curated exhibition series, which provides Hamilton scholars and practitioners with an opportunity to curate exhibitions related to their research and the courses they teach. Knight’s exhibition perfectly encapsulates our commitment to encourage our students and visitors to draw connections across disciplines and develop their aesthetic judgment.”

In fall 2013, a course tied to In Context explored the history of documentary photography, including contemporary critiques of its effectiveness, and the role of art institutions in the appropriation and repurposing of archives. Hamilton students had the opportunity to explore the theory and process of curating an exhibition. Working directly with Hamilton Professor Robert Knight, students collaborated on the entire scope of the exhibition process, from image selection and layout, to catalog and wall text production, to producing multimedia materials such as podcasts. In response to the issues examined throughout the course, they’ve created their own artwork, which was publically displayed at the end of the semester.

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