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Polaroid’s glory days exposed

Exhibit reveals experimentation in the medium

By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / August 18, 2010

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In June, Sotheby’s in New York auctioned off more than 1,000 photographs from the Polaroid Corp.’s collection of some 15,000 images, housed largely in Somerville. The auction, precipitated by a bankruptcy court order, featured images by Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol, and Chuck Close, among other giants. At close to $12.5 million, sales outstripped Sotheby’s estimates.

What better time to mount an exhibit of Polaroids? Gallery 4’s “The Art of Polaroid’’ doesn’t boast any Adams prints, but it does feature the rosily decaying “Red Junked Car,’’ shot in 1973 by Walker Evans. Despite its snapshot size and color format, it captures Evans’s familiar fascination with a faltering America, best known through his black-and-white photos of the Great Depression. Other photographs in the exhibit highlight work by significant artists, many of whom have Boston ties.

There are Marie Cosindas’s intimate, warm-toned, naturally lighted portraits of figures such as Julia Child and sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Cosindas, who is in her 80s, was invited in 1962 by Edwin Land, cofounder of Polaroid and inventor of its Land camera, to test the company’s product, and that proved a turning point in her career. Polaroid actively developed ties with artists and encouraged them to experiment; that’s why the corporate collection — of which only a fraction was sold — is so illustrious.

Many pieces here are experimental. Ellen Carey’s terrific abstract photographs, made by exposing the film to a flash of light or not exposing it at all, and then pulling it through a large-format camera’s internal rollers, hang like scrolls on the wall, all at once invoking Japanese Zen calligraphy, lush painting, and photography. John Reuter offers a dozen surrealist photo constructions from the 1970s. Reuter peeled back the film and manipulated the dyes and emulsions as the image developed. His “Afterglow’’ looks as if he has applied a 19th-century portrait of a melancholy boy to the print; he hovers, frail yet sharp, against a pungently colored background.

Even the more straightforward images display an exuberant experimentation in the artist’s relationship to subject, among them Elsa Dorfman’s generous, spontaneous portraits shot with a 20-by-24-inch camera; Olivia Parker’s odd and careful still lifes; and Jim Stone’s black-and-white documentary shots, such as “Retired Upholsterer Who Covered His House with Beer Cans on his 71st Birthday, Houston, TX, 1983.’’ Like any new tool, the Polaroid liberated the artists who used it. Digital photography has long since outmoded Polaroid’s instant prints, but Polaroid artists are a loyal breed. May they continue to thrive.

Delighting in the subject
Clarence Major is better known as a poet, novelist, and author of two dictionaries of African-American slang, but he has been painting as long as he has been writing. He has an invigorating exhibit of his brushy, ebullient, and colorful but surprisingly moody works at Pierre Menard Gallery.

Many of the paintings pivot on color contrasts, and Major uses simple but dramatic compositions that play these up. The postures and expressions of his bold figures add narrative. In “Two Sisters,’’ we see a slender blond woman wearing a granny-apple green dress and seated in a fire-engine red chair. The wall behind her is lime-green. This trio of tones sets the painting abuzz, but there’s more: In the background, another woman in red appears, backlighted inside a doorway, hand sassily on her hip.

The show features some raucous street scenes and an odd, existential narrative or two, but the focus here is on women — to a one, sensual and provocative, but not always available. “Jamaica’’ appears in an eye-blinking clash of patterns and tones: Her dress is electric blue with flowers, the wall behind her a grid of reds. She slumps on a hassock with one shoe off, ponderous and frustrated. Her curves and the honey colors of her flesh are commanding, but her expression puts us off.

These are playful paintings. Major’s delight in his medium and his subjects is palpable. But they’re not simple or easy — and that gives us all the more to relish.

Light and action pulse
Cuban artist Edel Bordón displays an impressive versatility of styles and techniques in his show at Galeria Cubana’s Boston venue (the gallery has a second space in Provincetown). Bordón shares Major’s fascination with women as a subject, but he does not have the other artist’s facility with conveying personality. Too many of Bordón’s women appear gorgeously bereft, stylized in their grief, as if he’s trying to convey something iconic, and losing all the details of portraiture.

But there’s still plenty to impress here. One untitled painting presents first as a deliciously splattered abstract grid, but you’ll recognize tiles on a shower floor once you spot the drain. Blues that loom in from the right coalesce into a shadowy, female form. The piece pulses with action, light, and just a hint of the ominous.

Bordón offers another shower scene in an untitled painting on vellum, in which a showerhead in an upper corner rains droplets upon a long-haired woman; the piece is all texture and line, with water and hair overlaid with decorative white loops of steam.

“El sueno dorado (The golden dream)’’ might have been made by a different artist, with its flat, hot tones and simple forms depicting several figures standing in a small boat. Bordón activates the scene with a single, placid shimmer on the water and curlicues that fall across the canvas like the weather. It’s an allegorical painting of escape from an island, filled with loss and longing.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at cmcq@speakeasy.net

THE ART OF POLAROID At: Gallery 4, 3848 Main Road, Tiverton, R.I., through Sept. 6. 401-816-0999, www.gallery4tiverton.com

CLARENCE MAJOR: CONFIGURATIONS At: Pierre Menard Gallery, 10 Arrow St., Cambridge, through Sept. 3. 617-868-2033, www.pierremenardgallery.com

EDEL BORDÓN At: Galeria Cubana, 460 Harrison Ave., through Sept. 1. 617-292-2822, www.lagaleriacubana.com