Cultural studies in Newport

'Surf Island' and 'The Japan Craze' at Newport Art Museum
By GREG COOK  |  August 11, 2010

EAST MEETS WEST Edna Lawrence’s “Still Life with Japanese Doll.”

Jason Evans's bread and butter is commercial sports photography, shooting the likes of Tiger Woods, Alex Rodriguez, and tennis stars Roger Federer, Venus Williams, and Lindsay Davenport. But in "Surf Island" at the Newport Art Museum (76 Bellevue Avenue, through September 5), Evans turns chops usually marshaled toward making star athletes look strong, swift, heroic, and sexy on his town's surfing community.

FANCIFUL LaFarge's "The Song of the Siren."

His photo In Between puts you right atop a wave, looking down into the trough, where a silhouetted surfer paddles his board toward shore. In After, Justin Casey stands on a seawall adjusting his wetsuit in the purple dawn. Foggy Dream shows a surfer hunched over, arms out to balance, darting down a breaking wave. It's all blue, except the white of the crashing wave and, in the foreground, rippling foam. Evans shoots from way back, turning the surfer into a speck on a vast sea.

Evans captures the rush and romance of sun and speed and water, even when the beach is blanketed in New England snow. But he doesn't get deep. Many of the 19 shots feel like his portrait of tattooed surfer Katie Egan in a polka dot bikini, her blue eyes aglow in her bronzed face, framed by perfectly coiffed long brown hair. It's all about glossy surface, and can make you feel like Evans is trying to sell you swimwear.

In 1853, four American warships led by Commodore Matthew Perry steamed to Japan to negotiate a deal. Japan had been closed to most foreigners for centuries, but Perry left the following year with a landmark trade agreement that sent a flurry of Japanese fans, kimonos, silks, and prints to Europe and the US Westerners gaga over this stuff revolutionized art, from Impressionism to Art Nouveau.

Perry hailed from Newport, so "The Japan Craze: Art and Craft in Rhode Island After 1854," also at the Newport Art Museum (through October 17), traces the ripples of his achievement to his hometown. The show is sharply thought out by curator Nancy Whipple Grinnell, but it struggles with the fact that Rhode Island didn't produce a lot of great Japanese-inspired art.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the West repeatedly turned east for creative inspiration — from the Egyptian motifs incorporated into French Empire style to Orientalist genre painting to Modernist infatuation with African art. In part, this reflected a simple fascination with unfamiliar cultures. But it also represented a desire for alternatives to Western industrialization and ways to break from the reigning art academies. A creaky suit of 17th-century samurai armor that the Japanese emperor gave to Perry and Japanese prints now at the NAM represented for Westerners a new way of seeing the world.

Artist John La Farge came to Newport to study with painter William Morris Hunt in 1859 and stuck around to marry Perry's great-niece. La Farge's crush on things Japanese shows up in works ranging from English Art Nouveau fairy tale scenes in to a realist ink drawing of an extravagantly decorated Japanese temple that looks at first glance like a photo.

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