What do John Menapace’s abstract photographs mean? -intern, Alexandra

Greetings my name is Alexandra Stafford, and I recently concluded my internship with the Gregg Museum of Art & Design at NC State. I wanted to write a little bit about the influential photographer, John Menapace whose work I cataloged during my time at the Gregg. John Menapace was born and raised in Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania. He moved to Durham, NC in 1956 where he lived for the remainder of his life. Menapace became very influential in the field of photography in North Carolina not only through his association with other photographers, but because he worked as a teacher, mentor, and was the Director of Design and Production at Duke University Press.

While interning at the Gregg, I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to work on cleaning, cataloging, and entering Menapace’s photographs into the museum’s database. I was originally attracted to his work because I thought his subject matter was very unusual and divergent. I must admit that at first I couldn’t really understand what Menapace’s aim was in photographing walls, chairs, buildings, roads, etc. until I realized that he wasn’t photographing these structures, but instead he was using these structures to create and explore systems of design. This is what makes John Menapace’s photography truly unique, his ability to capture ordinary structures and landscapes of modern day life and transform those structures and landscapes into masterpieces of thought provoking design.

black and white photograph of a building, c.1975 John Menapace From the estate of the Artist 2012.044.03177

black and white photograph of a building, c.1975
John Menapace
From the estate of the Artist
2012.044.03177

black and white self-portrait, c.1980 John Menapace From the estate of the Artist 2012.044.03191

black and white self-portrait, c.1980
John Menapace
From the estate of the Artist
2012.044.03191

black and white photograph of a staircase, c.1975 John Menapace From the estate of the Artist 2012.044.04309a

black and white photograph of a staircase, c.1975
John Menapace
From the estate of the Artist
2012.044.04309a

What do Menapace’s abstract photographs mean? Are his photographs meant to just be aesthetically pleasing or do they reach a deeper level of understanding? Some may say that Menapace’s photographs say a great deal about reality. By using modern structures as tools to create design, Menapace may be inadvertently saying that reality is unimportant or not as important as design. However, this view is strikingly limited in its negative connotation. As Pablo Picasso once pointed out, “There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.” Art has to start somewhere, what better place to start than to use the reality that we see every day? As we all know reality isn’t all that enjoyable, but Menapace has managed to make it enjoyable, and that is what matters the most. To me the point behind Menapace’s work isn’t that it removes the connection of reality and importance, but that it shifts reality. It shifts it into a more subjective plane, a plane that art has belonged to for quite some time.

-Alexandra Stafford, intern Spring 2014

Note: The images seen here are all from the artist’s bequest to the Gregg Museum’s collection.

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