Venetian Bland

Mediocre photos offer nice views but no window into the soul of a grand city.

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Venice's Grand Canal, one of many picturesque but rote depictions in John Ransom Godt and Karen Donovan Godt's Venetian Treasures.
Venice's Grand Canal, one of many picturesque but rote depictions in John Ransom Godt and Karen Donovan Godt's Venetian Treasures.
Although the photographs in Venetian Treasures, the current exhibit at GSI Fine Art, are full of sunshine, gondolas, and sweeping views of the Grand Canal, they rarely offer an alternative to predictable tourist scenes. If an artist's views of a great city are to attract attention, the artist must uncover aspects of that city that are unknown to the casual observer. Granted, in the case of Venice, that's a difficult task to bring off: In the 1880s, the great American writer Henry James went so far as to say that, because artists had so relentlessly mined the city for unexpected small side canals and anonymous corners, it is no longer possible to say anything new about Venice.

Even if James were right, the current exhibit at GSI would fail. The main problem with this body of work by Clevelanders John Ransom Godt and Karen Donovan Godt, co-owners of MG studios (a design and photography studio), is that it is not content with being mild and inoffensive. It has grand intentions. Each photograph is given a title that is a quotation from a famous person such as Albert Einstein, Charles Baudelaire, or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. One soon gets the drift: Each photo, when viewed in conjunction with its quotation, is meant to set off a small epiphany, an explosion of meaning that ought to then be savored. These are not merely photos of Venice, we seem to be told; they are a doorway into the mysteries of life.

The interesting thing about the Godts' artistic journey is that they chose the quotations mentioned above before they left for their two-week stay in Venice last March. The procedure of starting with a literary source and then setting about to support it is not unusual — composers who set their music to pre-written librettos or film directors who find visual correlates for scenes described in a screenplay are doing something similar. There is, however, a substantial conceptual difference between starting with a quote and then finding the Venetian scenes that substantiate it, and exploring Venice with open eyes and ears, then making sense of the data later. The Godts, in effect, went to Venice knowing what they wanted to prove.

The color photo titled "Give Me a Laundry List and I'll Set It to Music — Rossini" is an example of this strategy in action. The photo, predictably, shows a series of socks drying on a clothesline at a rustic dwelling. The lighting suggests early morning, and the black socks are contrasted with a maroon-colored wall in the background. What to make of this little scene?

The Godts presumably stand in for Rossini, the early nineteenth-century composer. Artists, we are told, can make the mundane interesting by dressing it up in bold colors and appealing harmonies. Like Rossini, the Godts are investing the commonplace with dignity. Rossini, however, did not say he was in the profession of turning laundry lists into music; he merely hinted that a fertile artistic imagination can handle any challenge placed before it. The Godts take Rossini literally and show socks on a laundry line. Furthermore, the photo is utterly forgettable, and that ruins their point — unlike Rossini, they have been unable to turn a laundry list into art.

Scarcely more successful is "In Youth We Learn; in Age We Understand — von Eschenbach." This one shows some boarded-up arched windows at an aging residence. Weeds are everywhere, and spidery green tendrils wrap every square inch of stuccoed wall. There are patches of exposed brick on the walls of the home, suggesting that, when a place grows old, its surfaces deteriorate and the fundamental building blocks are exposed. Again, connection between quote and photo is literal. This weed-infested scene is quaint (no Grand Canal here), but has no symbolic heft. Consequently, the photo hobbles, even though its title is supposed to help it soar. Moral of the story: Evocative title plus mediocre photograph equals mediocre art.

The obligatory views of the Grand Canal and the cathedral of San Marco are included in the exhibit. These tourist views are depicted either frontally and in full sunlight or encased in Venice fog, like a shot from a Luchino Visconti film. The Godts, like thousands of artists before them, relish the details of Gothic windows, grillwork, and the gondolas that dot the waterline. The results make you want to go to the nearest travel agent and book a flight to Italy, but as art (and not as advertisement), such shots have little to offer. In the expatriate American artist James McNeill Whistler's renderings of Venice, he makes us wonder about what is on the other side of the doors he constantly depicts. We are always aware of something existing just beyond our grasp, and Whistler teases and perplexes by withholding. This, we conclude, is a part of art — the difficulty of coming to terms with what is hidden and the imaginative guesswork involved in inferring what is hidden by concentrating on what is actually shown.

The photographs at GSI, by contrast, add up to considerably less than the sum of their parts. Even when a photo hones in on a seldom-noticed canal wall, its rough textures contrasting with a nearby building's Renaissance opulence, the quote alerts us to the main point: "The route you take depends a good deal upon where you want to go. — Lewis Carroll." These photos, then, don't gently insinuate, as Whistler's sketches often did; they state, restate, and highlight, so that there is no way you can lose the point.

There is one photograph that lingers in the memory. For once, the combination of photo and title sets off sparks. Called "The Ornament of a House Is the Friends Who Frequent It — Emerson," the photograph shows a middle-aged man opening the window of his second-story apartment, while at the center of the frame, out of sight to all but the viewer of the photograph, a hunched figure walks in the alley dividing two apartment buildings. The title suggests that there is a connection between the two figures in this shot. But there is ambiguity because, if that's so, what to make of the fact that, given their placement in the frame, one could not possibly see the other? The lighting again suggests early morning, but the hidden light source here suggests the luminous indistinctness of lamplight, as though the scene is part of some dimly remembered dream. Fittingly, there is a suggestion of unseen factors at work. For instance, what has brought the man to the window in the first place? Is he observing us, the viewers, or has he been drawn by the sound of the footsteps of the stooped figure at the center of the frame? This is the best thing in the exhibit and suggests that, perhaps with more time in Venice, the Godts could come up with more images like it. Unfortunately, one work does not an exhibit make, and the rest of the GSI show is not on this level.

When Henry James said that there was nothing left to say about Venice, he was referring not to resourceful artists like Whistler, who had the talent to uncover new nooks and crannies for their audience; he was probably referring to travelers who came to the great city bearing great ambition but less imagination. Unfortunately, this GSI exhibit is probably the kind of thing that led James to say what he did.

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