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By Rita Lombardi

For a couple of years now, ever since I heard it was home to the largest collection of works by Marcel Duchamp in the US, I have wanted to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Every few months some new information about Philly would filter my way and my desire to see the place would be renewed. In July, I finally made the trip.

It was even more grandiose than I thought it would be. I trudged up the steps past the Rocky fans posing with bulging biceps and proceeded through the collections, jaws agape. It took me two days to get through the entire museum. Nonetheless, I was incredulous when at the end of the second day we had seen only one small exhibit of photography, which was work by Ansel Adams, and the one gallery devoted to photography was in a remote wing of the main building and closed for a show installation. As a photographer myself, this was fairly disappointing. Why did an art Museum with such a huge collection not have any photography on display?

When I read in the Philadelphia City Paper that there was a show of Yale MFA photography in town I jumped at the chance to see it - never-minding the seeming oddity of seeing an MFA show in a commercial fine art gallery. Yale, as you may know, has a mammoth reputation in the fine art photography world. (The validity of that reputation I leave to your own discussion.) Perhaps you’ve heard of Gregory Crewdson or Philip-Lorca diCorcia or even our own David Hilliard, all graduates of Yale. While the thought of a fine art gallery showing an MFA thesis show might seem a bit like robbing the artistic cradle, add the qualifier that it is Yale’s MFA class and you start to think, ‘well, they must be very mature for their (artistic) age, maybe it’s ok.’

And mature they seem to be, judging by some of the things they have done before even graduating from their master’s program. Sarah Stolfa had her breakout show in 2004 at Gallery 339 as well as showing at Silverstein Gallery in NY after winning the New York Times Photography Contest and having her work published in the New York Times Magazine. Jen Davis has been published in Aperture magazine, shown at Jen Bekman Gallery in New York City, and has her work in several museums. Richard Mosse had two solo shows pre-MFA. After this show opened at the Yale University School of Art Gallery in New Haven, it went straight to Danziger Projects in Chelsea and then to Philadelphia in Gallery 339. Sarah Stolfa is represented by Gallery 339 and had suggested the show to Martin McNamara, the gallery’s director.

Personally, I was enamored with the work of Marley White. It is like a joke someone tells you that you don’t get until two beats later. White’s work is clever and subversive and superbly crafted. There is no out for the viewer, we are seduced by the image and then hooked with its content; a real cat licking a porcelain figurine of a cat, a miniature ramshackle boat floating on larger than life water.

More jarring are the images of Bradley Peters. His use of the “snapshot aesthetic” in posed scenes can work seamlessly -as in an image of a girl in a blue dress pulling on a too short telephone cord. At other times I can see where he may have been trying to take me, but I just can’t make the jump. It seemed like a case of an artist having a hard time editing their own work.

Jen Davis’ portraits of men as sexual would-be liaisons are charged without being blatant. They gaze at the camera/photographer in what could almost be interpreted as a dare. The only glitch in this is one of Davis’ self-portraits hanging in the mix. In this context I don’t need to see the photographer. She could be anyone of any description.

Richard Mosse’s large scale photographs of “air disaster simulators” are awesome in their scale but left me wondering what their point was. I felt that I was missing something – due to the large size of the images, the artist could only fit two in his space in the gallery. I later went to the Yale website and saw more of his work, which helped my understanding of the photographer’s intent, but was it worth sacrificing content for glitzy effect?

Overall, the show was well put together, helped both by the beautiful gallery it was in and the attention which the students and gallery director paid to its hanging. Still, I can’t help being conflicted about seeing an MFA show at a gallery. On the one hand, it means artists are getting recognition and exposure and hopefully selling work sooner, on the other hand it means they are getting less time to develop their own strong aesthetic before being consumed by the ever-fickle art market. Like the NBA, the art world is searching for its stars at earlier and earlier stages, hoping to snap them up first, offering fame and glory. I think I can sum it up this way: in doing research for this article, I came across a page belonging to one of the artists in this show. It was the page titled “Press” and it simply read “Coming Soon.”

Gallery 339

Yale University School of Art

"Yale MFA Photography 2008" is on view through 6 September 2008 at Gallery 339.

All images are courtesy of the artist and Gallery 339.


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