By April Rapier
William Eggleston. Allen Street Gallery, Dallas, April 2 – May 12.
The Allen Street Gallery was quite fortunate to present the debut of a major portion of William Eggleston’s work from the new series Democratic Forest. The color photographs made between September 1984, and January 1985 are part of a book that will cover Tennessee, Berlin, Japan, Pittsburg, and other American cities (it is not yet clear what ties this disparate group together). The title of the series is cryptic: it is explained in a press release that it refers to “a method of photographing rather than social implications.” It may be titled thusly because of his respectful attention to all details, not just the “interesting” ones, irony unintended. Perhaps when seen in its entirety, this peculiar group of photographs will form a cohesive whole; until seen in that context, they are a bit sketchy and unbalanced, the very excellent pictures isolated from the sullen, over-ambitious ones that create but do not fulfill grand expectations.
Eggleston is well known for having been the first photographer working in a color to have a one-person exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1976. His use of color has remarkable power, much enriched by its subtlety and reality. He has been the recipient of awards (NEA, Guggenheim) and survey grants, and his excellent reputation is well-deserved.
However, although these current images are not under the auspices of the grant, they have that too-orderly feel associated with such survey documentation — one of not wanting to miss any pertinent elements or topics or connections. Some of the images seem generic, obligatory. One also begins to feel aware of a loss of sweetness or tongue-in-cheek affection — in spite of subject matter.
His snapshot style, so often discussed by critics, is inconclusively resolved in this new series. William Eggleston’s Guide, published in conjunction with the MoMA exhibit, was the result of a more personal, if eccentric thought process; the photographs were more decisive and assured. They revolved around a subject matter similar to that pursued in Democratic Forest; whereas now the treatment is sometimes overworked, or worse, resigned, it was previously out of reach in its ordinariness. The Berlin series, done in the same period as the Graceland pictures, seems equally preoccupied with conjunctive details — the placement of objects in relation to each other. Here the audience is primed differently because of the meticulously authoritative resemblance to grant-sponsored survey thoroughness. A final assessment of the Democratic Forest must be postponed in anticipation of the completed oeuvre because there are dynamic images in this current offering that foresee a return to more exciting days.
There is a great relief when turning form the terribly sedate, serious treatments (magnolia leaves and crystal candlesticks on a dark wood table, a chandelier overhead) to a more alive vision (same dark wood and expensive accoutrements — flowers in a silver bowl, candelabra to the side, but also stacks of 3-1/2 x 5 color snapshots scattered about and a convergent view into other similarly elegant rooms). Contrasts are refreshing when in context and understated (on a porch, one sees a lovely shaker-style bench adjacent to a modern ‘toob’ handrail, leading down the steps.) There is also an obligatory recording of oddities of antiquity —street iconography specifically— that by someone’s grace or oversight have remained, or the all-too-familiar and uninteresting town square/courthouse/shade-tree picture.
But Eggleston’s past ability to trap details and manifest a fascinating juxtaposition fails him here as often as it succeeds. The successful pictures now seem less sought-after, as though more readily available to him. He examines clichés (statuary, log cabins with geraniums in bloom, reflections in storefront windows) without innovation. Perhaps Eggleston’s ability is sometimes overwhelmed by a sense of futility at all the blandness, ugliness, and silliness there is to disarm.
The most frustrating recurrence in Eggleston’s work in general is that one is given potent clues with no opportunity for resolution. The clues are indecisive, misleading, much more so than before. In an image that bears this out, one sees a cart on bicycle wheels, holding a metal toolbox. One is expected to extract some reason from the relation between the tools, a hurricane fence, a few trucks and cars, a patch of grass. Nothing particularly mystifying about it, it is merely meaningless, undirected. Neither can one find a rhythm or cadence to invite involvement. Even the elaborate meals and picnics, once so rich in symbol, so sumptuous, now seem belittled and spare — parodies of all that is implied.
Two images in particular retain a marvelous eccentricity reminiscent of the earlier pictures. In one, dried Indian corn hangs on a spiral rack (like sunglasses in a drugstore). New potatoes sit like half moons in plastic bags. The light is blinding, the colors faded. The other picture revolves around two grave markers —one tall, the other short — a telephone pole, and a garden with a scarecrow that mimics the other crosses. These images maintain the high level of spontaneity that surely prompted them.
In spite of the complaints, there is much to be anticipated in the book project. The momentum of these pictures receive from one another gives them the quiet, cumulative strength that is Eggleston’s alone among a large field of contenders.