At show, a rare look at a photo collection THE ARTS AND THINGS TO DO

Posted: February 09, 2003

"Photography: Ten Years of Acquisitions," an exhibit of 73 photographs and 11 books at Haverford College, offers a very personal and excellent selection by the college's photo curator, William Earle Williams. The event reflects his savvy response to modest budgets for the college's growing photography resources: He wisely keeps searching.

Fortunately for the overall quality of the current show, Williams, in choosing what he buys for the collection, always seems to be questioning whatever the surface level of the message in a photo happens to be. That way, he delves deeper and also makes some unusual finds.

The portion of the collection that emerges here is a feisty one by any standard. It is not a great leap, for instance, from W. Eugene Smith's celebratory photograph, "Nadelman Sculptures," which makes statues look for all the world like a group of real women in a darkened room gossiping at a bright bay window, to the brash topical parody of Russian-born Vita Litwak's untitled picture of a dog-walker's sign.

We also are reminded that this Quaker college has, historically speaking, tended to put its social conscience to good use when we see here a number of subjects, such as hooded Ku Klux Klan figures conducting an infant baptism in an anonymous photo.

And, there's Andres Serrano's picture of a child-abuse victim asleep, and Helen Levitt's compassionate and memorable 1940s New York street scene. Meanwhile, for other photographers, there's the possibility that something is pricking their political conscience. Scenes by Larry Fink and some of the younger artists are infused with many populist concerns.

Portraiture, a high point in the show, ranges from Victorian Englishwoman Julia Margaret Cameron's distinctive contribution as the first photographer consistently to aim for heroic likenesses to America's Paul Strand, working years later in a similar vein and portraying a young French boy seemingly possessed of that same kind of overwhelming importance and dignity.

Other portraits of note are of Coretta Scott King at her husband's funeral, a sympathetic work by Flip Schulke; Cornelius M. Battey's emphatic Booker T. Washington (c. 1910); and Jacques Lowe's relaxing President Kennedy schmoozing with a small-town postmaster in West Virginia.

Pictures by African Americans, by several recent Haverford College graduates, and photographic books - most notably a tribute to the Brooklyn Bridge titled The Bridge, featuring Hart Crane's poem and Walker Evans' photographs - round out this fascinating show. This exhibit, full of interesting byways and moments to remember, provides a much-needed and relatively rare view of this fast-growing treasure trove of pictures.

Haverford College's Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, Coursey Road, Haverford. To Feb. 23. Mondays to Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. 610-896-1287.

Ursinus College. Painter Helen Mirkil loves to focus her attention on master paintings she particularly loves, her homage to them turning up en masse now in her solo exhibit at Ursinus.

Her painted "take-offs" are the result of reflection on, rather than mere description or copying of such works done by a range of artists, including El Greco, Watteau, Corot, van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Tanner, Gorky, Kuhn and Neel.

Such paintings by this Lower Gwynedd artist attempt to distill a sense of order that is based on personal and emotional responses, not on logic or theory.

Mirkil's ambiguous imaginary world is her entry point into a spiritual dimension that her work has. Such an approach doesn't tell a story so much as it creates metaphors that are like fragments of a puzzling myth Mirkil has invented.

These lively exaggerated images carry no heavy messages. Enhancing the success of her people paintings is Mirkil's careful color sense, which brings the seldom loud and the often gentle into harmonious complement, along with subtle forms, textures and rhythms deemed essential. Yet the meanings are not specific, even when the subject is a self-portrait in harlequin costume, because this artist paints not people nor objects, but the emotion they embody.

And many of these works are actually self-portraits, which isn't obvious. Imagination is in charge here, and everything is subjective.

It's the peripheral meaning of these old (and some recent) masterpiece images that Mirkil draws upon in her outstanding show, rather than the central core of meaning each one has. For her paintings are not parables with a lesson to teach us. Instead, I think Mirkil sees the world as a series of miraculous circumstances that she has witnessed and imagined.

Here, she has created soundly crafted and meditative, yet highly charged, paintings that are beyond the confines of a particular trend or movement because they embody dream logic rather than traditional logic. And like the good myth-maker she is, Mirkil is full of wonder as she sets forth her accounts of what she has been observing in life around her.

Ursinus College's Berman Museum of Art, 601 E. Main St., Collegeville. To March 30. Tuesdays to Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 4:30 p.m. 610-409-3500.

Inquirer art critic Victoria Donohoe's e-mail address is vdonohoe@phillynews.com.

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