Art Nerd City Guides: New York · Los Angeles

Nursing, Grieving, Memorializing, Decaying: The Many Theres of the Photo Center NW’s Terminal

“Permanence,” Susan Sontag writes in her essay  “An Argument about Beauty,” “…is not one of beauty’s more obvious attributes; and the contemplation of beauty, when it is expert, may be wreathed in pathos, the drama on which Shakespeare elaborates in many of the Sonnets. Traditional celebrations of beauty in Japan, like the annual rite of cherry-blossom viewing, are keenly elegiac; the most stirring beauty is the most evanescent.”

Terminal: On Mortality and Beauty, the current exhibition at the Photo Center NW, asks us to confront death but, at the same time, to recognize the beauty that often attends it. It’s almost too big an idea for one show. The 43 works curator and PCNW Director Michelle Dunn Marsh has gathered crowd together in the exhibition space you encounter as soon as you come through the door. A terminal illness, we know, leads to death, and a terminal is the place you wait to go from here to there. But though death may be the final destination, it is not, as the photographs in the exhibition demonstrate, a single, permanent place. The here of the show is actually so many theres.

Phillip Toledano, Untitled, from “Days With My Father,” 2008. Image courtesy the artist and PCNW.

Phillip Toledano, Untitled, from “Days With My Father,” 2008. Image courtesy of the artist and PCNW.

Phillip Toledano, Untitled, after “Days With My Father,” 2009. Image courtesy of the artist and PCNW.

Phillip Toledano, Untitled, after “Days With My Father,” 2009. Image courtesy of the artist and PCNW.

Some images show the time before. In Phillip Toledano’s Untitled from “Days With My Father,” the artist leans in and rests his hand on the shoulder of his ailing father. With the vantage so close, it’s easy to appreciate the intimacy of his caregiving and to imagine his hand as your own. The photograph with which this first image pairs is probably my favorite in the exhibition. In this second image, the figures are gone, and we look into the dark corner of a room. A small hook on the right is empty. Nothing hangs or bears its weight upon it. On the left, we see the bright frame of a window. But Toledano denies the visual release we expect from it, cropping the image so that we cannot see past into another place. At the same time, the window casts a hovering rectangle of light.

Hank Willis Thomas, In Loving Memory of, from the series “Studio X,” 2007. Image courtesy of the artist and PCNW / Jack Shainman Gallery, NYC.

Hank Willis Thomas, In Loving Memory of, from the series “Studio X,” 2007. Image courtesy of the artist and PCNW / Jack Shainman Gallery, NYC.

Terminal also features a pair of photographs by Hank Willis Thomas from the series “Studio X.” Neither has ever been exhibited before. Each is a portrait of a portrait, showing a figure wearing a t-shirt that memorializes a young black man who has died. The “In Loving Memory Of” shirts are produced at a discount emporium in an African-American neighborhood in Miami, where gun violence periodically devastates the community. As the wall text explains, Willis Thomas’s series explores “…the curious intersection of violence, remembrance, fashion, and commerce.”

Sylvia Plachy, Pompeii, Italy 2012. Courtesy the artist and PCNW Presents.

Sylvia Plachy, Pompeii, Italy 2012. Image courtesy of the artist and PCNW Presents.

Sometimes the death is less immediate. In Sylvia Plachy’s Pompeii, a petrified body lies prostrate on a pallet surrounded by ceramic jars and the capitals of classical columns. Vitruvius, the ancient Roman architect and writer, equated the standing body with columns and specifically likened the Ionic order to strong women and graceful, learned men. And so, with the Ionic column behind him, I imagine this long-dead figure in Plachy’s photograph an elegant scholar.

Richard Misrach, Dead Animals #79, Nevada, 1987. Image courtesy of the artist and PCNW / Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

Richard Misrach, Dead Animals #79, Nevada, 1987. Image courtesy of the artist and PCNW / Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

Perhaps the most visceral image in the exhibition is Richard Misrach’s Dead Animals #79. The front legs of a pair of horses bend as if to propel their bodies forward, side by side. But looking closer, we see the animals lie dead on sandy ground. Their empty eye-sockets see nothing, and their mouths gape as if to draw breath or food, though none comes. Chemicals from atomic testing in the Nevada desert left these animals deformed and dead, and they have been gathered and left to rot in this pile. Still, a tender beauty cloaks them. As Rebecca Solnit writes in the essay “Scapeland” that appeared in the book Crimes and Splendors: The Desert Cantos of Richard Misrach, “Beauty cannot be eliminated. It will show up on battlefields, in trauma, in ruins, it will grow on the hostile grounds of the antiaesthetic, in the most resolutely resistant work, in the desert. Beauty is all over Richard Misrach’s work, speaking to us of the things we fear losing, the things we fear succumbing to…The photographers discovered what the painter Constable knew, that beauty lies in wait everywhere.”

Terminal: On Mortality and Beauty is on view at the Photo Center NW in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood through Saturday, April 4, 2015.

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