The Photography of Krista Joy Niles
By David P. Kozinski and Krista McKay
If Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Krista Joy Niles has a comfort zone, she is not afraid to venture out of it and take on new challenges. So it is with her current exhibit at the Manayunk-Roxborough Art Center (MRAC) which is titled “Co-Authored”. The exhibit represents a collection of abstract photographs based on the artist’s many pilgrimages to view and capture works by some of her favorite artists in museums around the United States and Europe.
Niles has expressed her discomfort with artistic appropriation, but that very thing is central to “Co-Authored”. During her extensive travels, museums became her studio spaces and the treasured artworks therein her subjects. Her photographs pay homage to these subjects, providing a link to the original artist and inspiration, but also introduce a unique way of seeing and appreciating them through abstraction. Each photograph is, as Niles notes, “either an emotional response or a creative response,” to the artworks and each shares Niles’ personal story and aesthetic journey. All the images are created by employing very long exposures, moving the camera strategically while the shutter is open to capture the abstractions. The results are vibrant images infused with her affection for contemporary art as well as that of the past.
The exhibit at MRAC, which opened on May 8, 2016 includes “After Josef Albers”, based on the abstract painter’s “Homage to the Red Square”. Albers capacity to control color in shape and shade has long been an inspiration to Niles. Born in 1888, Albers brought ideas of European Modernism to America after studying and teaching in the Bauhaus schools of Weimar and Dessau, Germany. When the Nazis closed the Bauhaus in the early 1930s, he emigrated with his wife, Anni, to the U.S., where they both taught at Black Mountain College. He worked on the series for which he is best known, “Homage to the Square”, from 1949 until he died in 1976. Seeing the square as devoid of symbolism, Albers used it to systematically study how color changes through juxtaposition with other colors.
Niles’ photograph re-imagines the Albers painting in a way that suggests a high window in a sunlit room, open to a sky with a color spectrum ranging from medium blue to bright red. The window is no longer a square, but an irregular quadrilateral, i.e.: it has no right angles or parallel sides. The yellow, white and amber areas surrounding the window enhance the exploration of flat geometric figures vs. the illusion of depth, while altering the perception of the colors in the entire image.
Like Albers’ “Red Square” painting, Henry Moore’s bronze sculpture, “Seated Woman”, resides at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri and depicts the female figure in voluptuous shapes. Niles’ photograph, “After Henry Moore” offers a soft-edged abstraction in mostly brown and pale yellow hues, suggesting a sepia tone photograph. While the image reminds the viewer-2-of the feminine curves of the Moore work, it has a feathered, wispy quality that contrasts with the sturdiness of bronze.
Niles has worked for many media organizations including the New York Times, Associated Press. In 2002, she won the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for her contributions to the Times’ coverage of September 11, 2001. Her 9/11 work is on permanent display at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Niles holds a B.A. in photojournalism from San Francisco State University and a M.A. in Art History from the University of Arizona where she also earned a certificate in Museums Studies. She served as the Ansel Adams Intern and curatorial assistant at the Center for Creative Photography – one of the leading photo archives in the world – from 2013-2015. Niles lives in Philadelphia where she is a board member of the Manayunk-Roxborough Art Center. She has been teaching and mentoring photographers of all ages for over 15 years.
“After Andrew Wyeth” is a photographic reinterpretation of “Christina’s World”, Andrew Wyeth’s iconic painting that is housed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Niles’ piece reminds the viewer of how much a painting such as this can, as the artist comments, “illicit feelings of pity, wonder, and love for its subject,” all at once. The photograph retainssome of the essential elements of Wyeth’s painting – the woman lying with her back to the viewer on a hillside, the dark building on the horizon – but it also both softens the woman’s figure and brings it much closer to the foreground. This changes the perception of her posture, which seems more relaxed and less vulnerable. The predominantly red and pink hues of the photograph are very different from the sharp contrasts found in Wyeth’s painting, such as the subject’s dark hair and the pale gray sky.
Niles observes, “I have a long-standing love affair with the Mexican Modernists, with a special appreciation for the work of Francisco Toledo. For her, “The rich gold and red tones of this image are sensuous and deep, speaking of the passion and ache I feel,” when gazing at a work such as “Plano de Juchitàn”, from which her photograph, “After Francisco Toledo” was derived. Her photograph stretches the original abstract painting to a dramatic spectrum consisting of a few dominant colors – black, orange, red and gold. A central, triangular shape lends the image depth and creates an effect like that of a sunrise or sunset on a wide horizon.
The issue of artistic appropriation expands when considering Niles’ “After Kerry James Marshall”, which is inspired by two of the painter’s works created in the 1990s. She writes that Marshall’s art, “is rooted in bringing attention to the Black experience in America, often through the act of appropriating art objects made by non-Black artists and re-envisioning them with people of color.” Marshall’s “Plunge” refers to paintings of bathers by artists like Cézanne and Matisse and features a woman seen as a black silhouette, but for her bathing suit and cap, standing on a diving board. Marshall similarly employs black silhouettes of a boy-3-and a girl in “Our Town” and, as Erin Ruberry describes this gesture in an article for the Huffington Post, “puts an African-American face on the classic Dick and Jane childhood stories.”
Thus, Niles’ photograph is an appropriation of Marshall’s appropriations of images from the Western artistic canon. One of the photographer’s aims was to “create the feeling of visual fatigue” that she and many visitors to large museums, such as the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., experience. Her image conveys a feeling of watercolor or acrylic wash, superimposed over a hardwood floor, that seems appropriate to the blurring of memories that occurs after a prolonged tour of a museum’s galleries.
“After Leonardo DaVinci” pays tribute to the most famous and most viewed work by the artist and inventor for whom the term renaissance man could have been coined. “Portrait of Lisa Gherardrini”, popularly known as “Mona Lisa” is, as Niles points out, a surprisingly small painting, measuring 2’6” by 1’9”. The room in which it resides in the Louvre in Paris is always full of visitors who all but shove each other aside to glimpse the woman with the much-interpreted smile. Niles photograph conveys a sense of the intimacy of scale of the painting and the anything but intimate nature of the experience of viewing it.
The juxtapositions of color and the overlay of one rectangular shape over another in “After Martial Raysse 2” brings this viewer back to “After Josef Albers”, except that the painting that inspired Niles in this case is a portrait. Raysse painted “La grande odalisque” (“The Grand Odalisque”) in 1964. From the perspective of a feminist artist and art historian, Niles writes, “I have a special interest in the way women are represented in visual culture.” She first saw Raysse’s work at the Centre George Pompidou in Paris and “fell in love with his use of vibrant, often garish, colors.” For her, the expression of the subject of Raysse’s portrait is one of resignation. In response, Niles set out to “liberate the variety of identities and representations women are capable of expressing”.
“Co-Authored” is much about appropriation and reinterpretation of great artworks, but the exhibit also demonstrates Niles’ openness to experimentation; her genuine affection for the original paintings and desire to create a novel aesthetic experience for viewers; and her gifted and cultivated eye for color and form.
The exhibition continues on May 14th, 15th, 21st, and 22nd at MRAC, located at 419 Green Lane (rear), Philadelphia, PA 19128. From May 23rd to June 20th the exhibit can be seen at MRAC’s sister gallery at the Roxborough Development Corporation, 6111 Ridge Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19128. MRAC’s gallery hours are Saturdays and Sundays, 11:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M. except for holidays. Admission is free and donations are encouraged and appreciated. For more information, see www.mrartcenter.org or call 215.482.3363. For more informationabout the Roxborough Development Corporation, call 215.508.2358.