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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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