Winona residents Bailey Ewing and Kathy Palmquist take in Minnesota Marine Art Museum’s new exhibit, “Maarten Platje: The Early History of the U.S. Navy,” which opened earlier this month.
by NATHANIEL NELSON
Near the entrance of the front gallery of the Minnesota Marine Art Museum (MMAM), a hazy, dream-like photograph shows a woman’s face looking up at the heavens, with ash on her head in the shape a cross. To its left, a room filled with crashing waves, battling ships and centuries of history imposes itself across the museum lobby.
This month, the museum is premiering two new shows –– “Sleeping by the Mississippi” by Alec Soth, and “The Early History of the U.S. Navy” by Maarten Platje –– with two entirely different styles and hooks, an intentional juxtaposition to enamor and challenge museum visitors.
“One is traditional and the other contemporary. Some may like one but may not realize they like the other. I don’t expect everyone to like both of them. They will find their niche,” explained Jon Swanson, curator of exhibitions and collections for MMAM.
Soth’s exhibit, featuring 21 of 52 photos from a series titled “Sleeping by the Mississippi,” has been on Swanson’s list for almost a decade, he explained. In 2010, Soth had his first solo exhibition at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minn., and since then, Swanson has been waiting for an opportunity to bring his work to the island city.
“His subjects are so powerful, and they grasp you. After looking at these for a few days, every image in this show has a little hook. It lingers. You can’t process it very quickly,” Swanson said.
The series was created over the course of four years and published in 2004. Soth, a photographer based in Minneapolis, took four seperate road trips down the Mississippi River, touting along a large-format film camera and shooting eight-by-10-inch color negatives.
“That’s kind of an ice breaker, and an attention getter. I think that was his way to meet different kinds of people,” Swanson said. “He’s a very quiet guy, introverted and introspective. However, an art critic who reviewed his work said Alec Soth discovered chemistry with strangers.”
While “Mississippi” is in the title, the series is not necessarily about the river itself, Swanson explained. His work, which straddles contemporary and abstract, depicts everything from preachers to children, prisoners to prostitutes, childhood homes to the riverside. Through all of his work, however, there is a solitary thread –– the dreams of the ordinary.
“The Mississippi River is the backdrop, the area he worked, but it is not the literal subject,” Swanson said, “There are a lot of metaphors and allusions to dreaming, sleep, longing, loneliness, isolation, death, humor, sex, and a little bit of nostalgia. All of his subjects are presented very honorably or nobly; they are not exploited. There’s a dignity and humanity to the subjects he shoots.”
Winona residents Bailey Ewing and Kathy Palmquist were visiting the museum on Tuesday afternoon, taking a look at both exhibitions. Ewing, a photographer herself, explained that Soth’s exhibit spoke more to her in how distinct and human the photographs are.
“I like how raw the photos are, and how they show the good, the bad, and the ugly of each location,” Ewing said. “It makes it more interesting to learn about.”
Swanson explained that Soth’s work takes a minute to really understand –– upon second and third viewings, each work has small details pop out at the viewer. For example, the image titled “Adelyn, Ash Wednesday, New Orleans, Louisiana,” is a portrait of a woman in New Orleans that evokes classical religious iconography.
But that’s not the end of the story.
“She’s presumably from a church service, but as you read and learn who she is, she’s this interesting and kooky street person who drew the cross on her head with a cigarette butt,” Swanson said. “You have to really scratch beneath the veneer to know what’s going on.”
While Soth’s work is abstract and obtuse, Platje’s pieces are anything but. MMAM has had one of the Dutch artist’s works on display since the opening of the museum, “Ariel and Taeping Racing Along the White Cliffs,” which has proven to be one of the most popular pieces in the entire collection.
“If I would ever take that down, I would get complaints,” Swanson joked.
The exhibition, titled “The Early History of the U.S. Navy,” consists of 15 large-scale paintings created by Platje over the last several years. Each work portrays famous 19th-century naval battles and ships, with intricately detailed waves cresting and smashing against photorealistic clippers.
“He’s a painter’s painter. Just technically, putting his paint on canvas, he’s incredible. But what I think is important is the research he does on his subjects in order to create the most accurate rendition of a historic scene,” Swanson said.
Platje grew up in Holland on the sea, Swanson explained, looking out across the waves and watching ships slowly pass by. Both he and his father served in the Royal Netherlands Navy, sailing the same waters, which give him a uniquely personal view on classic naval combat. Of course, experience isn’t everything. For each piece, Platje looks at written accounts, eyewitness reports, captains’ logs, and personal letters to create the most accurate depiction of the scene as physically possible.
“The key to this whole exhibition is these naval battles went entirely different than both sides thought they were going to go,” Swanson said.
Unlike Soth’s, Platje’s work is fairly traditional, using oil on linen to portray massive marine events –– not dissimilar to many of the other works on display at MMAM year-round. However, the juxtaposition of his work with Soth’s was intentional, to give those who may not be into contemporary photography something to enjoy.
“I wanted to have one that was very grounded and traditional,” Swanson said. “For some, that is very accessible –– whether they’re history buffs or navy buffs, they’ll be able to relate to that show.”
Palmquist said she couldn’t choose one exhibit over the other, calling them both “incredible” collections, but she explained that she has always had a place in her heart for marine art, with the crashing waves and staunch attention to detail.
“I’ve always loved marine art, and how [artists] use history and show exactly how the ships were built. It’s also amazing to see a Dutch artist have this much interest in U.S. history,” she explained.
“At first, I thought these were older paintings,” Ewing added. “I think it’s really cool how modern art reflects our history.”
Both Ewing and Palmquist said they enjoyed both exhibits, but noted how different they are from one another, both in terms of subjects and subject matter. However, Swanson noted, there is one similarity –– the two artists are nearly the same age.
“By having two contrasting shows by two artists who are the same age doing their best work, we cast a wider net for broader appeal,” Swanson said. “Both artists are about the same age within a year of each other at the the height of their power, doing their best work.”
“Maarten Platje: The Early History of the U.S. Navy” will be on display through August 18, while “Alec Soth: Sleeping by the Mississippi” will be open to the public through September 1. Tickets for the museum are $7 for adults, $3 for students, and free for children under the age of four. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit www.mmam.org or call 507-474-6626.