William Eggleston: 21st Century and Diane Arbus: In the Absence of Others at Cheim & Read
January 7 – February 13
547 W. 25th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212 242 7727
Concurrent shows at Cheim & Read of photographs by William Eggleston and Diane Arbus presented new and rarely-seen work, respectively, by two critical pioneers of the medium. Created roughly in the first decade of this millennium, Eggleston’s photographs continue to invigorate the banal and the unseen by way of meticulous attention to detail, form, and vibrant surges of color. The selection of photographs by Arbus, on the other hand, retain the artist’s fascination with the out-of-the-ordinary, the freakish, except here applied to vacant landscapes which are as quietly unsettling as her portraits.
William Eggleston’s photography stems from the snapshot, the idea that what we see is transient and evershifting. Yet, as has always been the case with Eggleston, such an attitude is at odds with the artist’s acute vision and observation evidenced in purposeful compositions that convey both intimacy and fragmentation. While he is largely known for his pictures of middle class families of the American rural South, this new body of work expands Eggleston’s practice to an international context. Works such as Untitled (Water on Dirt Road, Las Pozas, Mexico) (2005) “document” the most mundane details of the world around us with few, if any, signifiers that place us in a particular locale. With their jolting, unique perspectives and brilliant color, however, they become small moments of revelation. Typically with Eggleston’s oeuvre, something dark and macabre lurks behind his lush color saturation. Untitled (Lamplighter Kitchen, Memphis) (2000) frames a small, squalid kitchen crowded with white bread, mustard, and utensils, electrical wires and metal boxes circling the walls, the colors muted but garish in the washed-out light. The straightforward, controlled honesty with which Eggleston renders this and other pictures, stripping the subjects of every conceit, barely hides the threat of evil looming beneath the surface. We are left to our own conclusions about who or what these photographs indirectly portray, based on the implications of the details. These new works are even more fragmented and isolated than vintage Eggleston. Refreshingly, they are less concerned with representing the symbols of a cultural landscape, and slightly more focused on the beauty and possibilities of form.
Eggleston and Arbus were introduced to one another by John Szarkowski, legendary former director of the department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, who showed both artists along with Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander in the 1967 exhibiton, New Document. The artists occupied a critical moment in photography, rebelling against the tradition and conventions of the gelatin silver print to embrace the “documentary style” of the new generation, as a way to further close the gap between art and life. They promoted the shared view that no subject is uninteresting when captured a compelling way.
According to Susan Sontag, “In the world colonized by Arbus, subjects are always revealing themselves. There is no decisive moment. Arbus’s view that self-revelation is a continuous, evenly distributed process is another way of maintaining the Whitmanesque imperative: treat all moments as of equal consequence.” (On Photography, 1977). Along these lines, the photographs shown at Cheim & Read slowly unravelled their subjects, begging a second look, and then a third. Arbus applied the same idiosyncratic interest she found in her human subjects, seeking out sites that project a disturbingly private kind of loneliness—even humor—through their eccentricities and kitsch. It’s the Arbus freakshow as applied to landscape, an approach that, for the artist, has always bordered on exoticism.
Christ in a lobby, NYC (1966) shows a large close-up of Christ’s face against a marble wall, and another, similar but smaller image just off to the left that seems to float, transparently. This juxtaposition, like many of the other locales in the show, is both surprising and off-putting, injecting a semblance of mysticism into an otherwise ordinary room. Other works, like An empty movie theater, NYC (1971) and Rocks on wheels, Disneyland, CA (1962) also convey an eerily ephemeral, surreal quality, yet still feel intimate despite the lack of people. Subsequently, much like Eggleston, a compelling poignancy come from their humanity—while there are no people portrayed, their presence can be felt, their traces are in fact visible.