Art documentaries, like comedies, are hard to review because their success or failure always seems self-evident.
That An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell (★★★) succeeds is more easily evidenced by her images than my words. Purcell photographs objects in various stages of decay (or preservation), salvaging treasures from junkyards and extracting artifacts from dusty filing cabinets of museums that sometimes neglect even if they never discard.
Beyond presenting an artist’s work, an art documentary often strives to mediate or explain it. Director Molly Bernstein does an admirable job of soliciting and editing ruminations and appreciations of Purcell’s work, but the analysis is on a tier below the art itself. That’s not because it’s wrong but because part of the allure of Purcell’s work is that it doesn’t necessarily need explanation. This isn’t Michael Kimmelman explaining abstract modernism in My Kid Could Paint That. The photography is visually striking but not conceptually difficult. Purcell herself offers a fairly literal interpretation of the decaying books. She says, simply, that she is drawn to things that are not as tehy are supposed to be.
The same quibble could be made of the analysis from her collaborators and admirers. Ricky Jay explains the meaning of decaying dice before we even get a chance to process Purcell’s images of them. Errol Morris brings a bit more enthusiasm than formal analysis. Stephen Jay Gould has already provided textual accompaniments to some of Purcell’s photographs in Finders Keepers: Eight Collectors.
Actually the third example might not be fair, since Gould partners with Purcell to create a work; his words are not simply explanations of her images.
Even so, the film doesn’t quite trust the audience to the degree of, say Gerhard Richter – Painting or Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow. Maybe that’s not a bad thing; I expect most non-professionals will require more hand-holding when approaching art for the first time.
I am not going to go all the way with Archibald MacLeish (“a poem should not mean / But be”). After all, I do interpret art for a living. But I would have liked a little more room to receive and process the photos before turning to interpretation. The biographical and psychological influences are interesting — the reason Purcell says she was drawn to natural history museums is telling — but not necessary.
Yet despite the labored quality of the presentation, the film never strays far from Purcell’s work, and it is generous in sharing that with us. The last thirty minutes is the most successful as we even get a glimpse of the artist in process, along with an explanation of her evolving techniques. If I had the film on DVD, I would be seriously tempted to play it through once with no sound, just savoring the images, and then go back and listen to the commentary.
An Art That Nature Makes gets a New York release in August, followed by a stint in Los Angeles in September. After that — or if you don’t live in those two cities — you will probably have to seek it out on streaming media or DVD.
But do. It’s worth it.