Nov 4, 2011

EXHIBITION | The Dazzling Instant | Witliff Collections| Alkek Library

Cattlemen at Auction, Russell Lee, 1940, Silver Gelatin Print
On the seventh floor of the Alkek Library, past an out of order (and most likely haunted) elevator and to the left, there is a large room filled with photo prints and an eerie silence. I visited The Dazzling Instant exhibit three times and each time I was the only person there. Yet there was something about the stony silence and being isolated in each room that brought more life to the photographs. The exhibit features 95 images from 70 different photographers and is one of the exhibitions celebrating the Wittliff Collections 25th Anniversary.

As you first enter the gallery, there is a large quote from Bill Wittliff that reads as follows:
"Photography at its most potent can transcend mere reportage and reveal our very souls like a magic mirror: to make us think, to make us feel, and to remind us always that we're all fell travelers on this spinning globe."
Mr. Wittliff's words of wisdom is very appropriate starting point in terms of setting up the photographs to follow. Many of the photographs in the gallery such as Paul Rosenthal's Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima (1945) and Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother (1936) capture historical moments while also telling human stories. The works themselves were organized in a very deliberate fashion. The back-left room contains works that all appear to contain subjects from Mexico; one wall in the room displays only children.  I did love one of the particular images in this room. The photo was titled Volando Bajo (low flying) (1986) and was taken by Pablo Ortiz Monasterio. The photograph displays a 1980's Mexican punk rocker kicking off of a wall with a Sex Pistols mural painted upon it. The pure ecstasy of the moment captured is a simple, yet beautiful thing to admire.

Volando Bajo (low flying), Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, 1986, Silver Gelatin Print
As you proceed to the next section, the walls are adorned with images of Native Americans. There is a balance of suffering vs ceremony in the display. The walls are trying to present the narrative of these people and the back wall is the setting. Each image along this wall is a landscape of the Southwest. The one landscape that stood out the most was New Mexico Rainstorm, taken by Jim Bones. The work is a dye transfer print and one of the very few color prints in the entire exhibition. The focus on black & white prints in the show sets a somber tone that is appropriate to many of the works. But the focus on black & white also gives new life to the color prints present. The colors appear brighter and more stylized and seem to almost jump out from the frames.

As I continued to wander the walls, reading the faces staring back at me like books, eager to absorb their stories I decided to stand dead center in the room. With no one else present I proceeded to turn 360 degrees slowly and question my surroundings. It was then that I came to the realization that section of the gallery tells another perspective of the same story. From the bugs & plants, cowboys & cowgirls, Native Americans & Mexicans; The Dazzling Instant is the Southwest narrative. The gallery becomes just as much a history lesson as it is an art exhibition.

Tom Waits, Michael O'Brien, 2006, Silver Gelatin Print

Before leaving I stopped and sat down in front of my personal favorite print one last time. It is Tom Waits (2006) by Michael O'Brien. Admittedly I am a huge Tom Waits fan and therefore obviously biased, but I love the small glimpse of comedy in an otherwise serious exhibit. Waits is in the middle of the California desert in his suit and bowler hat with some sort of megaphone device strapped to his back and a grin the size of the horizon on his face. The kicked up dust and his body indicate a struggle, but its as if his face is embracing the struggle wholeheartedly. I put my headphones in and listened to "Anywhere I Lay My Head" as I trotted the gallery one more time and couldn't help but see both the appropriateness and the irony; but that's life. Then I left, but I'll probably be back soon.

-Glen Purvis


  1. I love that you said "The gallery becomes just as much a history lesson as it is an art exhibition." -So true! I took a tour of this exhibition with the curator and it really made me appreciate not only the artist side of the photos but the history behind them.

    -Sara Beth Worcester