“Not Just Pretty Pictures:  The Carl M. Jacobs III Collection”  at the Cincinnati Art Museum

“I am at war with the obvious,” Photographer William Eggleston once said when asked about his work. I have a feeling Carl M. Jacobs III, the collector the exhibit “Not Just Pretty Pictures” beatifies at the Cincinnati Art Museum (through August 28, 2011), might have said the same thing if asked why he collected the art he did.

“Not Just Pretty Pictures” has the brevity, depth and personal gravity of a book of collected poems by William Carlos Williams. Like Williams’ truncated, elegant lyrics, each piece feeds into the other without obviousness getting in way: there’s a grace and quiet swagger in the way the work is positioned on the wall. Often “salon-style” installations can bring a sense of overreaching chaos, but the “salon-style” choice for “Not Just Pretty Pictures” allows the works room to breathe as well as interrelate. The only criticism I have for the install is the choice of slapping the Cincinnati Art Museum logo (the annoying orange asterisk that kind of mimics the yellow Wal-Mart one) all over the wall texts.

That “grace and quiet swagger” becomes a way to personify Jacobs, and also a way to imagine how his taste both produced the choices and created the mystery surrounding those choices. In fact, ambiguity seems to be one of Jacobs’ most important values in the selection of works. This ambiguity finds its apotheosis in the photographs he selected. While Jacobs did cast a wide artistic net for his collecting (prints, drawings and paintings by Picasso, Goya, Ernst and Delacroix are in the exhibit, among many other notables), the photographs somehow outshine the other works.

Tabloid camera-man Weegee’s photograph of two bowery entertainers has the cold-eyed sweetness of Diane Arbus without the overlay of voyeuristic tragedy: the two rambunctious women in the photo are anything but freaks. They are capitalists in motion, feckless and proud with money tucked into the holes of their pantyhose. That sane sense of confrontational ease comes forth in Nan Goldin’s delicate but somehow steely portrait, “Cody in the Dressing Room at the Boy Bar in NYC.” The subject is a young drag-queen with ancient, lackluster eyes but whose facial expression outside of that stare reveals a new way to be vulnerable, merging confusion and fear with the burning need to get on with the show.

As I looked at both these photographs I started to think about what Jacobs wanted from them. What compelled him to buy them? I think it might have something to do with a sort of easy-going pride, a beautiful arrogance, emanating from Weegee’s and Goldin’s subjects. They eliminate voyeurism by staring right back at you – posed, but the pose has limits. They are not waiting for the photo to be taken. The photographers seem to have had to wait a long time for them.

Horst P. Horst’s photograph of Coco Chanel delivers an intemperate goddess at rest, like a Matisse-like odalisque turned into glamorous prayer. The image is self-controlled and precise, Chanel’s body and face a rapturous marmoreal sculpture, surrounded by fox-fur-colored luxury. The opposites of this hyper-elegant portrait, and yet somehow akin to it, are William Christenberry’s Kodak Brownie prints of dreamy Alabama locations in the early 70s. His snapshots of a small-town church, a grave with a bed as a grave-marker, and rows of dusty pop bottles underneath a car hood all have an ominous, James-Agee feel, as if shot through the lens of fever. The light in each picture has lovesickness inside it.

The centerpiece of the show is William Eggleston’s “Sumner Mississippi, c. 1972.” Scary luxury surrounds a young man; he is a bored prince seated on a plush, French provincial throne in a living room vibrating with a green darkness. The young man’s eyes are looking away from the camera, his hands lazily positioned on top of his head, as if he were listening to music he did not want to hear, and yet by being in this Southern-Gothic trap of a room he has found a sort of solace, a poetry inside his own head that somehow, for that moment, rings true. A red lampshade to the right of him seems to be reading his mind. This picture has a quiet strangeness about it that allows you to second-guess why it even exists and yet also marvel at its perfection. Flannery O’Connor should have written a short story based on it.

“The photographic image is a message without a code,” Roland Barthes wrote. Each photograph Jacobs chose for his collection illustrates this – they are allegories, moments, vignettes, and dreams that deliver messages without straining for meaning. They eradicate obviousness by picturing its mystical opposite.
-Keith Banner

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