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Michael Kenna
at Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco
Recommendation by DeWitt Cheng

In these days of economic hangover, beauty may seem an extravagance, but it's one we can't afford to neglect. Preston Sturges's film comedy, "Sullivan's Travels," follows a director of film comedies who decides to make instead a social documentary on the Depression entitled "Brother, Where Art Thou?" (later appropriated by the cinephile Coen Brothers). Arrested, he discovers at a jailhouse movie screening that even prisoners need laughs. Similarly, beauty in visual art tends to be eclipsed in hard times, as art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto has pointed out. It acquired a stigma after the Great War when Dadaists saw the idealism of the perfect as a bourgeois lie, and avant-gardists followed suit.
Michael Kenna's latest show of black-and-white landscape photographs, which are typically modestly sized (under eight inches square), are poetic meditations on history and place, or the suggested human presence amid nature. They assert without apology that we need beauty. Indeed, in an age of frequently arcane conceptual art, they would seem to be impervious to aesthetic fashion, even timeless. Shown here are two recent bodies of work focused on eternally picturesque locales that have been painted countless times: the fog-shrouded Huangshan Mountains of eastern China's Anhui province; and the Venice of Canaletto, Titian, Tintoretto and Turner. (Kenna's photos of the latter are published in "Venezia," a recent Nazraeli Press book.) Additional photos capture the magic of Versailles, Giza, and Italy's Emilia Romagna and Veneto regions.
A few highlights, among many treasures: "Tangue Arches, Study 1, Shexian, Anhui, China;" "Eiffel Tower, Study 6, Paris;" "Corridor of Leaves, Guastalla, Emilia Romagna;" "Copse Reflection, Vendramin, Veneto;" and, last but not least, homebound staycationers, "Golden Gate Bridge, Study 16, San Francisco."
- Dewitt Cheng

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