“They also serve who stand and wait,” John Milton once claimed, in a wrenching meditation on his premature blindness. It’s a sentiment that is evoked, as well, by Gregory Vershbow’s Site Unseen, currently on view at the Walters, a suite of twelve affecting color photographs of artworks temporarily removed from the public view. Veiled in sheets of plastic, set into insulated boxes, or framed by planks of scaffolding, the artworks that are the nominal protagonists of these images endure with a resolute dignity that can subtly alter, if you allow it to, the way in which you think about museum practice and display.
The photographs themselves are lovely. Built around powerful, balanced compositions and lush local hues, they approach, at times, rich abstractions. Inevitably, though, Vershbow returns to the figure. In working in the storage facilities of the Walters and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, he sought out towards assertive, somatic subjects: an ancient Egyptian carving of a married couple; a Baroque oil painting of the decapitated Holofernes; a Renaissance saint about to climb a stair. At times, his camera feels primarily objective, or inquisitive, as when it records the small scars on a gilded wooden surface. At other moments, however, his work can feel vaguely polemical, as in his picture of the Peace Monument in Washington, D.C., in which an elevated viewpoint allows him to juxtapose the distraught face of Grief with the distant Capitol Building. In each case, however, it is the fact that the artwork in question is momentarily removed from public view that paradoxically allows Vershbow to re-see it. One is reminded of Waldemar Januszczak’s account of climbing up the scaffold during the cleaning of the Sistine Ceiling in the 1980s, when Michelangelo’s frescoes could not be seen by the public. “I was so close,” Januszczak later recalled, “I could see the bristles from his brushes caught in the paint; and the mucky thumbprints he’d left along his margins.” We see differently, in other words, when we look differently.
In a way, then, these photographs can be seen as belonging to a broad genre: to that branch of photography that reveals and explores what might otherwise go unseen. It is, to be sure, a diverse and sprawling genre: it would include, for instance, Eadweard Muybridge’s famous studies of animal locomotion, Kohei Yoshiyuki’s infrared images of entwined couples and voyeurs in nocturnal Tokyo parks in the 1970s, and Trevor Paglen’s unsettling photographs of remote, covert American defense outposts. Within that broad field, though, Vershbow’s images offer something both distinctive and memorable. His attention to works of art that are overlooked or displaced is inherently ennobling: he acknowledges and thus valorizes the ongoing life of repressed objects. It’s roughly equivalent, you might say, to Pixar’s comparably touching Toy Story, in which a child’s scattered playthings bide time until they are once again picked up, caressed, and affirmed by their owner. Or, perhaps more aptly, it recalls the wonder that Howard Carter felt when he encountered, in Tutankhamen’s newly opened tomb, the sentries who had stood silent, alert, and unseen for millennia. In his account of the discovery, Carter wrote that “they present an appearance that is almost painfully impressive.”
What did Carter mean, exactly? Vershbow’s photographs offer a sort of answer. Artworks, of course, are typically made to be seen or to function in a certain way, or ways – and the artworks pictured here seem almost to know that, and so wait out their current, irrelevant exiles. A marble Venus relegated to a cushioned box attends to her hair, as if to pass the moments while awaiting reinstallation. A statue in Munich, surrounded by a cage of struts as he undergoes restoration, looks as if he is rehearsing lines just before the curtain rises. And the Egyptian spouses, presumably made to await the return of their owners’ souls, tolerate their current situation with moving decency. Eyes wide, they look beyond the indignity of the plastic wrap that covers them. In image after image, then, we sense a hint of imminence – a tone that is only heightened through Vershbow’s decision to exhibit twelve works. Twelve is the climax of the clock face; it’s also the number of apostles who assemble at the Last Supper and await their mentor’s utterances. The twelve days of Christmas culminate in an epiphany. As a body, then, the suite suggests the passage of time and the transience of current conditions; it implies, you might say, a coming revelation.
The title of the show insistently nudges us to consider those themes in Platonic terms: in terms, that is, of the manifestation of the unseeable, or of a restricted access to the ideal. Such an approach feels appropriate here; given that several of the pictured artworks are explicitly religious, one is reminded of the insistence of early theologians that one purpose of art is to make the invisible visible. A sculpted putto represents a concept; Vershbow’s photograph, in turn, represents the putto. These are thus images of images of ideas. And so, even when they display an interest in rote material details (Vershbow repeatedly examines the trappings of conservation and storage – bubble wrap; vinyl shrouds; rubber-coated chain link fence) they point to attendant abstract questions. Who, in these cases, decided to render these works temporarily invisible? Who put these toys away, and why? The photographs resist any concrete explanation: the hands of curators and conservationists are never pictured. Instead, we’re left to ask the hard questions ourselves: was the crucifix tucked into its box because it was somehow redundant, or no longer appreciated? Was the relegation of a cameo due to aesthetic preferences, or to ideological forces – or, perhaps, to the mundane pragmatics of museum layout? Regardless: the objects in these images patiently endure our evolving priorities.
As we think about that, we realize all over again that even artworks that are displayed in art museums must tolerate such shifting tastes, as well. Liberation from storage is hardly liberation, for any displayed artwork will still be subject to a series of discursive frames: it will be labeled, lit in a specific manner, and, often, placed in a vitrine. Indeed, this point is one that is openly addressed by the Walters in an ongoing show of manuscripts (Living by the Book, through September 29): “Today,” we are told, “medieval books are treated as works of art, untouchable treasures to be locked away in cabinets. Yet many were intended for regular use as vital components of everyday life.” The rhyme is a neat one; the displayed manuscripts temporarily escape the fate of the objects shot by Vershbow, but even in their cases they are forced to become something utterly different from what they once were.
Ultimately, though, an even more meaningful pendant to Vershbow’s photographs appeared not in the Walters, but rather in the Maryland Historical Society, in 1992. I’m thinking, of course, of Fred Wilson’s celebrated Mining the Museum, in which Wilson (an artist of both African-American and Native American ancestry) exhibited a number of objects that had connections to local minority populations, and that had long languished in the museum’s basement. Brought into the light, and juxtaposed with more familiar, canonical pieces, they proved shockingly disruptive: a slave shackle placed next to a wrought silver vessel, in a vitrine simply labeled “Metalwork, 1773-1880,” dragged any number of problematic pasts into the tidy, artificial logic of the museum’s galleries. The past, Wilson thus reminded us, is often simplified. But convenient acts of repression cannot eradicate what once happened.
In the end, then, Vershbow’s photographs make a similar point, although in their own way. Placing a work of art in storage, or surrounding it in scaffolding, might initially seem to be an act of temporary prioritization: of repression, of exhaustion. But the gesture ultimately says as much about us, these photographs suggest, as it does about the deinstalled work. And so, with that in mind, we can perhaps answer one final question, as well: What will become of Vershbow’s photographs, when they are taken down in September? They, too, will serve. Indeed, they already have.
Site Unseen will be on view at The Walters Art Museum through September 8, 2013.
Author Kerr Houston teaches art history and art criticism at MICA; he is also the author of An Introduction to Art Criticism (Pearson, 2013) and recent essays on Wafaa Bilal, Emily Jacir, and Candice Breitz.