Saturday, May 15, 2010

Ruth Kaplan at Ryerson Gallery: "Some Kind of Divine"

“Some Kind of Divine,” Ruth Kaplan’s new show of photographs (and a video) opened at Ryerson Gallery (80 Spadina) Thursday night, May 13th. Thirteen must be a lucky number. It was for me. I saw pieces that, in themselves, were as good as everything—not anything but everything—I’ve seen at CONTACT this month so far. There were several pieces of that quality.

The first thing you notice is that the photos seem to be floating in air and the images themselves do not dispel the impression. They are soft, printed on what looks like watercolor paper, maybe about 40 x 50 inches each with a generous white border around them. They are all in greyscale (or the misnomer “black and white” if you prefer). [update: they are actually about 2 feet square. First impressions are longest lasting, not the most accurate!]

I’ve never liked large scale photographs and never saw much need for them until now. I’ve never liked those dry-mounted thingies either, especially on aluminum but I do now. Everything about these pieces was right and I haven’t even mentioned the pieces.

The first image as you walk in is of a woman, about 35 years old, standing, praying in a church. She is framed to the right of center in a horizontally oriented photo, looking heavenward. [see update above: the image is square] Her face is filled with some kind of appeal that eludes me: questioning, searching, expressive. Some kind of divine exactly expresses what’s seen here. But what kind? That’s not easy to discern. But you want to. It’s a mystery.

The photos were all taken with a medium format camera so they are quite fine. But they’re not all fussy as if the artist only thought of photography as some kind of fetish where only the most grainless image of a vegetable had merit (eek! a dust spot!). In fact there’s lots of soft grain that exactly matches the paper, the theme and the content of the photographs. They are more than beautiful. Simple, quiet, elegant. Even with all the people there at the opening (and it was crammed) the place felt like a church.

The next photo I remember struck me powerfully. The degree of community support these church members had for one another was staggering. It wouldn’t be my cup of tea but the contrast between what Kaplan depicted and the big rude city I live in was stunning. This kind of community doesn’t exist on the subway trains where the faces at rush hour are full of (with a few pleasant exceptions) envy, spite, fear, hate, rage and indifference.

The photo that hit me hardest (one of four) was of a man in a dark grey suit, his hands behind his back with his bald head encased by two hands that were almost exactly like the two hands Rodin sculpted in his piece called prayer. The fingers were preternaturally long, slender and very large. They held his head as if it were an egg: the egg of the world. A not-too-good shot on the gallery wall is available here:

The fourth image that really amazed me was another shot of the pews with several people in them. The wealth of tones was astounding: it was like looking at a color photo without color: like when we were children and imagined color in the black and white TVs (those of us old enough to remember).

I didn’t get a chance to see the video that was part of the show but I did catch a glimpse of my own face talking (I was one of the participants). I shouldn’t have been surprised that I didn’t look like an idiot. I probably don’t sound like an idiot either. That’s why Ruth Kaplan’s subjects trust her. She has a rare gift for taking and presenting people as they are and as they themselves would like to be presented. This is a rare accomplishment.

The only objection I had to the show was the blurb. But I hate blurbs. As soon as I saw “McLuhanesque” I walked. I can see “Langesque” or “Evansesque” or even “Weegiesque” (except there’s no hi-con shots) but.... McLuhanesque? Huh? Did dat man make photographs? Um, no... but hey...

It isn’t enough to thank Malka Greene for curating this show. We should get down on our knees to thank her for it. If “McLuhanesque” was her idea, well, Malka, as Mahalia Jackson sang, I forgive.

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