“In Human Touch,” an exhibition currently on display in the West Gallery at the University Museum of Art, uniquely celebrates and advances the history of the photographic image. While resisting the traditional limitations of the medium of photography, American artist Ernestine Ruben takes a unique approach to the human form, to the body in motion, and to landscape, both natural and manmade.
The majority of works in the exhibit are representations of the human body, both male and female, including many nudes. Unlike most representations of the body in works of art, however, Ruben focuses on untraditional parts of the human form. She often turns her lens to areas of the body not usually considered worthy of representation, such as an armpit, body hair or wrinkling skin. She is fascinated by imperfections and flaws what is not considered “beautiful” in the history of art.
Many of Ruben”s images are extreme close-ups of the human body: The roundness of a shoulder, an Adam”s apple or a knee. She abstracts details of the body, cropping closely to create geometric forms and striking absences. Walking through the exhibit is like playing a guessing game: You”re not quite sure what part of the body you are looking at.
The ambiguity of forms also leaves you wondering whether the body fragment belongs to a man or to a woman, and whether you”re looking at black skin, white skin or just a shadow.
Ruben”s images empower the viewer and truly invite participation in the act of seeing. Her focus on the part more often than the whole is her method of better understanding and exploring the human body. In fact, she has a tendency to entwine herself with the bodies of her models while photographing them, adopting extreme camera angles.
It”s fascinating to see how much meaning can be condensed into a small fragment of the body. “I chose the human body for subject matter because I had always worked with it. It can defy the camera it can breathe, it can move, it can change,” said Ruben.
Working in a variety of photographic media, ranging from the silver prints of her early career to her current exploration of gum bichromate printed on handmade papers, Ruben has deeply explored issues of focus, structure, and dimensionality. Ruben captures many of her most striking effects through a manipulation of her media. The gum bichromate process allows Ruben to manipulate such effects as tonal contrast and color saturation during the printing process itself, enabling her to achieve otherworldly effects.
Ruben often employs processes, techniques, and materials that are not part of or at least had fallen out of the scope of modern photography. She manipulates her subjects in such a way that does not allow us to believe in the image as an unaltered record of reality. Essentially, Ruben reminds us that two-dimensional images do not have to be strictly representational.
Ruben, a distinguished alum, grew up in Birmingham, in a home surrounded by works of art and music. Although Ruben pursued sculpture throughout her life, she did not begin taking fine art photos until the age of 47. Just a few years after her initial studies, her work was discovered by Jean-Luc Monterosso, director of the Maison Europen de la Photographie, and was exhibited under his auspices. Her work has since been widely shown and collected.
In Human Touch is a retrospective selection of Ruben”s work completed since the late 1970s, when Ruben first turned to fine art photography. The exhibition includes both traditional framed photos as well as instillation pieces.
The instillation pieces are mixed media works documenting the Jewish Cemetery in Prague and the ancient ruins of Petra in Jordan.
So, if armpits, wrinkling skin and a little body hair doesn”t scare you, visit the UMMA, a get a truly unique perspective of the human body.