SALEM — A photograph has two obvious visual counterparts. It’s like a window, offering a view of a shared external reality. It also can be like a mirror, reflecting a now-shared internal reality. The indwelling splendor of Olivia Parker’s images proclaims their mirror affinity. That splendor is impressively on display in “Order of Imagination: The Photographs of Olivia Parker.” The first retrospective devoted to her work, it runs at the Peabody Essex Museum through Nov. 11.
The show consists of more than a hundred photographs drawn from the nearly half century that Parker, 78, has worked with a camera. At their frequent best, these images are marvelousness made visible. Marvelousness is to be expected when, as here, invention and slyness and seemingly boundless curiosity come together.
Parker, a longtime resident of the North Shore, majored in art history at Wellesley and began as a painter. Mostly self-taught, she had an open mind to go with an open eye. That openness is evident in her using multiple processes over the years, from Polaroid to Photoshop, and a willingness to print her images unconventionally, as with split-toning, which alters the tonalities of an image.
The influence of traditional fine art has been a constant throughout Parker’s career: Dutch still life especially, but also specific artists. In much of her early work, one feels Joseph Cornell hovering as a kind of encouraging grandfatherly presence. The ghostly refinement of “Miss Appleton’s Shoes II,” from 1975, would have elicited from him a gasp of tiny-voiced pleasure. “Evidence,” 1977, has the paradoxical appearance of an austere Georgia O’Keeffe. Displaying Parker’s antic side, “Victoria P.,” 1976, juxtaposes a portrait of Queen Victoria with a pear. (Parker is quite partial to pears — shells, too — and the natural world generally.) In its stolid absurdity, the photograph recalls one of Terry Gilliam’s “Monty Python” illustrations.
The show’s great comic moment comes with “Dream Machine,” from 1994. Four doughnuts sit on a conveyor belt, and if Homer Simpson didn’t have a favorite photographer before, he sure does now. It’s also an example of Parker’s delight in the incongruous — and, what enables that incongruity, layering.
A photograph like “Child,” 1980, shows Parker coming into her own. The elements of the image are straightforward enough: A bluish tintype from the mid-19th century has two very large pink blossoms superimposed on it. So there’s a bit of art history with a bit of the natural world — layered, of course. Yet the result is its own one-of-a-kind thing: lush, textured, inscrutable, borderline eerie. The photograph looks slightly mystical, yet feels so matter of fact — or maybe that should be the other way around. Wherever the emphasis lies, it’s a recurrent duality.
What may be most painterly about Parker’s work is how a richness of the world seen within the frame testifies to the vastly greater richness of the world beyond it. “So much can be said in a very small space,” she says, and that wouldn’t be a bad title for a catalogue raisonné of Parker’s work.
Again and again one finds an organization of objects and materials and light without the superimposing of an organization of meaning. There’s a special aesthetic excitement in this collision between an overdetermination of the one and absence of the other. The fundamental mysticism of her work may spring from that collision. Imagination takes precedence over perception, and perhaps the title of “The Edge of Reason,” 1987, would work better for that catalogue raisonné.
The early photographs are in black and white and smallish. Starting in the ’80s, the pictures get bigger and Parker turns to color. The vision gets more ambitious. Fecundity and lusciousness become the rule, even as Parker happily breaks rules. “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” Blake famously declared. So many of these images could have been taken in just such palatial chambers.
In the visual arts, there are parers-away and adders-in. For all that Parker loves pears, paring is definitely not her thing. The evidence for that can be seen throughout the show. Three short videos give a useful sense of her working methods. She’s a bit of a hoarder — “Thank goodness for flat files,” she says — and the photographs are the beneficiary. In a very nice touch, curator Sarah Kennel has included a giddily eclectic selection of objects that Parker has scavenged over the years. They’re displayed on a dozen trays, served up for the viewer’s inspection. These gatherings are called “Catalysts,” which seems a bit much. That’s OK, since they’re such fun to look at and linger over.
The final section of the show is at once the least characteristic and most personal. “Vanishing in Plain Sight” is an attempt to deal with Parker’s late husband’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease. A selection of images was shown at Lesley University last spring. Large color photographs show items from his daily activities or their life together (a ball of rubber bands, a honeymoon itinerary). Many are slightly blurry and/or fantastical looking, though the fantasticality is of a heartbreakingly different order from that found elsewhere in “Order of Imagination.” The series is driven by concept (and emotion), not intuition — and intuition distinguishes so much of Parker’s best work. Here an occlusion of meaning becomes a subversion of seeing.
“A Lasting Memento: John Thomson’s Photographs Along the River Min,” which runs at the Peabody Essex through May 17, documents an external reality so distant in space and time — southern China in the 1870s — as to seem almost imaginary: windows masquerading as mirrors.
Thomson (1837-1921) was a Scotsman who went to Asia to make a name for himself. The nearly 70 photographs in “A Lasting Memento” come from an album he put together, “Foochow and the River Min.” The Peabody Essex owns two of the 10 surviving copies. The show includes one. A magnificent object, it bespeaks the mightiness of the past and heft of memory.
The photographs reflect related, and sometimes opposed, qualities: curiosity, respect, sometimes incomprehension, though never disdain. That said, Thomson’s was an imperial enterprise. Photographs of the city’s “Western Quarter” and Arsenal testify to that, as does an emphasis on otherness. Fantasticality, albeit of a different sort, is something “Memento” has in common with the Parker show. One encounters lepers, monks, tea pickers, fishermen using cormorants. “The Island Pagoda” is a study in strangeness, the structure seeming to emerge from the Min, and an adjacent tree seeming to emerge from the structure.
Accompanying the show is a seven-minute video and 10 photographs from the contemporary Chinese artist Luo Dan. He use the same wet-plate collodion process as Thomson and photographs in the same area. Luo’s idea is, in effect, to seem to visually step out of time. He succeeds. It’s another version of fantasticality: a mirror of a window.
ORDER OF IMAGINATION: The Photographs of Olivia Parker
A LASTING MEMENTO: John Thomson’s Photographs Along the River Min
At Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem, through Nov. 11 and May 17, respectively. 978-745-9500, www.pem.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.