Southern GlimpsesWilliam Eggleston, Democratic Camera; Photographs and Video 1961 – 2008, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (500 17 St. NW, Washington, D.C.). The exhibit runs through Sept. 20 and the museum is open Wednesday – Sunday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., with extended hours on Thursday until 9 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors, with 6 and under admitted free of charge. Note: The free Summer Saturday admission program ends this Saturday, Aug. 29. For further details, call 202-639-1700 or visit www.corcoran.org.
William Eggleston, Democratic Camera; Photographs and Video 1961 – 2008, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (500 17 St. NW, Washington, D.C.). The exhibit runs through Sept. 20 and the museum is open Wednesday – Sunday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., with extended hours on Thursday until 9 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors, with 6 and under admitted free of charge. Note: The free Summer Saturday admission program ends this Saturday, Aug. 29. For further details, call 202-639-1700 or visit www.corcoran.org.
The Corcoran has concentrated on photography shows of late. The current exhibition features over 150 photos by William Eggleston, one of the earliest color art photographers. Picking up on the idea from his friend William Christenberry (now in D.C.) and his color reference photos for paintings, the two men have spent their lives making art about the American South. Christenberry does everything from photography to painting, drawing and sculpture. Eggleston, while trained early on in the ways of fine art, tends to show only his photography. There are similarities in subject matter and shooting style, but it’s Eggleston’s photos that seem to capture, and more importantly, enhance the psychology and mystery of the place and situation at hand.
Eggleston seems to have taken a page from Warhol in his insistence that he has no favorite photographs, that each part of each photograph is equal, that it’s all about nothing at all. This bit of artistic egalitarianism leads to his tag “Democratic Camera.” Of course, at the end of the day, this notion of visual equality is pure nonsense.
Granted they do look like they’re about nothing, but then so did Warhol’s work. As if painting a soup can was less valid than painting a bowl of fruit was 500 years ago. Both artists reflected the world around them, leaving the social commentary to run river-like, silently just below the calm, still surface.
Eggleston works a nifty trick in his work. While his carefully crafted images ape the amateur snapshot, there is a tension about them; not infrequently, a menacing one which plays out in the vast spaces within the images. It’s there that we become aware that you are on your own. Anything that happens you will have to deal with directly. It’s almost a Hopper-esque sense of alienation.
In concert with that, Eggleston mercilessly toys with our natural propensity to craft scenarios out of scant information. In this way, Eggleston’s work has the quality of historical fiction. It’s real to a point, and after that it’s all fantasy.
Two of the most dramatic images deal with children in suburbia. Eggleston’s iconic image of a tricycle in front of two ranch houses. Perfectly identifies the overwhelming suburban focus on children, especially young children. Eggleston’s tricycle dwarfs the two houses as if it was ridden by a 50-foot-tall four year old. Taken literally, it has no real meaning beyond the physicality of the tricycle and the houses. Taken as a metaphor, it speaks volumes.
Another image shows a small child laying crumpled in a carport beside a basketball hoop. Eggleston is not Weegee, we know the child is O.K.; still our imaginations run wild. Has the child been struck down by an intruder? And we go down the list of what could have happened, playing out the ultimate suburban horror, a child harmed. In reality, it’s probably a child taking a breather after falling, or from exhaustion. Normal can look horrific in Eggleston’s hands.
Other images are far less ominous. Eggleston’s photo of a stern-looking woman with folded legs and paperwork on her knee seems the stereotypical secretary of the late 60s. Sitting on a high curb next to a chain-wrapped steel pole, it seems ordinary and pointless. Then, careful observation reveals a gold bracelet wrapped around her ankle. Suddenly, the connection and meaning flow forth. Eggleston has hidden artistic commentary by showing us as we are, and using a vernacular snapshot shooting style in a highly-developed and educated way. Crafty stuff indeed.
The Northern Virginia Art Beat is compiled by Kevin Mellema. See www.fcnp.com for photos and more. To e-mail submissions, send them to [email protected]