Stella Cretek

Less is more

By - Feb 7th, 2008 02:52 pm
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The Grandeur of God: Photographs by Don Doll, S.J.
Haggerty Museum of Art (Marquette University) – 13th & Clybourn
January 31 – April 13, 2008

The Patrick and Beatrice Haggerty Museum of Art on the campus of Marquette University is an old friend. I was there when it opened in 1984, and each spring and summer I often trek to 13th & Clybourn to review exhibitions and soak up the serenity of the Green Ash Grove on the north side of the museum. Despite the ongoing construction of the Marquette Interchange project, there’s handy free parking and a few moments of peace to be had.

The Kahler-designed Haggerty has been described (endlessly) as a “jewel,” and though it lacks lake views, wings rising and falling on cue, vast marbled halls or a café, it’s a beauty. The Haggerty and the Milwaukee Art Museum both announced the hire of executive directors recently: Walter Mason and Daniel Keegan, respectively. Mason will fill the void left by Dr. Curtis Carter, who resigned in 2006 after guiding the Haggerty for over twenty years. Dr. Carter is currently entrenched in Marquette’s Department of Philosophy, but a 2007 oil portrait of him remains at the Haggerty. He’s smiling.

I approached The Grandeur of God, a photography exhibition (now – April 13), with a load of baggage, for I don’t believe in a “higher power,” only in the ability of humans to overcome problems. Additionally, I feared being snookered into sentimentality by photographer and educator Don Doll, S.J., who has lived and worked at Creighton University in Omaha since 1969. The exhibition includes photographs of his work with Native Americans, plus panoramas along the Lewis and Clark trail, which he retraced in a 2003 trip from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean. And more. Much more.

As I headed west on Wisconsin Avenue toward the Haggerty, I thought about other images included in the show. Would they prove to be a promo for the Jesuits’ global mission, which is also a part of Marquette University’s overall mission? Doll’s photographs have been featured in National Geographic; his book, Vision Quest, was published by Random House’s Crowns Publisher in 1994, and even though he was born in 1937 and for many decades has been sheltered by Creighton University where he is professor of photojournalism, an image on his website shows him dressed like a guy straight out of GQ. He joined the video revolution a decade ago, and in 2006 was named Nebraska Artist of the Year by that state’s Arts Council. His work hangs in the prestigious Joslyn Museum in Omaha, a museum where I had my first “art experience” at age eight. A local photographer told me recently that the best way to understand art is to have “no understanding” of it prior to viewing. I was already on overload.

A few years back, museums everywhere were in the throes of honoring Lewis and Clark’s bicentennial. An article in The New York Times (January 23, 2005) went so far as to suggest that art viewers were maybe thinking “enough already.” The writer then proceeded to compare “commemorative projects that tend to seek out unspoiled scenery,” with the approach of Greg MacGregor (a former Wisconsin native), whose photographs were on exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In black-and-white, they traced the Lewis and Clark journey, devoid of idyllic grandeur; in fact, MacGregor remarked in the article, the route is “full of trash … you park a dead car on the land, and it stays for centuries.” Perhaps the two photographers have at least one thing in common: MacGregor likened the solitude of the Great Plains of South Dakota to “maybe” sublime. I’ve stood knee-high in grass on those plains and decline to say it was sublime in the spiritual sense, but the solitude (until I found several buffalo ticks on my knee) was grand.

Unlike MacGregor’s photographs, Fr. Doll’s work injects God into the mix. It is likely that he was trying to “see” the route as Lewis and Clark may have seen it. That seems to be the case in a color panoramic photo, “August 8, 1805 – Beaver Head Rock, Montana” [sic]. The date suggests that through the photographer’s eyes, nothing has changed besides the addition of a few power lines and a sagging fence. It’s a National Geographic moment similar in style to many landscapes that have passed before my eyes: the requisite wide open spaces, the smoosh of clouds sweeping the big sky, and in the distance, Beaverhead rock. Ho-hum. “Hole In The Wall, Missouri Breaks, Montana” is another such moment, and I had a hard time not thinking of Marlon Brando’s Technicolor trot across the land in The Missouri Breaks.

In the same area – a few steps down from the main gallery – are several photographic portraits of youthful Native-Americans dressed in ceremonial regalia. “Aspen and D’Von LaPointe, 2007” thrums with color reminiscent of the Pop generation, and the 20”x30” print looks like it could jump off the wall. That’s not the case for the neighboring image, which veers close to being a frozen-in-time Norman Rockwell painting.

In the intimate Pick Gallery are images contrasting birth and death. The south wall speaks of the death of Doll’s mother; the north wall is hung with a look back at the birth of a child in Omaha. The conceptual framework could have been a disaster of sentimentality, but it isn’t. There’s truth in these works: the beginning, the end. My favorite by far is the image of Doll’s family leaving Holy Cross Cemetery following the burial of the photographer’s mother. It’s straightforward, in the moment, and it hasn’t been fussed with.

Beyond the Pick Gallery, the space is given over to Doll’s travels on the Jesuits’ extended global mission, and as I had expected (perhaps feared?), it showcases agony – a patient with a leg blasted by a land mine, for example. Could it be that Doll’s God is a terrifying God, bent on destruction? But why ask that question of an energetic priest/photographer so obviously involved in his faith? I’ve seen similar images elsewhere, so many in fact that my eye shuts down and my brain says, “Less is more, less is more.”

From his artist’s statement posted in the main gallery, I culled a single sentence: “For me it is hard to separate the creative process of seeing from prayer.” I certainly can’t argue with Fr. Doll’s statement, though as a critic (in a three hour time span, with hours of thinking and writing ahead of me), I found it difficult to separate myself from my “less is more” stance.

Before exiting, I visited the Stackner Gallery on the second floor. It was empty, waiting for the installation of William Hogarth prints from the museum’s collection. The engravings are said to portray “moral subjects in a comedic manner,” forerunners of the comic strip. I can’t wait until it opens on February 7. Al Capp’s “’Lil Abner’ was a mainstay in my childhood home, and in this year of back-stabbing politics, Hogarth’s work should be a refreshing poke in the eye. VS

The Grandeur of God runs through April 13. The Haggerty Museum is open daily and is always free. For more information call 414-288-1669 or visit the Haggerty online.

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