John Wood Retrospective at SUArts

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 11/19/09More articles
John Wood at SUArt 2009
John Wood at SUArt 2009
6 images in the John Wood at SUArt 2009 album

Photographer pioneered multimedia used widely today

The presence of a single American flag in an entire exhibition that so often references the past 50 years of challenges that have rocked American life intrigued Andrew Saluti from the start. On a walk-through early last week of “On the Clear Edge of Meaning,” the John Wood retrospective now on view at Syracuse University’s Shaffer Arts Building gallery, Saluti pointed out this 1985 photograph. Captured from a vantage point directly beneath the flag-pole extending from a building’s front façade, the face of the stars and stripes billowed and zigzagged as the fabric lifted slightly in the wind – just as winds of change have unsettled the country’s own sense of identity over these decades. Far above, just visible past the lip of roof and easily missed in the sun’s glare, an eagle’s extended wings.

“But I wonder,” said Saluti, a print-maker himself, who prepares exhibitions for SUArts and had hung the show, “because right at the top there’s that eagle, and he uses many images of eagles. I wonder if the eagle is the image he prefers to reference the nation.”

Since these images are often unsettling – “pelts,” Wood calls them – together with his “guns in the landscape” images in response to violence, and the nuclear waste and Exxon-Valdez oils spill series, it’s apparent something more complex than flag-waving is afoot. And unlike many photographers addressing social issues during these decades, Wood intentionally eschewed a direct documentary, journalistic approach. “I mean it to be lyrical,” he said over 30 years ago, and he’s sticking to it.

Woods, his wife the photographer Laurie Snyder (who completed an MFA thesis at Syracuse University in 1987 on Wood’s work), his daughter the fiber artist Carol Wood, curator Nathan Lyons and his wife Joan Lyons (who designed the handsome book that serves as catalogue), were all on hand for the opening reception last Thursday. Wood is 86 now and – owing to a fall down some “unforgiving New England stairs” – has recently not been well, so the others did more speaking to the assembled crowd than he. But he’d mingled with the crowd before the formal presentation, answering a few questions one on one, and he answered some queries at the end of the presentation too. So Saluti asked him about that flag.

“There’s only one image of the flag,” began Saluti. “Do you stay away from the flag?”

“I very definitely stay away from the flag!” said Wood. “Nathan has been dealing with the flag and so has Robert Frank.”

Wood quickly went on to add in some detail that the flag was part of a nine-image series that includes the eagle pelts – notably the tagged talons of a dead eagle and the close-up of an eagle’s head that provides the catalogue’s cover – as well as a landscape he described as “water over the dam” (one of the most lyrical renderings in the show) and a final image of a baby in car-seat (his granddaughter). The series had not been hung together in the show as a group, but this seemed to bother Wood – whose work has embodied curiosity and juxtaposition across subject matter, media and genre – not at all. He said he liked the “flow” of it – precisely the quality that Saluti said earlier in the week he’d aimed for.

In the 1960s John Wood’s work was often rejected from entry into exhibitions because of the strict delineation between art genres that held sway at that time. Yet Wood – known as much for his offset lithography, collage, drawing, wax painting, artist’s books, use of text and pictographs within images, “whirligig” constructions and mixed media as for his photographs – helped spark what eventually became a crisis for “pure photography” and prefigured many of the multimedia approaches and digital imagery processes now common for the past two decades.

Not that Wood disparaged any single medium; in a 2005 interview with Nathan Lyons, he speaks about learning to make a “beautiful” negative as crucial, then that he “still loves a straight print” and has “never solved” the inherent tension that creates with manipulation. Rather, both Saluti and “The New York Times” compare Wood to Jasper Johns in his capacity to stretch media to its limits. He also appears to have matched media with specific subject matter in ways that are contemporary and fresh. Very little about this show feels dated and you’re likely to emerge with an unusually long list of “favorites.”

Wood divides his time between Ithaca and Baltimore, but for close to 35 years he taught at nearby Alfred University, a major funder of the retrospective – the first ever – which covers Wood’s work from 1960-2000. On view until January 2010 at SUArts’ main gallery in Shaffer, it comes directly from a joint exhibition in New York City at the Grey Gallery and the International Center of Photography. Curator Nathan Lyons, a former student of Wood’s and founder in 1969 of Rochester’s Visual Studies Workshop, suggested the retrospective to Wood five years ago.

The SUArts leg of the touring showing contains 180 items out of more than 200. It premiered in October of last year in Rochester at the George Eastman House, Memorial Gallery of the University of Rochester and the Video Studies Workshop. Last Thursday, Lyons said this was planned with an eye to reaching cross-over audiences – the people who wouldn’t ordinary show up for a photo show. After it moved to New York City, Saluti traveled with SUArts director Dominic Iocola traveled there to see how the Grey Gallery and ICP had designed their edition of the exhibition. Although the exhibition was planned originally to wind up with the Syracuse showing, Lyons said it goes next to Idaho and, he’s hoping, will wind up in Chicago. The Shaffer set-up includes an area devoted to portraits, to Wood’s Rio Grande drawings and paintings, to his “whirligig” constructions and artist-books (including a computer program that allows you to turn the pages), and occupying the east gallery an extensive area entitled “Quiet Protest” that gathers more overt subject matter on Vietnam, peace and nuclear issues, the political assassinations of the 60s, and a range of social and environmental justice.

The gallery screening room also loops an excellent 48-minute video of that 2005 interview Lyons did with Wood in Ithaca in 2005, Wood’s comments similar to when he answered Saluti in his ready, incisive, thoughtful way, including recollections of early decisive discoveries – coming across Paul Strand’s Mexico portfolio, Weston’s photo illustrations of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” Moholy-Nagy’s “Vision in Motion.” This video is included as a DVD in the retrospective catalogue, published in a handsome volume by Steidl.

On sale at the gallery’s shop, the catalogue features excellent plates of the exhibition’s contents (many at nearly the same size as those in the gallery) plus a reconsideration of Wood’s work by David Levi Strauss, a biographical essay by William S. Johnson, and Ezra Shales’ essay on Wood’s career as an educator at Alfred University – where he founded both the photo program and the Studio Foundation Program. Shales, by the way, offers one of the best accounts I have read of the artist-as-educator, and ought to be recommended reading for Central New York’s burgeoning cottage industry in arts education and placing “teaching artists” in the schools.

Intriguingly, much has been made of Wood’s early career as a B-17 bomber pilot for fairly literal reasons. Looking at the images, you can see the way flying liberated him from gravity and earth-bound perspective, how it may have led to the ease with which he bends surfaces and planes, that there is a thread of quiet urgency in keeping that orienting horizon in sight – or not. But Shales tells us something more: what Wood did as a bomber pilot was to train others. Thus perhaps he came to teaching art with the framework that the lesson and the learning mattered, giving to art the same weight and danger and consequence. Indeed last Thursday Laurie Snyder recalled that when she interviewed Wood in 1987 for her MFA thesis on his work, he had three quotes tacked to the wall of his studio, among them this from writer John Berger: “Poetry makes language care because it renders everything intimate. This intimacy is the result of the poem’s labor, the result of the bringing-together-into-intimacy of every act and noun and vent and perspective to which the poem refers. There is often nothing more substantial to place against the cruelty and indifference of the world than this caring.”

As a bomber pilot and then commercial aerial photographer Wood also first used a camera that produced the kind of multiple frame sequenced images that he adapted in much of his later work – especially for his portraits, some of the landscapes and the delightful series of images comprising “Baltimore Steps” – blossoming into series of a single subject that are printed to resemble film strips, multiple approaches to a single subject in several ways (a photo, a photo of a photo, a worked-over negative, and so on), and to his rich experiments with framing – echoing what John Szarkowski called “the central act of photography,” Wood has famously said, “Take care of the edges and the middle will take care of itself.”

Some of these sequenced images seem so on the verge of motion as to suggest there must be movies too somewhere in Wood’s work. Yes, he said at the reception. There was a 15-minute film he’d made as a student, titled “The Press,” with music from Stravinsky’s “L’histoire de Soldat,” but he’d never shown it.

“I wrote to get permission to use the music,” Wood said last Thursday, “and I got an answer back” – he imitated an imagined haughty speaker -“‘We do not do that.’ So I have never shown it. But yes, I’m very interested in film and I have a lot of footage.”

Whether we ever see any of that footage, there’s an embarrassment of riches at the Shaffer gallery until January 10, 2010.

This article is part of the November 19, 2009 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle. For additional information about the exhibition, including gallery hours, parking and programming, visit SUART.SYR.EDU. Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at

TAGS: Photographer John Wood,photographic Images,John Wood,photographer pioneered multimedia,Visual Arts Workshop, SUArts.
EDITION: The Eagle

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