Its unusual for a museum art installation to include a piece of local music history. But there is just such a connection to the N.C. Museum of Arts latest exhibit, Close to Home: A Decade of Acquisitions and its a story that began in a Chapel Hill bathroom nearly 20 years ago.
At that time, local funk-rock band DAG was about to release its debut album for Columbia Records. But band and label still couldnt agree on a cover. As the fall 1994 release date approached, DAGs members met with their manager over dinner at Chapel Hills Pyewacket restaurant.
At a certain point, one of the band members went to the bathroom (reports vary as to who) and spied a photo on the wall above a urinal. Titled Valle Crucis, it was taken by local photographer John Rosenthal in 1979 and showed his young son in the foggy Appalachian landscape identified by the title.
It just felt meant to be, said guitarist Brian Dennis.
When DAGs Righteous album was released that October, Rosenthals photo was the cover.
Overnight, it seemed that I became well-known Chapel Hill photographer John Rosenthal, he said, laughing at the memory and noting that the payoff went beyond the $1,500 he was paid. It was a valuable lesson about where a photographers best exposure can happen.
If youre a young photographer looking for wall space, bathrooms are the best, he said.
Rosenthals photo is one of 29 pieces in part one of Close to Home, which will be up through Feb. 9 (a second installment of 29 works goes on display starting Feb. 16, 2014). Jennifer Dasal, the N.C. Museum of Arts associate curator of contemporary art, assembled the exhibit with an eye toward showing off a wide variety of homegrown art.
I didnt conceive of it thematically, more as an overview of what weve purchased and received the last 10 years, Dasal said. As the states pre-eminent art institution, were always looking to promote the work of artists who live here. So its a nice opportunity to show what were acquiring. This has some old favorites people will know from the last few years, and others that have never seen the light of day before at the NCMA.
Striking pieces in the shows opening batch include Boone sculptor Peter Glenn Oakleys Stack, an iconic marble rendition of disposable styrofoam containers, as well as two elegant and characteristically revealing paintings by Durhams Beverly McIver.
Winston-Salem native Bob Trotmans Girl shows a mannequin-like figure of a teenage female in a mysterious position possibly at the moment of impact after falling from a great height.
I like that one because she seems like the iconic normal 1950s-vintage teenager, Dasal said. Theres this distress and danger that throws you off, because the figure is otherwise prim, proper, clean, neat and tidy.
Also of note is Spruce Pine-based Anne Lemanskis Furadan Feline, a sculpture made of cloth and copper rods. The cloth is fabric worn by Masai tribesmen in Africa, where herdsmen use a pesticide called Furadan to poison lions preying on their livestock. Theyve done this so aggressively that the continents lion population has been almost wiped out, dropping from 200,000 to less than 30,000 over the last two decades.
Cattle is these peoples livelihood, so of course theyll poison lions that are killing it, Lemanski said. Im not pointing fingers, but things that strike a nerve with me are typically what my artwork is about. Making people aware of a situation while trying to remain neutral. Sort of.
Still, Rosenthals album-cover photo has the best backstory in the show. The picture stars Rosenthals son, John Keats Rosenthal, who is now a comedy writer living in New York City where he has a large print of that picture over his fireplace. At the time it was taken, young Rosenthal was 7 years old.
I photographed my son a lot when he was growing up, because I looked at him as a growing creature and part of the vegetative world, the elder Rosenthal said. I wasnt interested in photographing a 7-year-olds social environment, but more as part of a natural landscape.
To that end, Rosenthal awoke early one August 1979 morning to a heavy fog where he and his son were staying in Valle Crucis. Rosenthal dragged young Johnny out of bed, told him to stand on a chair with his back to the camera and began shooting. His son was grumpy about having been awakened, and he assumed a disagreeable posture in most of the shots until his father told him to raise his arms.
That picture has struck a chord in almost everybody who has ever seen it, Rosenthal said. Theres a feeling of such effervescence and life, of beginnings, that just carries it. Because a 7-year-old boy is not only an apt symbol of life itself, he is life itself.
Over the years, Rosenthal took numerous pictures of his son, until he hit his teen years. At that point, Rosenthal felt it was appropriate to stop, and he quit shooting his son except at family occasions. But many of those earlier pictures can still be seen in the American Spaces section of the Photographs link on his website, johnrosenthal.com.
Meanwhile, DAGs Righteous earned some nice attention but was not a national hit, selling a modest 38,000 copies over the years. Its still one of the essential Triangle albums of its era, and few local record collections from the mid-1990s didnt have it (including Rosenthals, although he has never opened his copy).
A few years back, the N.C. Museum of Art was buying another Rosenthal photo, the haunting post-Katrina picture Lower 9th Ward (which is also on display in Close to Home). As a bonus, Rosenthal donated Valle Crucis.
I think its an elusive and irresistible image, Rosenthal said. Those are rare. At first you think its about a child, but you change your mind quickly. That photograph has also been used in advertisements to represent new beginnings, land conservancy, the month of April. Moreover, its a North Carolina photograph. So I made it a gift to the North Carolina Museum of Art.
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat