Seeing black-and-white at Addison Gallery and Cape Ann Museum

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  • Stow Wengenroth
    American artist

Photographer Lew Thomas died in September. The Bay Area artist (1932–2021) transformed photography into language, taking a structuralist’s approach to his art that mirrored cultural and academic trends from the mid–1900s onward.

Thomas’s work is on view at the Addison Gallery of American Art on the campus of Phillips Academy Andover in a small, focused exhibition, “Language, Sequence, Structure.”

Lew Thomas, “OPENING & CLOSING THE GARAGE DOOR: 2 Perspectives,” 1972–2015. Ten gelatin silver prints, mounted and framed. Courtesy the artist and Philip Martin Gallery
Lew Thomas, “OPENING & CLOSING THE GARAGE DOOR: 2 Perspectives,” 1972–2015. Ten gelatin silver prints, mounted and framed. Courtesy the artist and Philip Martin Gallery

Undoubtedly planned before his death, “Language, Sequence, Structure” serves as an unexpected remembrance, but also shows that his ideas and photographs still breathe. His black-and-white work is shown here along with photographic sequences from two of his collaborators, Hal Fischer (b. 1950) and Donna-Lee Phillips (b. 1941). A virtual tour of the exhibition is available online.

Hal Fischer, “Archetypal Media Image: Leather from Gay Semiotics,” 1977/2015. Carbon pigment print. Courtesy the artist and Project Native Informant
Hal Fischer, “Archetypal Media Image: Leather from Gay Semiotics,” 1977/2015. Carbon pigment print. Courtesy the artist and Project Native Informant

“Language, Sequence, Structure” explores how images — especially ordinary images over a span of time — both narrate and become the narration. The three photographers create repetitive sequences, exposing the mundane or stereotypic.

Sinks fill up, then drain. A garage door incrementally opens, then closes. Various characters — cruising men, neighborhood cronies, travelers — crowd around a park bench, and then empty out, over the course of 24 hours.

Thomas’s work shakes the edge of photography and meaning. Nothing can be described without the description complementing its meaning.

Donna-Lee Phillips, “What Do I Mean When I Say Red? What Do You Mean?” 1980. Archival pigment print.
Donna-Lee Phillips, “What Do I Mean When I Say Red? What Do You Mean?” 1980. Archival pigment print.

Some “narratives” are not so direct. Phillips poses the question “What Do I Mean When I Say Red? What Do You Mean?” and the color itself becomes a signifier. Her "Red" series — red hearts, red wounds, red lips, the only non–black-and-white images on display —seem just as monochromatic as any others, but burst in unexpected directions.

Fischer documents gay stereotypes, turning a direct eye on leather boys, Marlboro men and others. One wall gets devoted to his Castro District park bench series. All of these sequences rivet the viewer — like a car wreck, in some cases.

Wengenroth at the Cape Ann Museum

At Gloucester’s Cape Ann Museum, black-and-white gets a different exploration. The sumptuous lithographs of Stow Wengenroth (1906–1978), on display in “Homeport,” emphasize how the perception of color doesn’t just include pigment, but also shadow, density and contrast.

Wengenroth began making lithographs in the 1930s, quickly becoming expert and influential. Without color, detail stands out.

His black-and-white prints on view here include deeply dark nature prints from the 1930s, seascapes and landscapes of Cape Ann and Monhegan Island, and a set of looming birds, mostly owls. By contrast, there is also a set of watercolors, floral arrangements from a late period, painted after Wengenroth moved to Rockport in the 1970s.

Stow Wengenroth, “Moonlight,” 1937. Lithograph on paper.
Stow Wengenroth, “Moonlight,” 1937. Lithograph on paper.

About four dozen works, joined by a small series by contemporary drawings from Adin Murray, create a calming effect. Bring your best attention to “Homeport” — detail at its most alluring.

Keith Powers covers music and the arts for Gannett New England, Leonore Overture and Opera News. Follow @PowersKeith; email to keithmichaelpowers@gmail.com.

If you go:

'Homeport: Stow Wengenroth and Adin Murray'

WHERE: Cape Ann Museum, 27 Pleasant St., Gloucester

WHEN: Through Feb. 13, 2022

INFO: Free with museum admission. capeannmuseum.org; 978-283-0455

'Language, Sequence, Structure: Photographic Works by Lew Thomas, Donna-Lee Phillips, and Hal Fischer'

WHERE: Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, 180 Main St., Andover

WHEN: Through Jan. 23, 2022

INFO: Free. addisongallery.org; 978-749-4015

This article originally appeared on MetroWest Daily News: black-and-white exhibits at Addison Gallery Phillips Andover Cape Ann

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