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Recent photography at the N.C.M.A. 

After Impressionism

click to enlarge "flight research #5" (1999), by Rosemary Laing. Chromogenic print, 82 in. by 168 in. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE NORTH CAROLINA MUSEUM OF ART

The 21st century has come in a sudden rush to the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Beyond the massive construction site that will soon give way to a $138 million expansion and state-of-the-art addition, lies a collection of 23 large-scale photographs by 13 artists that push the boundaries of contemporary art and demonstrate the NCMA's commitment to growth.

The photographic exhibition, titled The Big Picture, runs through Sept. 2. It is one more notch on the museum's bedpost of conquests, after its hugely successful Monet show last winter.

Traditionally, photography has been seen as a sort of poor man's art—a medium that is somehow inferior to the paint and canvas of old masters. But thanks to the miracle of computers and the digital revolution, photos are the new playground for the creative artist. Contemporary photographers are now experimenting with manipulating images on the computer, as well as tweaking the printing process.

"Up until a couple of years ago, the museum had about 25 photographs. Now we're trying to catch up," says Linda Dougherty, curator for The Big Picture and contemporary art at NCMA. "A long time ago photographs were not considered as important as painting and sculpture. But now photography is considered the primary force in contemporary art. The tide has turned."

Nowhere is this more evident than in the evocative photographs of Chris Jordan. His four massive inkjet prints (yes—inkjet), which have been laminated and mounted onto Plexiglas, are a striking reality check into America's need to acquire so much stuff. The photos, part of a series called Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption, are easily as mesmerizing as an old master. They show a huge pile of colored glass to be recycled, an endless landscape of discarded mobile phones, an Impressionistic spread of cigarette butts, and a pile of sand and gravel sculpted by the winds of Hurricane Katrina. The photos are borderless, which Dougherty says makes it difficult to grasp the subject's scale. The detritus just seems to go on forever. But in a weird way, they're absolutely gorgeous. They are modern versions of a Monet or even Gustav Klimt.

Rosemary Laing's "flight research #5" is equally breathtaking—but in a different sense. The photo, a chromogenic print, shows a bride in a billowing wedding dress hanging in mid-air over the Blue Mountains of Australia. Her hair barely moves, and her dress remains as fluffy as the clouds behind her. This idiosyncratic pose catches the viewer by surprise. Is the bride leaping up or falling down? And just how far up is she? This stunning image was created with the help of a stunt woman and, most likely, an airplane. It could be a scene from a James Bond movie. At any rate, it, too, is a nod to the complexities of modern life.

The photos are divided into four categories, which help the viewer to classify them. There are the riveting, closed-eye portraits of elin O'Hara slavik's Workers Dreaming series, as well as the death-defying antics of Kerry Skarbakka's performance art photos. There are Wizard of Oz-style landscapes and eerie cinematic stills. In all, the photos are an evocative study of contemporary life—and the artists who make it.

The BIG Picture runs through Sept. 2 at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Admission is free. Check www.ncartmuseum.org for a downloadable gallery guide, as well as weekly podcasts with the artists.

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