Bea Nettles – Harvest of Memory

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Review by Gerhard Clausing •

In our age of ubiquitous selfies and “mixed media” it is refreshing to review the work of an artist who is truly a pioneer in the area of visual self-evaluation with artistic purposes. With a strong background in painting, a fearless approach to self-assessment, and a love for language, Bea Nettles is a shining example for effectively integrating photography, especially alternative processes, with other modes of visual and verbal expression.

Bea Nettles practices life as a shared autobiographical metaphor, as expressed in these quotes:

“I see my career as a spiral with my ideas always circling and picking up reflections of earlier thoughts.” – Bea Nettles, 1990

“There are parallels to making art and tending one’s garden … an image or an idea can be split up, shared, and even better yet, transplanted into someone else’s garden.” – Bea Nettles, 2011

This photobook presents a retrospective of her work spanning the past half century, and at the same time it is a catalog for the exhibitions of her work currently in progress, as noted below. Most noteworthy are a number of works and books that foreshadow some of the current trends and fashionable approaches. In this respect Nettles joins other forerunners that were pioneers in using media and methods from earlier times to reach audiences with their art, such diverse luminaries as William Mortensen and Jerry Uelsmann, to name just two examples of artists who in different ways were ahead of their time in their mastery of juxtaposition and in the use of fine art image compositions that went beyond customary expectations.

I can only provide a quick overview in a brief exposé like this, so I will select some examples of Bea Nettles’ work, also illustrated in the double-page views below, representing a veritable model of successful externalization of an inner world. Very modern in its approach is the “Self Totem” image of 1968, a pre-digital composite. The use of alternative photographic processes to convey moods and ideas are shown here by “Imaginary Prairie” (1969), photo composite etchings on muslin; “Mountain Dream” – a tarot card approach (1975); visions of childhood expressed in gum bichromate prints of landscapes (1976).

Moving closer to the present, there are series that hit other core issues: “Flamingo in the Dark” series (1980); “Landscapes of Innocence” (1985); “Carved Heart” – silver gelatin prints with applied color and stitching (1997). In a more recent project, we see the use of words found on gravestone markers to create poetic visualizations (2015). It should be noted that Nettles published many books over the years that are a tribute to her acumen and daring regarding both format and content.

The essays in part 1 of the book shed light on the artist’s work as well as the various contexts and issues. Bea Nettles’ career is an excellent example of a working mother who has been successful in all arenas. The beauty of the dreamlike and often somber moods shown in the images are well printed in the book; lucky are those who can make it to one of the exhibitions, in progress or upcoming: George Eastman Museum, Rochester, New York – now through June 14, 2020; Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois – August 27 to November 28, 2020.

Highly recommended!

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Bea Nettles – Harvest of Memory

Photographer and Artist: Bea Nettles (born in Gainesville, Florida; resides in Urbana, Illinois)

Publisher: University of Texas Press, Austin, TX; © 2019 by George Eastman Museum

Editors: Jamie M. Allen and Olivia Lahs-Gonzales

Texts: Essays by the editors and by Bea Nettles and Amy L. Powell

Language: English

Hardback with illustrated dust jacket and sewn binding; 272 pages, paginated, with 296 images, a chronology, and a bibliography; 11 x 9.75 inches; printed in Germany by Dr. Cantz’sche Druckerei Medien GmbH

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