Dutch Treat: Another View of “Dutch Seen”
When guest curator Kathy Ryan hosted a panel discussion about a new show of Dutch photography at the Museum of the City of New York, she posed the question: "Why are so many of the world's best photographers Dutch?"
Ryan, photo editor of The New York Times Magazine, didn't come up with glib answers, but her show encapsulates all that is best in Dutch photography. The 13 photographers in the museum's Dutch Seen, New York Rediscovered were challenged to present a contemporary portrait of New York City. The show is supposed to be yet another commemoration of Henry Hudson's second voyage to America in 1609 and the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam. But to maintain a perspective, keep in mind that history books tell us that Hudson's navigational skills were highly overrated, equal only to his leadership, which was so abysmal that both he and his son John along with some crew members were abandoned in a small boat in Hudson Bay and never seen again. That happened on Hudson's English-sponsored fourth voyage in search of a Northwest Passage. It ended in the mutiny that led to his demise. As for New Amsterdam, it became the main trading post on Manhattan in 1625. Then as now, the city was all about commerce and capitalism.
Among the 13 contemporary photographers in the show at the Museum of the City of New York, Jan Scheeren (b. 1979) reminds viewers that the fur trade played a major role in Dutch prosperity in the New World. Scheeren's most whimsical photograph depicts three people, their backs facing us, shrouded in several layers of fur coats, a reminder that the photographer did his homework and understood the historic importance of fur to the Dutch traders. A rare document from the Dutch archives lists the 1626 cargo of a ship arriving in Amsterdam that sailed from "New Netherland" with a bounty of 7,246 beaver skins, 678 Otter skins, 48 mink skins among other pelts. In Scheeren's photograph, the furried figures appear to be perched at a ship's railing facing the skyline of New York. Another impish and witty Scheeren photo is of a beaver nibbling on a log. (Supposedly, the stuffed animal was purchased on EBay.)
Recalling the scene that Hudson and his crew may have seen when they landed at what we now call Sandy Hook at the entrance of New York Harbor, Misha de Ridder (b.1971) captured a monumental view of sand, sky, and a rainbow in Godyn's Punt (above). Writing in the catalogue, De Ridder says that in his landscapes in this show he wanted to capture an "untamed and lush feeling of paradise a sense of seeing another time, another world." His work evokes the pristine wilderness that may have captivated (or terrified) the earliest Dutch settlers.
While some images recall the streetscapes of Helen Levitt, especially those of Morad Bouchakour (b.1965) who wandered the city from Park Avenue to Harlem and the Bronx, the most arresting are Wijnanda Deroo's (b.1955) images of coffee shops, snack bars, eateries in East Harlem as well as more upscale locales like Tavern on the Green.
No people are in these photos, but that doesn't distract from their impact. Like a Hopper painting, they are narratives of where New Yorkers spend a lot of time and there is more food for thought than is at first apparent.
But the most Dutch-inspired works are the large formal portraits of Hendrik Kerstens (b.1956). His daughter Paola has been his muse throughout his career and the signature work in the show is a portrait of his daughter reminiscent of Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring. These are staged portraits that echo the work of Dutch masters, but always with a twist. A highlight of the show is a portrait of Paola, dressed in black period costume complete with a with a blue baseball cap with a Yankee logo. In another, her hat is a plastic bag, shaped like a Dutch cap. In the most intriguing portrait, she wears a folded white napking covering her hair, similar to the one in Vermeer's The Kitchen Maid. Kerstens's portraiture as in the other conceptual and cultural images, interpret the city through a distinctive Dutch lens. It's almost, as Museum Director Susan Henshaw Jones has said, " as if Dutch explorers have come back to follow up on their experiment of 400 years ago, to report how it all turned out."
Dutch Seen: New York Rediscovered is on view until September 13, 2009 at The Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue (at 103rd Street), New York City.