Wednesday, March 11, 2015

gazing through a portal

gazing through a portal
into a world where outside
merges with inside

The play of squares and circles begins at the Prairie Canary, in the old downtown area of Grinnell, Iowa. A cup of hot water comes in a marble-white sculpture with two yellow crescents on the side. My lips feel funny as my upper lip overlaps the cup's inner curve while my lower lip spreads out along the thick, square outer edge. A half-moon omelet stuffed with diced red and green bell peppers arrives on a square plate with potato cubes, a biscuit pillar, a square of butter wrapped in gold foil, and a tiny bowl of apricot jam. 
          And now also begins the play of illusion. My taste buds get a surprise when I dip a potato in the red-orange jam, mistaken for catsup by my eyes.

We are here to walk through a time portal back to 1948. The location of the time portal is the Falconer Gallery at Grinnell College and the transportation mechanism is a photography exhibition entitled Gordon Parks: the Making of an Argument. The exhibition documents the production of "Harlem Gang Leader," a photo-essay by Gordon Parks in LIFE magazine. 
          First we follow the process of how Parks gained the trust of a 17-year-old gang leader, Leonard "Red" Jackson, following him for a month as Parks documented Jackson and his gang, the Midtowners. Next we see how the editors of LIFE magazine turned Parks' negatives into the story they wanted to sell. And then the argument that developed between Parks and the editors.
          As the first African-American photographer on a major American magazine, Parks hoped to bring attention to the conditions that fostered gang warfare in order to encourage social service agencies and government intervention. But he felt that the final essay, which focused completely on the violence, fell far short of his goal. 
          When LIFE editors showed Parks the final mock-up, the cover had a photo of the gang leader holding a smoking gun. Parks objected, saying it would destroy the trust he had built and would result in Jackon's incarceration. The editors persisted, compelling Parks to destroy the negative. Because of this act of disobedience, the editors metaphorically pushed Parks to the back of the bus, placing the photo-essay in the bowels of the magazine and surrounding it with inane 1940s advertisements.
          In the exhibition each final photograph is paired with contact prints that show the red cropping squares made in the editorial process, focusing on the fighting and bloodshed. None of Parks' photographs of quieter moments in the lives of the gang members, such as Red washing dishes or sweeping the floor at home, were included in the article.

I blink as I exit the dimly lit realm of 1948 into the brightly lit lobby. Without realizing, I'm about to reenter that other portal, the portal of illusion. On a far wall I notice what appears to be a large, colorful mural of a man's face. From a distance it looks like it's made of square tiles arranged in a circular pattern. But as I move closer, the image looks like a Pointilist painting, with rounded squares of paint instead of circular dots.

The closer I get, the less it looks like a face, until it just becomes blotches of color. When I arrive at touching distance, my mind makes the final flip. Aha! It's actually a silk tapestry, soft and shimmering, inviting touch. Every square inch could be an abstract work of art. The label says "Lucas/Rug" by Chuck Close. Imagine getting really close and rolling around naked on this silken rug.

Across from the gallery, calligraphic squiggles appear to be suspended in the air. Close up, I see that both sides of the windows are covered with sinuous strips of silver tape, inviting the viewer to view the world through art.

Where the hallway turns a corner, more squiggles. Squiggles on top of squiggles overlap more layers of squiggles. It's a squiggly wiggly world.

Moving outside, is that a petrified sponge? No, it's a holey curvaceous sculpture.

The rectangular windows of a large modern building built in an L-shape provide a view of circular lights inside as well as reflections of the boxy wing across the courtyard. Space inside and space outside co-mingling.

White spherical lamps float like bubbles above stacks of square black chairs while the transparent square window reflects a gigantic round window, which in turn reflects trees. What is real and what is reflection?

What is inside and what is outside? On which side of the porthole are the squares and circles?

Another mind-boggler: squaring the circle.

Are those square leaves floating in a puddle of melting snow around the blue poles of a jungle gym? Or the reflection of square windows on a brick wall?

The sun casts long black shadows on gray slate blocks. Like the people in Plato's cave allegory, you have to turn around to see the tall sycamore tree hung with last year's seed balls, and beyond that, the impossible-to-look-at-directly Sun.

Gun-metal lichens with copper fruiting bodies trailing down a grey window turn out to be corrosive etching and rust spots.

Another mind bender: beauty blossoming through entropy.

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