A William Eggleston Retrospective on Tropical Soil
Report from Brazil
William Eggleston: American Color at Instituto Moreira Salles
March 14 to June 28, 2015
Rua Marquês de São Vicente, 476
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, +55 21 3284 7400
The only English-language review that I can find of William Eggleston’s retrospective at Instituto Moreira Salles (IMS) in Rio de Janeiro, has the title “What’s William Eggleston’s Doing in Brazil?” Despite the explicit surprise and no other mention throughout the American press, the retrospective, which went through the end of June, was a notable survey of Eggleston’s early work. “William Eggleston: American Color” was also the artist’s most ample recent retrospective in all the Americas — the last major one happened at the Whitney Museum, in 2009.
It was no wonder for Brazilians that IMS could stage such a great exhibition; the non-profit has a fundamental role in supporting arts and culture in Brazil. In Rio, IMS settled in the former residence of the Moreira Salles family, a large remodeled Modernist property in Gávea, wrapped in ornamental brise soleils, and with a landscape designed by Roberto Burle Marx. That atmosphere mingled perfectly with Eggleston’s works. It was like traveling in a time capsule that could combine and contrast the glamorous life of the 1950s in Rio with American landscapes and people of a few decades later. Besides the Modernist atmosphere, the show’s exhibition design borrowed creative solutions — such as special supports and curtains — from objects that Eggleston photographed. “We wanted to use those colors and materials, which were so new at the time when Eggleston captured them — those bright plastics, neon lights, Wal-Mart-like, industrialized, furniture,” curator Thyago Nogueira explained.
When Nogueira took over IMS’s contemporary photography department, Eggleston’s was the first name that came to his mind. “Brazilian enthusiasts were familiar with Eggleston’s most famous images, but we wanted to add more of his work to their repertory,” said Nogueira. And he did: the show’s five galleries were fully taken by 172 photographs from the first three decades of the artist’s career. Though many of these early works had been shown before in the US, the Brazilian retrospective brought the entire Los Alamos series and works rarely seen.
The first room included around 40 photographs from the Los Alamos series, and four early black-and-white works. In this room, visitors encountered some of Eggleston’s most famous images, such the redheaded boy leaning over a supermarket cart. In a second room, there were exhibition catalogues in display cases and one of Eggleston’s original portfolios, Troubled Waters (1980), a popular format among collectors of that time. In the third, main room of the exhibition, visitors followed Eggleston’s shift of subjects, when he photographed his family and friends and started using dye-transfer, a sophisticated advertising technique, to have control over each color.
One of the show’s highlights was encountering, in the fourth room, Eggleston’s large-format portraits, taken in 1970s and printed in 2000; most of them were shot at hangouts and bars. These works were accompanied by Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton (1973/2008), a film that depicts a fictional country invented by him and his friends, where “you can smoke marijuana, hang out naked and never need a passport.” I was so overwhelmed by seeing selfies all over social media that finding those portraits was soothing to my eyes: I took time looking at ordinary things like teeth, pores, pupils, hair. It was as if those people could get together with us. They gave me room to imagine my own stories about them: a rock-band singer, with his hairy chest and opened leather vest, stoned eyes, hypnotized by a prophetic song. Or a pizza-delivery boy, who found time to make a pose, with his naïve smile and broken tooth, happily gazing at me.
When I moved to the US, years ago, I had the feeling I was in a movie. Thanksgiving turkey, baseball and Rocky Balboa seemed distant fabrications on screens, but the moment I stepped on American soil they became magically real and a little less stereotyped. For most Brazilians though, that change won’t happen; a compacted, fanciful, American society will continue to dwell in their minds, given the extreme and continuous exposure to the American culture. Although my Brazilian eyes loved the fictional exercise of looking at Eggleston’s works, the recent shooting in Charleston and the polemics about the Confederate battle flag kept drumming on my head. Through Eggleston’s images I was looking at the crossroads between two eras, the Old and the New South, full of expectations, but inhabited by a racial conundrum that, to this day, hasn’t come to an end.
This reality came to my mind when I saw Untitled (from the portfolio Troubled Waters) in which beautiful black children are barefoot, walking on a field in Eggleston’s relatives’ cotton farm, under a bright blue sky. They wear yellow and blue outfits, the older girl in pigtails; they all look straight at the camera, curious and a bit wary. Then later, in Untitled (Sumner, Mississippi, Cassidy Bayou in Background) (1971), a white car and two men stand over a carpet made of autumn leaves. The white man wears black suit and a striped tie; he has his back to the black man, who wears a white jacket. Their postures are alike, they have both hands in their pockets, and both avoid Eggleston’s eyes, staring at the same unknown event. There is a third man barely seen in the car, with his hands on the wheel, his door is open, as if he would get out. The relationship between the standing men is not clear, but their similar stare and pose suggest they are bound to each other. The same tension is within the children’s gaze and gets spread throughout Eggleston’s works. He keeps the puzzle incomplete, the mystery unsolved. That’s why an ambiguity between fiction and non-fiction, between desolation and enchantment by the South just lingered in my mind; I kept feeling a bit of both.
For Brazil’s photography enthusiasts, having Eggleston’s first retrospective in the country was matter of honor. But one of the most important accomplishments of this show was that of offering Brazilian visitors a “guide” in redefining our sight and the way we make images. We are becoming tamed by an online culture of self-curated pictures, but all that these images have to say is “I’ve been here and I’ve done this.” That eagerness to empower ourselves through images doesn’t mean we are able to read and understand all of them. Eggleston took pictures because he was bound to what he had seen, bound, but not imprisoned. He gave space to what was outside of him and it’s within that space that we plunge to connect with his work. If in the past he raised color and an amateur style to the status of art, today we look for him again in hope of finding some mystery, some crookedness, uncertainties among our self-controlled realities. I guess that was what William Eggleston was doing in Brazil.
Instituto Moreira Salles and its magazine, ZUM, have compiled numerous articles and other online content on the retrospective, including a nine-minute interview with Eggleston and Nogueira, available here: http://revistazum.com.br/we/