Some works of art are slow -- a painting or a sculpture may take weeks or months to make, and the time spent by the artist is sensed in what we see. But most photographs are fast. Most, in fact, present us only with the moment, with the instant of the shutter's click.
Some photographers, however, seeking to dull that swiftness, have learned to load their pictures with an aura of nostalgia, a gradual unfolding, a sense of time retrieved. A number of such pictures, all soaked in remembrance, are included in the moving exhibition that went on view last night at the Washington Project for the Arts. It's called "Family as Subject Matter in Contemporary Art."
Not so very long ago many avant-garde artists warred upon the past. But the religion of the new is losing adherents. Much art that now looks new builds on, appropriates and warmly greets the past. Such art is on display here. Its chief theme is recollection.
Anne Turyn of New York calls her color photographs "Illustrated Memories." The doll she played with, the lunch box she lugged to school, the family car, the family dog and the pink-and-garish Hostess Sno Balls she once loved to eat recur throughout her show. What gives her photographs their poignance is their point of view. Many feel as if they were taken by a child. A hand, in a kid's mitten, reaches out to pet the dog, and the 1950s car nearby -- a DeSoto? -- seems as big as a tank. Things she remembers -- the mechanical complexity of the typewriter on the table, the sight of Daddy shaving, the view beneath the bed -- seem taken out of time. Her pictures are dreams.
Larry Sultan's photographs, on the other hand, are facts. Yet he too evokes the past. One wall of the San Francisco artist's exhibit is crowded with bright stills extracted from old 8 mm movies -- a family vacation, a young fisherman's first fish, the artist's father being chased by a brown bear at Yosemite. But Sultan is a grown-up now, and an artist of high skill and high sophistication. The movie stills he's gathered are touching in their innocence. But his new family pictures have a density, a knowingness, that pierces the observer.
Most are portraits of his parents. His father, Irving Sultan, once a skillful salesman (he sold razor blades for Schick) and later a corporate vice president, is now a white-haired, slightly bored retired Californian. We see him playing golf, or hanging out around the house, or gazing at TV. He does not seem unhappy, just a little lost. His wife, the artist's mother, watches him warily. In one amazing picture, we see her through a window screen, her face drowned in shadow as she prepares to roast the Sunday evening turkey. That striking, ghostly picture somehow summons up a hundred family feasts. Sultan's motives are complex. The viewer senses love -- love and something else, perhaps exasperation. His pictures seem a blend of pathos and filial affection.
Washington's George Hemphill, whose large color photographs rank among the best in the exhibition, seems to veil his feelings. When he photographs his family, say at Christmas dinner, he calls our attention not to their faces but to their surroundings. Something jagged and unsettling spices many of his pictures -- a brush fire consumes the dry grass of a field, a woman (the artist's former wife) raises her hands to her face as if for protection, an uncle's face is cropped just beneath the nose. Some of Hemphill's photographs are beautiful. A kitchen table by a window suggests the timeless quiet of a 17th-century Dutch still life; Jesse Jackson's face is seen on an unwatched television set beside a blank, peach-colored wall.
Ellen Brooks lives in New York. You can tell. She shows large photographs of dolls and doll-house furniture, whose intentional emptiness and wall-devouring scale recalls the images of Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and other Manhattan artists currently in vogue.
Stephen Laub, another New Yorker, alters -- inserts his own face into -- fading family photographs, many made in Poland before the Hitler years. His shape-shifting suggests that of Woody Allen in the movie "Zelig." Laub is now a woman, now a child, now an old man with a beard. His gesture toward his family is a kind of embrace.
So is Nancy Buchanan's summoning of her father, Louis N. Ridenour Jr., a highly gifted physicist who died, at 47, in a Washington hotel room in 1959. At MIT during World War II he had helped develop radar. Later he would work to develop computers and against the bomb. His daughter has gathered his scientific papers, his passports and report cards, and a thousand other documents -- among them his FBI files -- and displayed them for perusal in a wood-paneled space that seems part bureaucrat's lair, part professor's library. Hers is a show one reads. It calls to life not just a man. It calls to life his time.
Jim Lerager's pictures are the most polemical on view. He makes portraits of the families of veterans exposed to radiation during and just after World War II. When the vet is still alive, he quotes complaints of ill health. When the vet has died, he photographs the family. It is not his pictures one remembers -- they are little more than documents. Instead, it is the awful stories he relates.
Photographic installations often drone. For this particularly good-looking one, the WPA has adjusted wall colors, the spacing of photographs and, when called for, props -- until it seems each artist has been given a solo show.
The WPA's exhibits will be accompanied by numerous performances and videotape showings. "Family as Subject Matter in Contemporary Art" will run through July 13.