I'm just going to throw it out there that the William Eggleston retrospective show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art disappointed me. Not because it was a bad show — in fact it was an astoundingly clear survey of the whole spectrum of his work — but instead because I seem to have lost my enchantment with Eggleston's work. It just all seemed tawdry, pointlessly novel and especially the later works highlighting a distinct lack of cogent editing that it is hard for someone as young as myself to try to step in to the mindset of the art world in which these images were initially presented.
I'm going to try to talk out why this show, which I was really excited to go see because of his influence on my student work, left me feeling cold.
Mostly what my eyes were pulled to was, "Wow, these images are really yellow-warm and there is a large amount of pure black in them!" Next, "Wow, there are a lot of young people with manual film 35mm cameras wandering around." Next was a brief moment where I wanted to directly compare it to the Blinky Palermo retrospective (which was actually a pleasant surprise — I went in expecting to be bored by it, but was very challenged by his subtle and clever changes to studio art practice). Then was just plain disappointment - everything seemed so pointlessly novel. My final stage was a near rage at how pathetic his recent work, which is bland student-esque close ups of fish tanks in Japan and bad digital prints of a Virgin Mary.
I did my third turn through the show nearly stalking with my hands jammed in my pockets. Pure disbelief that I could have liked this shit! I mean, I know I kind of liked some bad anime at that time too, but seriously, no one puts "Hana Yori Dango" in a museum. Oh wait. Takashi Murakami is kind of that. Sorry.
But then I got caught on one phrase, one project.
Thinking about how a phrase text read that he wanted to expand his projects so as to avoid be stigmatized as a Southern photographer, yet I was staring at his Graceland images entranced. Entranced at how he seemed to be expressing as much complete confusion about the culture he was in the midst of as I was feeling about the ostentatious Graceland. Neither Eggleston nor I like Elvis, but Eggleston's sure, intense and deeply searching mode of working — snapping the sides of things that are designed to be looked at from the front — bluntly using flash to pick out the overwhelming details and textures swimming before his eyes — using a long night exposure to show the view through the gate, but OUTWARD from the complex!
That maybe is a summation of his strength - when he is using his photographs to pry outward from some self-involved complex. The idea of the South is one giant complex of thought and geography — of course he will get associated with it. But he's not a photographer of the South, he's a photographer out of the South. And his work in Tokyo shows that he can get totally self-involved and lazy with formal novelty and kitsch that any decent Hollywood cinematographer would shoot. But maybe that's my issue with the show. That I have this underlaying fear of not having enough content - or just playing with the camera - of being no more of a novelty product than some little Pokemon card that sure, is worth a lot of money but… but…
It seems like his strength is when in a golden field interrupted by a telephone pole or in another frame with a overgrown swing set that is too close to the front of the frame, that he breaks down beauty as an intrinsic concept, that he breaks down the standard way of looking at something, but in a way that forces us inward to re-asses our own vision projected on to the world around as a construct.
Possibly the most interesting curatorial element of the show was a display case with vinyl copies of older as well as contemporary bands such as the Silver Jews, Joanna Newsom and Spoon who have used Eggleston's photos as album art. Folks who are interested in crafting their own sound out of the remnants, ruins and margins of the american rock and folk traditions. People who value you honesty as well as formal play (with a dash of retro- thrown in for flavor). If I can hack the wall text for a second, this is at it's best, a project of the, "Grand old… dilapidated."
Like Spoon or Newsom, I wasn't able to put my finger exactly on the roll irony in his art. There seemed to be so many layers of coolness, casualness, play, juxtaposition, hot-button issues such as race, as well as the margins of society that I was a bit lost as to finding a center. it all felt like gravestones that have been worn down. Never a wilderness but a fading place erected of children, the elderly, guns, toys and blank stares uncomprehending at the camera. Two people I thought about extensively were Struth's museum photos. That this body of work (of Eggleston) is the start of the new canon of color photography, or at least one side of the argument [with the New Topographics show as the opposite - an unstated sideline critic to the penises, bold colors and foppish posturing of Eggleston.] That Eggleston is the father of the lineage of cheap shots of teenage girls in limbo that are so popular at the moment with rich white male collectors along with images of drug users and drunkenness and passing the buck on political discourse for the personal, exaggerated expression in art.
But more so, I was very much curious how the unassuming ease and depth of the work of Atget played against the nearly ADD scope of Eggleston. The depth that comes with, instead of being a photographer who doesn't want to be associated with the south, someone who ignores the labels and spends his career investigating his chosen surroundings relentlessly. Atget's lens is more of an internalizing scroll - more of a sense of mono no aware - of the ever-changing of the world - while Eggleston's camera is a handgun used to shoot cans.