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Duke's MFA in Experimental Documentary Arts finds its focus 

From Windrose Stanback’s Tracing Sycamore

Photo courtesy of Power Plant

From Windrose Stanback’s Tracing Sycamore

Windrose Stanback's photograph of volcanic rock is a good metaphor for Duke University's Experimental Documentary Arts program, from which she and 13 other students are graduating this spring.

Upon its founding in 2012, Duke's first and only MFA program was molten and unformed. Now, as its third class shows thesis work in venues around Durham, the program is hardening, finding its focus.

There are many exhibits and screenings through April 18. Power Plant Gallery at the American Tobacco Campus is the hub, with spokes reaching out to the Center for Documentary Studies, SPECTRE Arts and the Carrack Modern Art. Work by Matthew Cicanese, Aaron Kutnick, Haodong Li and Mendal Diana Polish opens at Power Plant this week, replacing the first round of exhibits by Stanback, Aaron Canipe and Grant Yarolin.

Yarolin's small show, a form that knows its way around, occupied the Boiler Room foyer, taking advantage of the space's industrial past. A hulking, rusty coal distributor loomed above crisp conceptual photographs and two photographic sculptures. In a gallery note, Yarolin acknowledged Walter Benjamin's 1936 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Benjamin identified the essential contradiction of the photograph: It's both a representation of the world and a thing in it. He found that to be a schism, but Yarolin makes it generative—a space of analytic play.

At first glance, the high-contrast geometric images looked like abstract photocopies, but all of them subtly brought the third dimension into play. Yarolin's signature image is a composition of black tape laid across white marble stairs, recalling Franz Kline's Abstract Expressionist paintings. But the way the tape mingles with the shadows—its own and the stairs'—locates the image precisely between abstraction and realism without resolving the contradiction.

The two sculptural works were black-and-white prints of wood grain, like a hybrid of plywood and linoleum. One was a gigantic scroll, perhaps 4 feet wide and 30 feet long, draped across several stands and piling on the floor. The other was a square of the same print, mounted on the glass around an elevator. But a circle cut within the square made it lean off of the glass, like a sticker peeled half off its backing. While Yarolin's photographs point at photography's contradiction, his sculptural pieces perform it.

Inside the gallery space, Canipe and Stanback provided a more personal foil to this conceptual work. In Plateau, Canipe recalled childhood beach trips with his family, evoking the long drive from mountainous Western North Carolina, through diminishing foothills and then flatness, all the way down to the Atlantic shore. He hung 20 mostly color photographs made in 18 counties, with subjects including private and public spaces, landscapes, portraits, storefronts and interiors of homestyle restaurants.

There are photos within photos: A hand holds a sepia negative of a tobacco queen in a tiara; a portrait of a tobacco farmer presides over a diner booth. A Jesus poster decorates a pharmacy aisle's endcap, next to the health supplements, with a box of "Ultra T Male" testosterone boost that seems turned to be particularly legible.

But overall, Canipe doesn't play up that irony, instead balancing the critical with the sentimental. By simply recording what's there, he connects his images into an overarching description of place.

Stanback also dealt with the relationship between memory and place in Tracing Sycamore, although the gap between her past and present is wider and more traumatic. In a strictly linear arrangement, she showed 15 square, color images and one worn snapshot of her parents—the only photo she has of them together. They divorced when she was 4, her father staying in Asheville while her mother relocated to Hawaii. Captioning that snapshot, she describes a psychic and geographical fracture: "I felt I had to be two versions of myself ... Inside one body, two little girls."

Stanback posits Tracing Sycamore as an effort to bring these two locations into one place so that "the little girls can rest within them." Leaving you to guess whether a given picture shows Hawaii or North Carolina, she uses light as that connecting force. A hexagonal blot of angular late-afternoon sun obliterates the tangled foliage behind it. Patches of amber sneak through a tree line to make bright blots on a grassy bank. Extreme cropping and focus express the difficulty of repairing such fractures—a chemise on a clothesline blurs in the foreground; half a dog breaks the frame of a lyrical, grassy hillside. These are hurt, lost pictures, never quite reconciled.

These unconventional takes on autobiography show what experimental documentary has come to mean at Duke. Subjects are addressed, information presented, but with a deeper attention to politics, form and personal stakes. Stanback finishes her show with a four-line poem about the photo of her parents, printed in italics on the wall, so small you could easily miss it. Its final line describes the snapshot but could also caption the objective of all photographers: "Bodies clenched, grasping the invisible."


They're joyously breaking out shovels at N.C. State's Gregg Museum of Art and Design April 14 at 3 p.m. The groundbreaking ceremony follows more than three years spent raising more than $10 million to put a spacious new addition onto the Historic Chancellor's Residence. The Gregg has been a museum on the move since the Talley Student Union began renovations in 2013. Now, it finally begins building a new home.

A City of Raleigh Arts Commission panel has selected 10 artists for Art Along Blount Street. Stylistically varied works on all types of civic subjects by 10 artists (including Brandon Cordrey, Rachel Herrick and Joyce Watkins King) will be printed on banners and hung on downtown utility poles.

Trevor Schoonmaker of Duke's Nasher Museum of Art has been selected as artistic director of the 2017 Prospect New Orleans biennial. Don't panic: He's not leaving the Nasher, though the gig will put him on the road a lot more. "It's a different challenge to curate in and around a city than it is to curate in and for a museum," he says. "Prospect New Orleans is still in its relative infancy compared to other international biennials and triennials, so it's very exciting to be a part of it at this early stage."

An offhand comment by legendary Wilson photographer Burk Uzzle blew my mind last week, in a talk at Durham's Craven Allen Gallery as part of its Medici Schmedici show. Discussing the amount of time he spends talking with the subjects of his highly composed portraiture, he described the eventual images as "feature-length stills."

Diane Arbus nodded in her grave.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Grasping the invisible"


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