"Concurrence: An Evolving India," photography by David H. Wells through June 28 at Gallery Saintonge in downtown Missoula; Wednesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-
5:30 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Marshal McLuhan, once wrote that "We look at the present through a rearview mirror. We march backwards into the future."
That thought was running through my head as I walked through the exhibit "Concurrence: An Evolving India" up now at Gallery Saintonge in downtown Missoula. If McLuhan could come back to see this show, the '60s guru of the media age (who also is credited with coining the term "global village") would most certainly say "I told you so."
Award-winning photographer David H. Wells, whose home base is Providence, R.I., has created a colorful, profound, juxtaposing, intertwining exhibition of photographs, depicting a world that is both futuristic and ancient - side by side and evolving before your eyes; one that is marching backwards into the future.
Many of the images are in fact shaped like a "rearview mirror" in that they are long rectangles. Most are presented in the form of diptychs or triptychs (which means that you are seeing either two or three prints placed very intentionally side by side in such a way that, when viewed together, they are aesthetically one picture).
This form of presentation dates back to the earliest days of Christian Icon art, when religious images were painted onto panels that were then latched together, and could be folded for easy transport.
The images in Wells' show are icons as well. The photographs capture a crack in time, where people on the subcontinent of India are both moving rapidly forward into the super-connectivity of the modern world, while simultaneously living their ancient ways.
We see an image of a huge satellite dish "nestled" next to a house that it dwarfs, shown next to an image of a line of people carrying baskets on their heads while walking a precarious plank. The baskets, silhouetted in the setting sun, echo the shape of the satellite dish. We see giant wind towers on a hill behind an ancient set of buildings. A temple in the desert.
Given the somewhat small format of the prints (some so deep in color, you might imagine that you could press your finger into them all the way through to a different dimension), I felt that I was actually looking into McLuhan's rearview mirror.
What he meant by that quote was that, as we create more and more technological "netting," and become nearly electronic in our every action, even in our beings, we simultaneously reach into our pasts and pull back to us the materials and technologies that worked.
We reach for rock, wood, glass and anything that must be retrieved before we blast 100 percent into the future. If ever there were a visual tour of this tendency, it would be "Concurrence" by Wells. And Wells takes this concept, whether consciously or unconsciously, far past itself creating an art that is almost physically impactive, whether you have been to India or not.
Incidentally, it is not so much that the images are juxtaposing their "partners" in the frame, and certainly this does not happen in each case. Many couplings are parallel, others harmonious, and still others stand alone. It is the jutting up of the brash new world next to an ancient culture that is the meaningful juxtaposition to look for.
One such parallel triptych is my favorite. In it, all three prints are of traditionally dressed Indian women shot in front of huge billboards covered with very Western looking women selling products. It is familiar targeted imagery, with a slight Indian twist.
This image touches my heart. If girls in this country are forming terrible body images from the touched up "perfect" bodies in our advertising, what is the same kind of advertising doing to these women and their girls?
In two of the prints of this triptych, the women, much more beautiful to my eye than the scantily dressed, coquettish women portrayed behind them, are clearly averting their eyes from the garish billboards that they must pass in order to get to their daily rounds.
In the third, a huge bottle of bright-pink Johnson's baby lotion (perhaps one of the first images all of us saw when we were babies, as well), looms in front of a veiled woman holding a very healthy-looking child. The outsize bottle on the billboard seems to minimize the figures, just as perhaps this mother's own lotions and baby oils have been minimized by such an advertising campaign. Excellent, touching image. Unforgettable.
Don't miss the diptych that portrays - on the left - a man sifting rice, caught in a motion blur that is dancer-like, standing over, and with one foot into, a massive, perfectly focused, thus still, mountain of rice.
On the right we look through the jagged edges of a concrete wall that has inexplicably been knocked out, as if with a sledgehammer (to allow for more air?). Inside is a woman sitting, in an ornately, traditionally designed plastic chair, at a desk working on a laptop. Next to her is a large "old school" desktop computer, and lying near the keyboard is a brightly covered orange book (a child's?) that reads, "Lake of the Sharks."
I can't help but think, that yes, that is a good title for the world into which these people are headed - and we right along with them. Personally, I am grateful for the rich past that this amazing country is bringing with it to the global village picnic.
David H. Wells has spent 13 years in Southeast Asia, on two Fulbrights and an Alicia Patterson Fellowship. He knows his subject and his sharing it with Montanans in this show (his second at Saintonge) demonstrates a generosity that is as deep as his work.
Simone Ellis is an art critic for the Entertainer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.