Tacoma Art Museum is claiming Michael Kenna. Sure, the world-renowned photographer of minimalist, black-and-white beauty was born in England and now lives in Seattle. But the museum has had Kenna connections since the artist first came to the United States in 1977 (and again when he recently moved back to the Northwest), so TAM is claiming Kenna as its own with the artist’s first U.S. retrospective in nearly 20 years.
The result is a graceful, contemplative journey through Kenna’s equally contemplative photography. Kenna’s most famous work, possibly, is his series of photographic studies of the Kussharo Lake tree in Hokkaido, Japan – and that’s just where the “Memories and Meditations” retrospective begins.
Bent almost horizontal and extending like a finger over a tranquil lake, the tree has beckoned not just thousands of Japanese but Kenna himself over the last decade or so. He took many images there until the tree recently was cut down for safety. In a way, the Kussharo studies sum up Kenna’s approach to photography: minimalist setting, starkly dramatic composition, striking line on an expanse of negative space and a kind of spiritual homage to the subject itself in his silver gelatin prints.
Kenna didn’t start off that way, though. Born in an industrial town in Lancashire, England, to working-class parents, Kenna said he first thought of photography as either a means to a living or an escape route, a way of capturing beauty rather than the industrial reality around him. On the exhibit’s left wall, his works from the 1970s show gardens, fountains and landscapes heavy with a misty, almost Friedrich-like romanticism.
After leaving England, he gradually grew to appreciate the stark form of places such as the Ratcliffe Power Station in Nottinghamshire. He captures the seven coal-burning towers in otherworldly splendor, wreathed in smoke like a science-fiction movie.
When he came to the U.S., Kenna initially moved to Seattle. His first show was at the Equivalents Gallery – its director Chase Rynd would later head up the Tacoma Art Museum. Kenna then settled in San Francisco, printing for photographer Ruth Bernhard and beginning an international career that has seen his work in dozens of books and institutions such as the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and London’s Victoria and Albert. He also has received awards such as the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters in France.
Eight years ago, however, he moved back to Seattle. His 2007 “Kussharo Tree Study” was included in TAM’s 2009 Northwest Biennial. Newer work shows the influence of his interest in Asian culture and Buddhism, and of his many travels.
“I’m struck by the simplicity, beauty and sheer mysteriousness of this world around us,” Kenna said last week as the exhibit was being mounted. “I want people to be quiet ... to walk into the image.”
In Kenna’s work, photography is pared down to the most expressive basics of light and composition. Using long exposures (often overnight, with a Hasselblad camera) and choosing the most complex of visions from his multiple shots over time, Kenna works alchemical magic with the print process. From industrial Europe to rural Asia, he celebrates the endless white of a Japanese snowfield, a frozen Russian river, pale white winter skies. He revels in the darkness of lonely train tracks at night, of smoky mining hillsides.
And he delights in geometry: the diagonal of a conveyor belt, the smooth circle of a spool of thread in a lace factory, the S-curve of a ship’s overhanging hull, the symmetry of the coal towers or of stern-faced Easter Island statues, or the synergized randomness of birds in flight. A fence snakes thinly up from a print’s bottom corner. A single tori gate stands exactly in the photograph’s middle, but with the lake edge line just offset from bisecting either gate or photograph.
In a way, this is photography gone beyond. The light is painterly, the edges blurred. And the expression is like a haiku: poignant, mysterious, succinct. This is a half-lit world where definitions are subtle and the colorful stench of humankind has been pared away to the bare bones of rock, branch, concrete.
It’s not easy to lay out a 96-work exhibit with tranquility, but that’s just what TAM curator Rock Hushka has done with this first part of Kenna’s retrospective. (The second part, showing more historic sites in the U.S. and Europe, including those of former concentration camps, will run from January to March.)
Grouping the white-framed prints in intimate twos and fours, all at eye level around the gallery’s white walls, Hushka has achieved a kind of Zen that perfectly suits the art. Instead of overwhelming, the exhibit becomes a kind of journey, like following the haiku poet Basho through a landscape of captured fragments, each full of mystery and meaning.
What: “Memories and Meditations: A Retrospective of Michael Kenna’s Photography”
Where: Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays through Jan. 11 (part I), then through March 24 (part II)
Cost: $10/$8/free for 5 and younger and 5-8 p.m. third Thursdays
Also: “Zen Pathways” chamber music concert with gallery tour, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9 ($20 includes gallery admission); Michael Kenna lecture, 2 p.m. Jan. 12
Information: 253-272- 4258, tacomaart museum.orgRosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/arts