The inaugural exhibition of three contemporary photographers at Marfa Contemporary, in Texas, is a success for a number of reasons. Firstly, the architecture of the new gallery is aesthetically in sync with its surroundings. Thus, the interior space, designed by Oklahoma City-based architect Rand Elliott, adheres to the architectural makeup of Marfa, showcasing cracks and bare brick in a way that adds texture and substance to what otherwise may have emerged as the sterile setting, so often favored by chic east coast galleries. Here in the southwest, we dance to a different tune.
Left: Architect, Rand Elliot-designed interior gallery walls at Marfa Contemporary, Marfa Texas. Courtesy, Dr. Natalie Maria Roncone. artes fine ars magazine
Accordingly, Elliott has adhered to the minimalist code of ethics, made famous in Marfa, by artist and critic Donald Judd, showcasing a delightful Dan Flavinesque tubular blue lighting installation, serving as a canopy in the alcove entrance to the space. In addition, one finds that this gallery shares a location with the Pizza Foundation, adding yet another layer to the multi-faceted, innovative space: pizza being the American cultural equalizer for the class system. Yet, more importantly than the considerable achievements in design and location, the photographers on show are a revelation: they succeed as a collective, bringing middle-America to the fore in an art world that has always been dominated by the east and west coasts.
Several key works in the show blur the boundaries between photography and painting. Perhaps rather ironically, given the medium of photography, there are elements in Allison Smith’s work that appeal to the Abstract Expressionists—points where reality, representation and abstraction rub shoulders. One work, That Road between Marfa and Valentine is positioned with such curatorial panache (by curator, Julie Maguire), that it extends the narrative and creates an experience beyond the confines of the picture frame, transporting one beyond the illustrative into the realms of the studio space. Just as author, Graham Greene created a distinctive mood of place that critics called “Greeneland”, Smith has captured the feeling familiar to most humans—the triste embedded in existence, in our intimate knowledge of the solitude of the self, geographically situated in the vast terrain of the southwest.
Left: On exhibit- Allison V. Smith: (left) That Road Between Marfa and Valentine, 2011, chromogenic color photograph, 40×40” (right, above) Wildcat, 2007 (right, bottom) DQ/General Dollar, 2005. Courtesy of Barry Whistler Gallery, Dallas, Texas.
Two other photographs by Smith, Locker Plant and DQ/Dollar General from 2004 and 2005 resonate in the work of Edward Hopper, with their echoes of deadly silence, haunting ambiguity, irony, symbolic decoding and metaphysical light. In both prints there is that sense of solitude, alienation, loneliness and psychological tension—an integral part of the American character. The landscapes stir not just color but sensual content, with effects that are painterly rather than digital. The loneliness of recurrent tense exteriors, the film-noir quality and the perspective of the complexity of light is clear and consistent and a revelation for Smith’s oeuvre. Yet like Hopper, Smith’s photographs emit the sense of self as different and apart, feelings not limited to Americans.
One certainly gets the feeling that Smith’s photographs are about something; not only studies in mass and light expressed through the idiom of American landscape. Thus, Smith’s images often propose a dichotomy within the medium where fine detail punctiliously appears simultaneously with erased detail, a kind of painterly reductio. Smith leaves it to the viewer to construct a meaning or story, but so situational are the photographs, that it is almost impossible to avoid interpretation and narrative explanation. Like Hopper in the 1930s, Smith’s work is a commentary on the world’s art heritage, and the startling truth that a sizable and important part of that heritage exists in America’s own backyard … it reflects not European painting, but American life—rough and smooth, tumultuous and diverse, and though it signifies myriad reflections, its road is a single one, that traces the backwaters and the terrain of middle America.
In almost stark contrast, Judith Turner’s contribution to the exhibition consists of a series of black and white photographs taken in the late 1980s (all untitled) of a singular subject—the Chinati Foundation, realized by the artist and art, critic Donald Judd. Turner’s photographs are architecturally situated therefore, and this complements her self-confessed art-historical influences, which include Russian Constructivism and particularly, the work of Alexandr Rodchenko.
Rodchenko pioneered the use of photomontage in post-revolutionary Russia for book and magazine covers, posters and advertisements—working closely with the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who provided the literary input. For Turner, “how to shoot” increasingly meant taking her photographs from unusual perspectives and angles – “from the top down,” the “bottom up” and “their diagonals.” Turner articulates her fascination with an architectural aesthetic in the lines of the metal diminishing upwards, from right and left through a window, for example, a perspective that gives the impression of the mass and the construction. Several photographs taken in the grounds of the Chinati Foundation, demonstrate the thought-provoking manner of this way of taking photographs, and the engagement between solid and fluid in the sliced shadows that, in themselves, reverberate solid constructions.
Turner’s preoccupation with unusual perspectives and angles was derived from conceptions she began to develop working in New York and “being part of that architectural scene.” Like Rodchenko, Turner’s work focuses on fraktura, ‘the visual demonstration of properties inherent to materials’—in other words, truth of materials. Within this, she experiments with texture, painting surfaces, quantities of light and shadow, and an absence of color. In this regard Turner’s work engages with Rodchenko’s 1917 series ‘Black on Black’ where the images focused on the texture of the painting surface and its interaction with light. The extended series of Turner’s outdoor photographs—oblique views, from below and above—derive too from Rodchenko’s images of his own apartment building on Miasnitskaya Steeet in Moscow, the photographs for which laid the cornerstone of his mature aesthetic.
Turner clearly defines the principal aim of art as recovering the immediacy of experience, by making the familiar seem unfamiliar. Many of Turner’s photographs achieve this simply by departing from the habit of looking—and photographing—straight ahead. They are intended to encourage people to see things from fresh points of view, by doing just that in her photographs. Her style of oblique angles extends into photography the dynamic diagonal compositions of Rodchenko’s early painting, helping to shape a vibrant, experimental aesthetic of mobile perspectives which gives the series an objectivity and social context. Essentially, the architectural lines of the buildings in Turner’s photographs are severe and uncompromising, like Constructivist art itself.
Phil Bebbington, a British photographer who has photographed Marfa over a number of years, provides the counterpoint to both Turner and Smith’s work. With Bebbington it seems to be American Pop Culture, above all, that comes to life, just like a Stephen King story—in a stream of references and quotations and nods and shout-outs—a perfect photographic reproduction of our media-drenched way of talking and thinking, and all of it untouched by the sense of chilly irony. His photographs have a willingness to traffic in pre-existing images from cartoons, old movies, signage and advertisements. In Bebbington’s landscape, sinister water-towers mimic alien landing-ships, horror-story genre carcasses are captured clinging to old fences and faded and worn signage provide the vernacular of most Americans’ inner lives. There is nothing aesthetically glorious about Bebbington’s technique, but there is something defiantly plausible and strangely distinctively American about how his photographic lens tends to regard the world.
By Natalie Maria Roncone, Ph.D., Contributing Writer
The Exhibition at Marfa Contemporary runs from October 6th through 20th December, at 100E San Antonio Street, Marfa, Texas, 79843, USA. Tel: 432.729.3500. The workshop “The Art and Science of Pinhole Photography,” with instructor Lori Oden, attached to this exhibition, will be on Saturday, Oct. 27, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. and is a FREE educational workshop. Call the gallery direct to book a space.
Left: Phil Bebbington: Untitled (Tumble In), 2011, digital C-print, 16″x16” Courtesy of the artist.