Our times and other times: James Nares and Helen Levitt

Kat Kneevers, Contributing writer

James Nares: In the City and Helen Levitt: In the Street are exhibitions paired in the Herzfeld Center for Photography and Media Arts at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

The rationale is they share common ground in their connection to images of a certain place and time that has passed. More than that, there is a strong humanistic undercurrent to the photographs and videos by both artists.

To put it in more figurative terms, Levitt’s work might be likened to the body itself, delving into a physical reality that is both tangible and suspended in time. Nares’ is like the circulatory system, picturing the way things move and go with the fleeting nature of energy.

London-born artist James Nares moved to New York City in 1974 and eventually fell in with a number of avant-garde groups and individuals in the fields of art, music and performance. MAM is showing his vintage Super 8 film titled Pendulum, in which the main actor is a large copper sphere that swings back and forth between buildings in Tribeca, which in this case has the desolate visage of an urban wasteland. No people stroll about, no fancy shops, just bland brick buildings and this large thing that swings between empty spaces. It is strangely fascinating.

Of course, in 2017, the idea of this sort of project is deliciously alluring. We can’t see where this sphere is suspended but it is suspended somehow, going back and forth like a daredevil joy ride. On occasion, it nearly hits buildings and the camera itself. There are various vignettes and one of the few admissions of a person into the spectacle is a car zipping by on the empty street. Ah, but we also see the shadow of the filmographer at one point, sprawled on ironwork over the street, casting a shadow down to earth.

James Nares
Film still from STREET by James Nares.

There is also sound. It is one of the first things you note when you enter the gallery. You come into a dim space where couches and books await. But the noise of something — not quite like thunder, but more like a monster breathing — draws your attention to a dark corridor where a blush of low light beckons. This is the room where Pendulum is shown and the sound is the swinging of the great ball among the buildings.

When watching something as deceptively simple and hypnotic as this, I find my mind wandering, suddenly reaching down and remembering: in this case, the sensation of playing on a swing set, as a child, at my grandparents’ house. In that pendulum motion, it seemed you could break the sky with your toes, reaching greater heights that the gigantic pine tree in the backyard. It is the feeling of breaking free of gravity and the rush of the wind, exhilarating and part of child’s play. That is also what Pendulum feels like.

Nares’ other video on view is called STREET. The description notes that it is shot in high definition and slowed down to something far less than a snail’s pace. In real time, it would run for about three minutes. In the gallery, it is about 61 minutes. Take your time, indeed.

This video was shot in New York — exact whereabouts unknown, but it is the New York of real life, sans billionaires or tourist gloss. Like exploring the world in a drop of water under a microscope, it was filmed while driving down the street. Random people on the street are pictured, but with a nuance that renders each individual as impossibly graceful and present. The swinging lace on the cuff of a woman in a caftan, or the smooth path of a man’s eyes as he seems to notice the camera zipping by, or the expressions of people on their phones as they engage in a world unseen to those around them — all are poetic notes of reality. This happens everyday. We never notice and never really can.

James Nares described this film as “a love letter to my adopted home.” I think that Helen Levitt’s photographs, many simply titled “New York,”

Helen Levitt
Black-and-white images on exhibit in “Helen Levitt: In the Street” at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

have a similar warmth of affection.

Helen Levitt’s New York

Levitt photographed the streets of New York for more than 50 years, often venturing into neighborhoods where impoverished and immigrant families lived. The streets are alive with their children and the hustle and bustle of their play. There is a distant quality, as the original images date to as early as the 1930s, when social mores were more relaxed in terms of parental presence.

In these photographs, kids kid each other, roughhouse, play games in the street or, like one boy, seem ready to nap beside the stone statue of Helen Levitt a lion at the steps to a building. They are remarkably independent and it feels like Levitt is a great admirer of this freedom. Similarly, the chance experiences of women and men, at work or in unguarded private moments, visible to the public, form a narrative of life that is hauntingly true.

Helen Levitt collaborated with James Agee and Janice Loeb for the film In the Street, filmed in 1945 and released in 1952. This work maintained her focus on her subject, but was a change in its use of color, as did some of her photographs of the era. Levitt said, “I thought my photographs would be closer to reality if I got the color of the streets. Black and White is an abstraction.”

That is true: Black and white is an abstraction. But art is an abstraction in itself. As much as it is about life, it is about more than we may ever actually encounter in our own lives. Levitt’s photographs touch on race and class, age and economics and are especially valuable in our time. They direct us to the realities of human experience and the care of dignity that must be keenly attended to, in our own city and beyond.

On exhibit

James Nares: In the City and Helen Levitt: In the Street continue through April 16 at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 N. Art Museum Drive.

A gallery talk with exhibition curator Lisa Sutcliffe takes place at 1:30 p.m. March 7. Attendance at the talk is free with museum admission.