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Thoughts of Home at the Dorsky Museum 

“Is there room in the room that you room in?” wrote the poet Ted Berrigan. “How homey is your home?” asks the photography exhibit at the Samuel Dorsky Museum at SUNY New Paltz, “Thoughts of Home,” which continues until March 18.

The 42 pieces in the show represent a variety of photographers, from world-renowned to obscure. The earliest photos are by Stephen Shore, from his landscape series “Uncommon Places” (1977). Shore, now director of the photography department at Bard College, took road trips in the 1970s to record epiphanies of American travel. The most recent work is a three-dimensional installation by Preston Wadley, “Letters from Home,” black-and-white photos set in a cardboard box buttressed with cloth and steel (2005). The exhibit is divided into three sections: the outside of houses, interiors, and portraits of renters and owners inside their homes.

Photography is a critique of randomness. Examining a photograph, offhand details suddenly become central. The clutter on a desk—keys, notes, rubber bands, a cigarette pack—is not arbitrary, but rather reveals character better than a Tarot reading. Erin, Age 11 (1998) by Beth Yarnelle Edward, for example, portrays a preteen girl splayed on her bed beneath a colorful and chaotic wall display, a small TV set, and a clock reading 7:50. This ecstatic mess delineates Erin’s mind, the photo implies. (The girl assesses us suspiciously with her left eye.) Corresponding with the rise of photography was the invention of the detective novel. In both genres, obscure visual “clues” reveal hidden truths.

Welcome Home Mike by Edward Coppola (1991) depicts a two-story house with two American flags, and a sign: “Welcome Home Mike.” Clearly a son is returning from war—almost certainly the Persian Gulf War. But just beneath the sign is a plastic jack-o’-lantern—the kind stuffed with autumn leaves—grinning devilishly. What sort of home is Mike being welcomed to?

“Many artists have turned to the idea of photographing ‘home,’ because a lot of people are beginning to realize that life in the latter part of the 20th century, and certainly now into the 21st century, can be a lonely existence,” explains curator Wayne Lempka, who organized the show. Lempka dates the origin of this subject matter to Diane Arbus (1923-1971), whose uncomfortably intimate photographs redefined the artform. Lempka’s emphasis is documentary, on the power of photography to record American history as lived by the unrich and the unfamous.

The Dorsky Museum holds the Center for Photography at Woodstock’s permanent print collection on extended loan. This photographic archive contains over 1,500 images by photographers from around the world. (The current show features only American artists.) Lempka thumbed through the entire collection to organize “Thoughts of Home,” the fourth show at the Dorsky derived from this trove of photos.

“It’s a fun exhibition actually, because you get to look into the worlds of other people—their houses, their possessions—and you don’t feel uncomfortable, because it’s through a photograph. You’re allowed to stare, and point, without feeling guilty,” notes Lempka.

So visit the Dorsky Museum and become a socially sanctioned voyeur!

“Thoughts of Home: Photographs from the Center for Photography at Woodstock Permanent Collection” will be exhibited at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, SUNY New Paltz through March 18. (845) 257-3844.

click to enlarge Edward Coppola, "Welcome Home Mike," gelatin sliver print, 1991
  • Edward Coppola, "Welcome Home Mike," gelatin sliver print, 1991

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