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Art: Stephen Wilkes' evocative photographs of Ellis Island at James A. Michener Art Museum

Ellis Island figures in so many American family histories that any artist who addresses the last century's great wave of European immigration plugs into a ready-made constituency.

"Isolation Ward, Curved Corridor, Island 3, Ellis Island," is one of the 28 images on view at the Michener, made by Stephen Wilkes between 1998 and 2003, long after the facility had closed.
"Isolation Ward, Curved Corridor, Island 3, Ellis Island," is one of the 28 images on view at the Michener, made by Stephen Wilkes between 1998 and 2003, long after the facility had closed.Read more

Ellis Island figures in so many American family histories that any artist who addresses the last century's great wave of European immigration plugs into a ready-made constituency.

So it is with the 28 striking color images, now on display at Doylestown's Michener Art Museum, that New York photographer Stephen Wilkes made at the immigrant gateway between 1998 and 2003.

Wilkes worked not in the vast arrivals hall where the intrepid newcomers were processed but in the sprawling 29-building hospital complex. Here passengers who were either ill or pregnant were cared for until they healed, gave birth, or, in a tiny fraction of cases, died or were denied entry into the country and sent home.

Ellis Island closed in 1954, so by the time Wilkes arrived 44 years later the hospital buildings were in an advanced state of decrepitude. (Most have since been stabilized, to prevent further deterioration.)

Wilkes says he was struck so powerfully by the spirit of the place that he became obsessed, returning many times over five years to enrich his portfolio. Rather than being depressed by the physical decay, he was inspired by a residual spirit of humanity: "Mainly, I saw life."

The scenes he captured are of a type that will be familiar to anyone who has visited Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary - empty rooms, peeling paint, drifts of dead leaves, vines insinuating themselves everywhere.

Occasional resonant artifacts such as shoes and an abandoned suitcase humanize these melancholy interiors; the most poignant image, though, is a reflection of the Statue of Liberty in a mirror.

Yet objects and symbols energize Wilkes' pictures less than the mellow, honey-colored light that floods many views. He photographed only with available light, which intensifies the romantic aura of the hospital complex that so enchanted him.

These lush, large-format prints function as canvases onto which viewers can project meditations about what their own forebears might have experienced.

Did they walk these deserted corridors, did they know firsthand the tuberculosis, measles, or isolation wards, could they see the Statue of Liberty from their window, were they consumed by anxiety about whether they would escape the hospital into America proper?

By contrast, Lewis Hine's black-and-white photographs made during Ellis Island's heyday, from 1905 to the mid-1920s, show a more benign, even hopeful immigrant situation.

The Michener has placed 15 of these documentary photos at the core of the exhibition, separate from Wilkes' pictures, which wrap around them in counterpoint.

A prominent social activist remembered for photographing blue-collar workers and egregiously exploited child laborers, Hine introduces us to immigrants such as an "Italian Madonna" whose child gazes at her beatifically.

The "Madonna" and a portrait of a soulful Armenian Jew typify Hine's tendency to gild reality with a softening glaze of sentimentality. Instead of the tumult and bureaucratic bustle of Ellis Island, Hine shows us individuals apparently chosen as exotic, representative types.

"Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom" is a curatorial construct that juxtaposes "then" against "now." Yet the pairing works because each photographer has created a historical document about the renewal of lives and the importance of remembrance.

Rites of passage. Immigrants typically undergo an identity transformation, from what they are when they arrive to what they will become after assimilation.

Roxana Pérez-Méndez was born in Boston to Puerto Rican parents, so she isn't an immigrant but rather, on both grounds, a U.S. citizen. Yet because this Philadelphian grew up shuttling between Puerto Rico and the mainland, and because most of her family lives there, she identifies intimately with the island's culture.

The title of her show in the Morris Gallery at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts proclaims "Este Es Mi Pais" - "This Is My Country," and without saying so explicitly, the exhibition suggests that it's Puerto Rico. Yet it also implies that Pérez-Méndez, born in 1976 and a graduate of Tyler School of Art, is still navigating the transit from island to mainland.

The puzzle of identity - including how others see you - can become complicated, perhaps in some cases unresolvable. Add to that the emotional trauma of displacement and you have a rich source of inspiration for art.

Pérez-Méndez is a multimedia and performance artist for whom video and an illusionist technique called Pepper's Ghost hologram are primary tools.

(Developed in the 19th century for theatrical performances, Pepper's Ghost uses an angled two-way mirror that creates the illusion of objects disappearing, appearing out of nowhere, or merging with other objects.)

Some pieces in the show employ video projections, either as hologram illusions within a static environment or as self-contained works.

The exhibition's most beautiful and compelling image, a video called Bautizo (Baptism), also summarizes its theme: initiation into a new state of being. In it, the artist, in a flowing white gown, stands under the torrent of a forest waterfall.

The water flows in a thin sheet, but its force and volume is such that it causes Pérez-Méndez to steel herself visibly. We can see her tremble, especially her face, as she struggles against the unceasing cascade.

The metaphor, of someone trying to absorb the trials and vicissitudes of acculturation, seems obvious; the image represents a hard-earned equilibrium between submission and fortitude.

The artist also plays roles in several of the hologram pieces, in which an image of her in motion becomes integrated with a setting.

In Selva, she's a prelapsarian sylph in a dense jungle (staged in a terrarium) who drinks from a woodland pool.

Nearby, a folkish portrait of a Taino Indian woman by Bucks County artist Frederick W. Härer, one of several paintings from the academy's collection that the artist included in the show, creates a contrast between a Western concept of "the other" with Pérez-Méndez's more personal version.

A piece similar to Selva, called Boricua, presents the artist as a shy Taino Indian woman carrying a food-gathering basket who runs away after being "frightened" by the viewer. She quickly returns as a cloned cohort of herself making threatening gestures and grimaces.

The hologram device is inspired because it combines images in a way that preserves the separate identity of each component. The characters the artist acts out are simultaneously in the present and in history, but never firmly anchored in either.

Art: Immigrant Ghosts