You might remember the South African artist Robin Rhode from his entries in Nasher Museum of Art exhibits The Record and Street Level. His static works in those shows come to life in a pair of videos at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Along with a small but significant photography show, The Energy of Youth, they compose a diptych: the moving image that stills you and the still image that moves you. They make a perfect pictorial apéritif and digestif, respectively, for the blockbuster M.C. Escher show.
If you've already been to the Escher, Rhode's videos likely stopped you in your tracks on the way in and then provided a hauntingly distant soundtrack of rumbles and chimes as you perused the Dutch illusionist's retrospective.
The videos combine actors with drawings of objects, animated in a way that suggests stop-motion, to plumb an illusive space between the second and third dimensions. In the playful "Piano Chair," inspired by South African jazz legend Moses Molelekwa, a man in tux and tails mounts an escalating assault on a piano drawn in charcoal on a wall. What begins with the tentative plinking of keys ends with the instrument ablaze.
Meanwhile, in "Zig Zag," a young person in profile seems to sit on a Zig Zag chair, an iconic design by the Dutch modernist Gerrit Rietveld, drawn in chalk. The geometric angles seem to metastasize, spiraling around like a conch shell. Though the figure is actually lying on the ground, the tricky camera perspective makes her appear stuck to the wall.
Speaking of young people stuck to walls, childhood is usually documented through smiling snapshots, the moments chosen sentimentally. We often have to rely on fine art photographers to reveal the nuances of young life. There are 19 portraits by 10 photographers in THE ENERGY OF YOUTH: DEPICTING CHILDHOOD IN THE NCMA'S PHOTOGRAPHY COLLECTION. Almost none of the kids in them are smiling.
Not that play, a defining feature of childhood, is absent. Barbara Morgan's mid-20th-century shots of children catching raindrops in their mouths and cavorting near a lake come closest to depicting exuberant freedom. Morgan was famous for photographing dancers, and you can see that skill translated in her compositions here.
More representative are two color photographs by Durham's Titus Brooks Heagins that capture children looking very serious. In "Fabienne" (2009), a preteen fills the frame, though her downward gaze keeps us from feeling connected to her. She's in her own world, not letting the photographer in. In "Devonte" (2008), a boy around age 3, wearing only jeans and a belt, stands in a forest looking directly at the camera without much expression. It feels as though he's sizing us up, which is unnervingly incongruous with his age.
Children assume metaphorical, even metaphysical, roles in other photographs. In famed American photographer Sally Mann's stunning "Shiva at Whistle Creek" (1992), her daughter squats and presses her palms together like a deity, and the creek seems to succumb to her powers, changing its course around her. Ralph Eugene Meatyard's untitled silver gelatin print (1960) looks like something out of an Eastern European fairy tale, with a young boy wearing a mask of an old man's face and holding a doll.
Duke University photography teacher Margaret Sartor's "Eliza on the Levee, Monroe, Louisiana" (1999) shows the back of a girl's head, her hair only somewhat checked by butterfly clips. Multiple strands escape. The image crystallizes the tension that runs through the show, between childhood's freedom and the photograph's containment. The latter at once undermines the former, reminding us how trapped we felt as kids, and underscores it, reminding us how youthful wantonness can only be partially restrained. The kids aren't smiling, but the viewer will be.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Sunder the illusion"