Degree Critical, Spring 2017

Monday 06/26/2017

Mark Steinmetz. Athens, GA (balloon at dusk) (1995); gelatin silver print. © Mark Steinmetz, Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

If There Be Any Art in the Weathers of This Earth

by Colin Edgington (Class of 2016)

And memory knows this; twenty years later memory is still to believe. —William Faulkner, Light in August

A balloon is tethered to the front office of All Star Mobile Homes in Mark Steinmetz's photograph Athens, GA (balloon at dusk) (1995). A symbol for celebration, it floats high in the ambient sky, marked by the flags that indicate its string. A soft dusk glows from beyond the firmament defining the balloon’s silhouette and dotted tail like a long exposure in negative. My eye is drawn below, to the grey ground, where the mobile homes are dotted with festive lights. A grand opening, perhaps. The grass looks maintained, the fence is intact, the siding is clean and might even be new. I imagine that soon all will be in blackness and those twinkling, electric lights will punctuate the void and the balloon will stay in the night’s sky, an isolated stranding in the dark. But this photograph, emblematic of Mark Steinmetz’s recent exhibition, South, at Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York City, will never grow dark nor light in the rhythm of earthly rotation. That perfect black circle, like a hole punched through the negative, will remain in place. Pulling taut its tether towards the heavens, its freedom dependent on the strength of the string. But most likely its life is destined for deflation—a slow, crestfallen descent back to earth. The balloon, like most of the subjects in these photographs is caught between states: between terrestrial bonds and cosmic desires.

Steinmetz’s photographs have the initial tinge of 20th century “documentary” work. They are black-and-white gelatin silver prints and shot as if on the move—the images exhibit the dynamism of an acute eye navigating a familiar world of fleeting circumstances. It is clear he is working within a tradition set forth by Henri Cartier-Bresson, to Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, and Garry Winogrand. In fact, Steinmetz, a graduate of Yale’s photography program in 1986, photographed and learned from Winogrand in Los Angeles during the early 1980s.[1] But the photographs in this particular exhibition, pulled from his series South East (1994–2001) along with newer works, are not explicitly personal, socioeconomic, political, or cultural in the sense of these forbearers, nor do they solely rely on the visual geometry of the decisive moment. This is not to say these images are without these things, but that they are not at the forefront of the meaning of the work. Photographic exposures are inherently decisive (even algorithms are built to perform decisive tasks) but here the visual relationships created within the frame, between pictures, and through time act as catalysts to more inconspicuous ideas. This is important because it seems Steinmetz is chasing time immemorial and its ever-present manifestations. What is imaged is invisible, using the surfaces of the physical world to record a duration of intuition, of feeling, of mood, of all the things that brew in belly of life. These works, in their current curated form, convey a geography of sunken souls and charged spaces that are as ripe as ever.

Mark Steinmetz. Athens, GA (girl on hood of car) (1996); gelatin silver print. © Mark Steinmetz, Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

A latency slowly develops throughout the quotidian nature of this work. In Athens, GA (girl on hood of car) (1996), a girl in a floral patterned romper lies on the hood of a car, her back against the windshield and arms folded atop her stomach. She gazes at something beyond the frame. An Icee cup, bottle of soda, cigarettes, and phone rest next to her. That “something” is the point here, but we are cut off from it and what we see is the banality of a suburban scene. And then in Knoxville, TN (weed in crack) (1992), the verdure grows from a break in the road during the golden hour (or is it dawn?), tire tracks on both sides. The sun illuminates the weed as if it were a triumphant survivor of hell. And yet, the lone plant breaking through the cracked asphalt can also be seen as a saccharine image of hope. In fact, it rests in both times, opening the photograph up to compounded antipodal meanings. There is more. In Reuben, Athens, GA, (man in kudzu) (1995), a man lays wreathed in a bed of the invasive weed. His eyes are closed. Is he being swallowed, suffocated? In Gas Station, Conyers, GA (1997), a common site of our petroleum habit—the fuel of the “American Dream”—sits empty and illuminated behind a garage dotted with plastic flags, like a forgotten carnival. In Elberton, GA (Boy in Car) (1995), a round-faced adolescent peers out the glossy window of a car, expressing curiosity with a hint of hesitation. Everywhere people are missing. Their bodies inhabit the space that Steinmetz has photographed, but their gaze, their expressions, betray the presence of their absence. This sense of absence works slowly as one navigates the gallery space of Yancey Richardson. The alternating portraits and social landscapes play off of one another like paratactic imagery. Collectively the photographs reveal the weight of memory and raw existence, a burden embedded in this Southern U.S. landscape and carried by the people of its lands.

Mark Steinmetz. Reuben, Athens, GA (man in kudzu) (1995); gelatin silver print. © Mark Steinmetz, Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

The vantage points of the photographs vary in their approach—some are taken at eye level, others from below looking up, or from above looking down, or from a crouched position—but all give way to the monocular vision of the camera’s eye. In 2015, Steinmetz responded to MoMA’s Photography at MoMA: 1960 to Now exhibition, lamenting the loss of a kind of photography that “interrogates the world that we actually live in as it actually looks.”[2] In his review, he speaks of a cold atmosphere dominating photography in the art world, conveyed by pictures that illustrate ideas and photographs of concepts, over the “photographer as auteur, who views photography as a kind of cinematic literature.”[3] This desire for a kind of visual storytelling in the aggregate is evidenced throughout the exhibition, which leads viewers on a cinematic journey from still to still where meaning lives between pictures. Like Stone Mountain, GA (couple lying on a rock) (1994), in which a man and a woman lie on their backs, the tops of their heads facing the camera in silhouette as light shafts break through clouds and reach the earth in the distance. The couple’s arms create a perfect expression of symbiosis; bent at the elbow with triceps on the ground, their forearms lean towards one another in the air where their hands begin to entwine. The tip of the man’s left thumb rests softly against the woman’s, which is wrapped in a bandaid. His other hand, in a gesture evoking Michelangelo’s Adam, the receiver of the faithful speech, solidifies the biblical underpinning of the work, but also points to the innocence, beauty, and drama of youthful love. This photograph is on its own wall at the end of the small gallery off of the main. It is surrounded by people in isolation: goth girl, man in kudzu, boy in car window, girl at fence, baby on blanket, and girl with camera. Yet on the opposite wall across from the couple is Atlanta, GA (father and son by gas station) (2007), a photograph of another pair, a father and son, the child’s entire body held against the man’s in a loving, safe embrace.

Mark Steinmetz. Stone Mountain, GA (couple lying on rock) (1994); gelatin silver print. © Mark Steinmetz, Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.
Mark Steinmetz. Jessica, Athens, GA (1997); gelatin silver print. © Mark Steinmetz, Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

As such, these photographs reveal characters and mise-en-scènes, which speak toward larger narratives that transcend the particularities of the photographs’ circumstances. This elevation is due as much to the use of framing, light, and remarkable printing as it is subject matter. The works have a silvery texture, as if lit by moonlight rather than the sun (I wondered, as I walked through the exhibition, if there were any true whites in these prints). In Jessica, Athens, GA (1997), a young woman lies on a couch, her eyes halfway open in a post-wretched expression. Her skin nearly the same tone as the couch. She is disappearing, it seems. The skin of the photographic surface is a covering that emanates a kind of phosphorescence from somewhere behind it. One surface tears through another as if activating a dormancy embedded in the works themselves. Light, throughout the exhibition, appears to be the catalyst of a more effective revelation. Lightning Strike, Mississippi (1994) offers an extreme example of this light, as a crack of lightning sparks over a blackened, rain-covered road. The sky is dark where the current discharges, the lightning reflected in a smooth, white line on the asphalt. Black trees line both sides of the road like silhouettes that ink onto the highway. A white line quivers between the sky and land, a schism connected by light.

In Steinmetz’s review of the MoMA show, he criticizes the photographs for their intellectual prowess and mass-media examinations, their abandonment of the world “out there.” Worst of all, for Steinmetz, “fewer still could be considered interrogations of the self.” In his understanding of true self-navigation, Steinmetz conceived of a raw, sincere, critical, and honest exploration of one’s own sense of place and identity, discovered through the act of image-making. This is particularly poignant in an age of distraction, ego-inflation, self-promotion, #brands, factional party affiliation, and semiotic identification. In a time when the “self” is a mere function of outer forces reliant on superficiality, Steinmetz’s fastidious dedication to the circumstances of its formation and the lines drawn between those circumstances, point the way to a balanced existence in the 21st century. These are stand-ins of a cinematic literature of the self. And from that, particularly in these intrepid times in which deception and falsehoods are exchanged like currency, and divisiveness spills into violence, we can all take note: We are at risk of forgetting the self in its truest sense.

In the penultimate scene of Cormac McCarthy’s semi-autobiographical novel Suttree, Cornelius Suttree, a stand-in for the author, breaks down in his isolation and compels the heavens to call lightning down. McCarthy wrote:

It cracked and boomed about and he pointed out the darkened heart within him and cried for light. If there be any art in the weathers of this earth. Or char these bones to coal. If you can, if you can. A blackened rag in the rain.[4]

The search for one's place in the world is drawn between oneself and the landscape, its people and culture, and ultimately between the terrestrial and cosmic. This search is mirrored in the work of Steinmetz. Except, in South, the nihilism that oozes from McCarthy’s fictional surrogate is instead tinged in the landscape itself, in the people we find the carriers of light. Next to his photograph Lighting Strike, Mississippi (1994), is his picture of a man in Knoxville, Tennessee (man in creek) (1992): this man in the creek, his left arm pressing into the dirt, propping him up while his right arm rests on his left leg, hand on thigh. His legs are mostly submerged in the murky water. (Its muddiness comes, actually, from the silver quality of the print—the ambient light reflects off of the surface of the water.) The man’s body is twisted such that it may face the sky out of the frame, his mouth agape like Carravagio’s Holofernes.

Steinmetz is a storyteller and his stories take their form as points in a larger constellation. The pictures, images, gather meaning when the viewer draws invisible lines between them as if peering into the night sky and drawing between stars. As John Berger wrote in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos:

Those who first invented and then named the constellations were storytellers. Tracing an imaginary line between a cluster of stars gave them an image and an identity. The stars threaded on that line were like events threaded on a narrative. Imagining the constellations did not of course change the stars, nor did it change the black emptiness that surrounds them. What it changed was the way people read the night sky.[5]

Steinmetz’s South is an array that operates as a poem about solitude, about despondency, about a longing and melancholy suggestive of personal loss and heartache, about love and beauty, and about the ceaseless running through life, through systems, institutions, beliefs, and the indebtedness to things beyond one’s control. But also to the cosmic circumstances that often fuel the existential dread of the modern human. This is the ever-present wound to which poetry speaks and there is beauty in it. We are ultimately all in this together. Lines between one another and the places we find ourselves. Earthly constellations filled with vitality. There’s solace in that, if we can learn to see it.

 

[1] Rebecca Bengal. "With Garry Winogrand as His Copilot, Mark Steinmetz Photographed 1980s Los Angeles." Vogue. Vogue, 01 Feb. 2017. Web. 30 May 2017.

[2] Mark Steinmetz. "Photography at MoMA: Has Photo-Based Art Become Too Dominant?” Time. (Time, 16 Nov. 2015). Web. 30 May 2017.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Cormac McCarthy. Suttree. (New York: First Vintage International, 1992), 366.

[5] John Berger. And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. (New York: First Vintage International, 1991), 15.