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"Janna Dekker and Jan van Leeuwen Photographs: Contemporary Dutch Still Lifes"
1999-10-23 until 2000-01-20
Cleveland Museum of Art
Cleveland, OH, USA United States of America

As a complement to the major exhibition, Still-Life Paintings from the Netherlands, 1550ˆ1720, which celebrates a lively Dutch painting genre that flourished between 300 and 450 years ago, the Cleveland Museum of Art presents Janna Dekker and Jan van Leeuwen Photographs: Contemporary Dutch Still Lifes, which celebrates the work of two fine Dutch photographers working right now. The exhibition runs October 23, 1999 to January 12, 2000, with about 16 photographs in gallery 105. Admission is free.

Janna Dekker and Jan van Leeuwen have much in common. Both are contemporary photographers living and working in the Netherlands. Both have come to prominence in the past decade. Both are well known as portrait photographers. Both make still life pictures. And both are making a Cleveland debut with this exhibition.

Yet these two artists arrive in gallery 105 via notably different routes. Dekker was born in 1957 and studied Spanish and dramatic arts, then took up photography in 1982, serving as a photographer‚s assistant. Since then, she has photographed nudes, portraits, and richly detailed still-life subjects of flowers, fruit, and everyday objects such as those featured in this exhibition. She works with an off-the-shelf 35mm camera and makes her own crisp black-and-white prints, using no toners or other darkroom manipulations. Eschewing a formal studio, she makes her photographs where she finds them, always using available natural light.

Much as Dekker‚s portraits portray the sitters with a kind of straightforward intimacy that comes only with spending a lot of time building mutual recognition and trust, her still lifes exhibit a patient approach to understanding the subject. „In my work I let myself be guided by intuition and wonderment,‰ she says. „The one constant is to capture that one moment of intimacy and intensity. I want to make tangible the poetry and silence of daily life moments.‰ Curator of contemporary art and photography >Tom Hinson, who organized the exhibition, finds an affinity between Dekkers work and the Dutch masterworks of past centuries: „The pristine composition and the use of strong light and dark remind one of Vermeer and his brilliant use of illumination and shadow.‰ In recent years Dekker has also made forays into video and film. This exhibition is the first time her work has been>shown in the United States.

Jan van Leeuwen was born in 1932, endured the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam, worked until 1994 distributing kitchen wares (and photographing them for sales purposes), and edited a magazine for cat lovers in the 1970s and ‚ 80s. He decided to take up sserious photography in 1986 so that he would have something to do after he retired. The majority of his work might best be described as an emotionally raw style of self-portraiture; his still lifes represent a serene but related tangent. He uses a 100-year-old antique >wooden camera into which he loads 30 x 40 cm (11-3/4 x 15-3/4) sheets of standard resin-coated photo paper. The paper is made like a sandwich with the light-sensitive emulsion and a paper base laminated between sheets of plastic. After the image has been developed, fixed, and dried, he carefully strips off and discards the plastic back layer, and then rubs the exposed paper with paraffin oil, which makes the negative translucent enough to shine light through it and make a contact print.

The artist describes how his process relates to 19th-century methods: I don‚t make my own wax paper negatives [as pioneering early photographers did, but] in fact my method is a modern version of wax paper negatives. I mainly print on drawing paper, which I light-sensitize myself by brushing on the emulsions. He flattens the paper negative on top of the printing paper and makes an exposure of about eight hours in a UV-B lightbox. (The traditional method uses sunlight, but he says, In our country the sun is not a reliable light source.) His sumptuous prints are blue-toned cyanotypes (the same process used to make blueprints) or brown-toned Van Dyke Kallitypes; both processes date to the last century. He uses these unconventional methods because they allow the use of a wide range of fine papers and permit him to, as he puts it, go beyond photography. He feels his still-life work spans the centuries thematically as well as technically:

Because I mainly work in the intimate enclosure of my studio, the step from self-portraits to still lifes was a very short one. My most important subjects in still lifes are single flowers in fact I make portraits of these flowers, and as every portrait contains elements of the self of its maker, my flower-portraits have a strong connection to the portraits and images of myself. Whereas I regard my self-portraits as part of the contemporary art scene, I see my still lifes as part of a long Dutch tradition.

Hinson‚s original plan was to exhibit work by the better-known van Leeuwen alone until the photographer suggested including Dekker. Because I realized that Jannas still lifes could mean an enrichment of your still life exhibition, says van Leeuwen, I introduced her work to Tom Hinson. I was very pleased to learn that Tom shared my opinion. When asked to comment on each other‚s work, both photographers come up with the word intensity>to describe the powerful impact of the other‚s images. The same word could aptly be applied to many of the best works in the long history of still-life art. Thus, together, these two photographers offer a fascinating contemporary point of reference from which to consider a great Dutch artistic tradition.

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