Scenes from childhood

By GREG COOK  |  February 12, 2008

The exhibition’s 100-year sweep makes photography trends apparent, from early-20th-century romanticism to gritty street photography. Recent images demonstrate how deadpan posed portraits and digitally pasted-together photos have become dominant modes in contemporary art photography.

But the show still feels aimless and diffuse. There are so many images by so many different artists that it all distracts from the great ones. A number of the big-name photographers seem to be here more for their name than for the photo. And the exhibit favors form over content in a way that leaches meaning from the photos — paired shots of kids in junky, desolate alleys look to be more about their matching compositions than about their matching poverty.

Some will blame these shortcomings on Lafo’s decision to draw from the works of a single private collection. But that’s a symptom rather than the source of the problem, which is slack curating. You could create a sharper “Presumed Innocence” by cutting out two-thirds of the pictures and zeroing in on one or two themes.

 

While you’re at the DeCordova, check out the new graffiti-style mural, Folie que la nouveauté, that covers the walls of the museum café. It’s by a Boston painter who goes by the pen name Pixnit. Although she has done street graffiti, you can sense her erudition and ambition in her name, which comes from the Latin “me pinxit,” or “he/she painted me.” Using stenciled spray paint and patterned contact paper, Pixnit “wallpapered” the café walls and added pictures of ornamental sconces, a mirror, a birdcage, a vase filled with flowers, and a “painting” of frolicking couples. Her punky decorative designs feel like chunkier versions of Ryan McGinness’s sleek pictograms. And one can’t help noting how the fame of Banksy’s stenciled graffiti has popularized stenciling. The result is light, frothy, pretty, dazzling.

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MALCOLM X WITH CASSIUS CLAY: Haggins’s photos work best as historical documents.

The National Center of Afro-American Artists’ small exhibit “Malcolm X: In Action” — 13 photos by the late Robert L. Haggins focusing on Malcolm X’s work in New York, plus a painted portrait by Theodore A. Charron — feels like a shrine to the Roxbury criminal turned electrifying Nation of Islam leader.

Malcolm X looks hip and heroic in shades and a sharp suit in a 1960 photo where he’s speaking in front of Harlem’s National Memorial African Bookstore. He denounced white racism and police brutality, and he was an advocate for African-American self-sufficiency, civil and human rights, personal pride, nationalism, and faith. Malcolm’s stature, charisma, and political chops are suggested by a photo in which he’s seated between Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Manhattan borough president Hulan Jack at a 1963 Harlem street rally. But most of the photos just hint at Malcolm X’s star power, his brilliance, his persuasiveness, his forcefulness, his divisiveness. And these days, it’s difficult to realize how divisive his many common-sense pronouncements were back then.

Haggins was Malcolm X’s personal photographer from 1959 to ’65, and his photos work best as historical documents. A 1964 image shows Malcolm walking with Muhammad Ali after Ali took the heavyweight crown from Sonny Liston in Miami Beach. Malcolm had spent time with Ali as he prepared for the fight and had helped bring him into the Nation. But Malcolm split from the Nation before making a pilgrimage to Mecca later that year.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Politics, Malcolm X, Diane Arbus,  More more >
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