Hopper and diCorcia make sadness an art

by Beacon Staff • September 12, 2007

In the sweaty summer doldrums, Bostonians commonly seek refreshing refuge in movie theaters or head to the beach to take advantage of the gorgeous views and beaming sun. This past summer, however, there was a popular alternative to these reliable locations that offered a way to combine Cape Cod lighthouses, the Boston waterfront, street hustlers and air-conditioning: the art museum.

The Museum of Fine Arts hosted a sampling of Edward Hopper's luminous oeuvre, focusing mostly on his period in the second quarter of the 1900s, complete with gorgeous beach views and sullen individuals. Provocative photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia was the man of the season for the Institute of Contemporary Art, which showed diCorcia's posed comrades, and, of course, prostitutes and pole-dangling strippers.

Hopper and diCorcia work within different mediums and may not possess similar aesthetic sensibilities, but they share a perspective on art that is revealed in much of their art-in particular, their role as a voyeur. Neither artist is particularly drawn to the supernatural; they each strive to expose universality in the natural, either by highlighting the area which surrounds-or becomes-the subject or immortalizing a despondent facial expression. Their ability to capture an ambiguous, yet detailed moment that signifies a larger, imaginary picture leaves an open door for the viewer to interpret a narrative.

The "Essential Hopper" exhibit at the MFA was basically that: a comprehensive collection of Hopper's essentials. Therefore, the gallery doesn't offer many surprises, but it's a cohesive representation of Hopper's evolution from a student obsessed with painting light on the side of lighthouses to a voyeuristic, cynical version of Norman Rockwell, touching upon the banalities of life with an eye for subversion.

The Museum of Fine Arts has only slightly transformed their Rabb Gallery. Eloquent mini-biographies competently tell his life story and try their best to justify the absurdly large amount of lighthouses in the collection which, while admirable for Hopper's technique and talent with lighting, grow a bit tiresome.

Overall, the presentation is tasteful and accessible, showcasing his well-known works, such as the iconic "Nighthawks" (1942) and the eerie "Early Sunday Morning" (1930) while the melancholy "Automat" (1927) and "New York Movie" (1939) are equally affective-with their dulled lush color palates lending mood and pathos to the acute depiction of bitter disappointment and urbanized angst-yet slightly marginalized by the curator.

Equally captivating and sidelined is "Morning Sun" (1952), which illustrates a cadaverous woman on a bed in a bleakly blank room. Even though the drab room occupies most of the painting's space, a large blue sky is very visible through the window. The scantily clad thirtysomething sits upright on the bed, wrists crossed over bent knees, wondering if she's ready-or even wants-to welcome in a new day.

Although certain rooms may seem sparse-or worse, incomplete-upon entrance, the effect is realized once the spectator catches onto the wavelength of Hopper's paintings, which often depict an individual within a landscape that alienates them, eliciting a feeling of loneliness.

While Hopper can be accused of exploiting posh ennui, diCorcia revels in this exploitation. Hopper's exhibit captures a mood, but the ICA's presentation of diCorcia's verite photography is cold and antiseptic. Despite a career built on the spectator using their creative minds to fill in the narrative gaps, the ICA curators exhibit an alarming lack of imagination in their rigidly linear organization of diCorcia's work. That doesn't necessarily disrespect his photos, though. diCorcia's art blurs and straddles the line between fact and fiction; his photographs were rarely candid, yet they often reveal the truth beneath his subject's visage.

In "Igor, 1987," diCorcia's camera captures a man leaning back on a New York City subway seat, holding a goldfish in a bag of water; Igor's stiff posture, his cocked-back head and the calculated quirk of the goldfish suggest that the photograph was staged, yet there's honest human despair on his face that belies the artificiality of the posed picture.

The first room in the gallery is an impressive collection of diCorcia's friends and relatives, but his images of male hustlers and prostitutes are less inspired.

Although some photographs find depth in the hustlers' blank expressions, the amount of depressed prostitutes become tedious and reek of unoriginality. In "Ralph Smith; 21 Years Old; Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, $25" (1990-1992), diCorcia uses expert juxtaposition and comes closest to tapping into the meaning and atmosphere within the hustler's home turf. A contemporary James Dean with blemishes lounges outside a Del Taco drive-thru, his weary face leading one to believe he's been waiting forever for nothing.

It's ostensibly a modern update of Hopper's analysis on the social structure in middle-class restaurants. Hopper and diCorcia, at their best, find beauty in the mundane-which is what the MFA has more successfully replicated than the ICA.