Is What You See What You Get?
BY KARL F VOLKMAR
DEBORAH LUSTER: Send It On Down – November 2012 Exhibition at Arthur Roger Gallery
Send It On Down is an exhibition of photographs by Deborah Luster related to The Lost Roads Project: A Walk-In Book of Arkansas and The Rosesucker Retablos from the nineteen nineties that rewards the viewer with the sense of having that firm grasp on reality that characterizes the best straight photography and the intellectual satisfaction that comes from technical mastery of the medium and the artist’s sense of design. Although obviously posed and composed, Luster’s photographs have an elusive quality that challenges one’s ability to stay focused on the photographs themselves and their subjects and not to wander into the miasma of interpretation. Like the work of predecessor southern photographers Walker Evans, Eudora Welty, and Thomas Eggleston, Luster’s work evidences a world hitherto unknown to the typical viewer for whom the photographs are surrogate experience in the best tradition of documentary photography. The clarity of the artist’s vision leads one to trust the integrity of the photographer and the photograph, finding interest in what the subjects would consider as ordinary and everyday, an interest that makes the ordinary and everyday something special.
In Sunday Morning, for example, the bright whiteness of the young girl’s dress with its pleats and folds and ruffles melds with subtle patterns gently revealed in the even light of a bright cloudy day echoed in the puffy bolls of cotton resting amid the field of brittle spiky plants beneath the amorphous pullulating forms of the cloud-filled sky. The young girl’s, arms held behind her back like the young man in Stripes and the woman in Handfishing Retablo, stands like a classical kore, hips slightly askew, spine leaning to the left, with an almost non-existent twist of the torso and shoulders, left shoulder below the right, head held erect and leaning slightly to the right, the chin of her oval face lowered such that the rounded top of the forehead echoing the chin gleams in the reflected light, her hairline iterating the ruffles that arch from shoulder to shoulder, the braid of hair atop her head adding a perky note that sets the scene in motion, her ovoid head the center.
The young man in Stripes stands in casual contrapposto like the young girl’s kouros counterpart. The shadow of the head falling across his right shoulder echoes the dark bill of the puffy striped cap, the right half of the face lying in shadow, the left in the unmitigated bright sunlight, head leaned forward so that dark shadows beneath the arched brows accentuate the intense expression around his eyes. The oh-so-subtle serpentine balance of the torso is echoed in the arc of the body rising like an unstrung bow. The more strongly differentiated stripes of his cap contrast with the horizontal stripes of the shirt, perhaps due to fading through life lived in the intense summer sun. The striping becomes less distinct as one’s eye moves from the top of the head to the waist as if ever so slightly out of focus because of hips thrust forward, a distinction iterated in the diagonal bands of road, cotton field, trees, and sky beyond.
Why did the artist title the photograph of the young girl Sunday Morning and change the original title of Young Man, Phillips County to the impersonal Stripes? By evoking the specific time of a specific day of the week that has special significance in the intensely Christian cultures of the South, the young girl becomes the embodiment of the rituals associated with dressing up in one’s finest and going to church as participant in this cultural narrative. In this naming the artist takes on the role of the author that had been undertaken by others in the texts juxtaposed to the artist’s photographs in The Lost Roads Project: A Walk-In Book of Arkansas. This opens the door for the viewer to develop her own interpretations as long as one adheres to what cannot be questioned –the young girl, her cotton dress, the ripe cotton, the time of day, the day of the week, the time in the growing season, and the weather conditions –in a grand metaphor like the opening lines of Koheleth or a painting by van Ruisdael or Cole.
In The Taxidermists’s Son and Eel, it is young boys as young boys doing what young boys do that seems so natural, so real. The son’s thin body rises from the ground in a slow spiral as he leans forward towards the viewer, as intent on confronting the viewer with the animal parts he holds in his hand as he is in keeping those animal parts away from the beagle whose body is tensed so anxiously watching the severed head that one can almost feel the quiver of his body and the muted whining of desire. The devilish expression on his face is as intent as that of the young boy holding the eel held just far enough away that it can not touch him and just close enough that he can examine it carefully. The form of the eel minors the shape of the tree limb whose undulating contour continues in the shadow dangling across the boy’s chest as eel, limb, and shadow become coextensive with each other.
Bottle Tree is an essay in design, photographed looking upwards as its spine arcs upwards into the clear sky above, guarded at each comer by leaved branches of cropped out surrounding trees framing an irregular quatrefoil of light slightly askew from the Cartesian axes of the square shape of the image, defying the incipient regularity with a rotating spiral of movement, aided and abetted by the short diagonals formed by the broken branches while the transparent volumes of the bottles are silhouetted against the brightness of the sky and reveal the finger-like branches that support them.
The soaring helical upwards thrusting movement of the trunk expresses visually what one might imagine an Asmat feels in the presence of a bisj pole, and the inspiration for the bottle tree as spiritual practice may very well reflect similar beliefs in the symbol of the tree that finds expression in so many world cultures. Yet Luster’s photograph is not the document of the anthropologist, recording the cultural artifact; it is objective, but it is less the fact of the artifact/object, and more the beauty of the design, an aesthetic sensitivity, the angle of shooting capturing the variegated values of the leaves that appear as ephemeral as the translucent glass of the bottles, while the sharp forms of the broken branches pierce the lightness and cross swords with each other as they direct attention in multiple directions simultaneously. One might wonder if the photographer is expressing an empathy with they who created the bottle tree or, perhaps, the tree itself.
It is interesting to consider Handfishing Retablo as a variation of the formal theme of the Bottle Tree. The opaque form of the body arches among the dark thicket of leaves that is as substantial as the leaves surrounding the bottle tree are ephemeral. The truncated form gleams amid the rich darkness, the lobular shapes of the leaves the obverse of the lobed quatrefoil, their planes cantilevering into space like the blades of knives, echoed in the leaves at the upper left, their clarity contrasting with the puddled darks of the deeper shade, the expressionless face like a tree spirit asleep in the woods. It is a subject that is so loaded with cultural associations, so carefully composed, like one of Munch’s works, that it is difficult to imagine that the artist is unaware, and that perhaps it may even be thought of as a symbolic self portrait. It is an anomaly.
The Zombie, challenging the viewer’s objectivity with its suggestive title redolent of gothic fantasies, could be either a deliberate misdirection to tease one into interpretation or a whimsical inspiration of the artist. The neutrality of the expression allows one to peruse the textures and forms if not distracted by the title. The image could be disconcerting even without the name zombie attached, the mysterious juxtaposition of the polished sphere with its glistening surface contrasting with the dark shape of the curtain hiding everything beyond, as if the sphere were rolling along an arced track following the curve of the cloth, the implacable shape of the emotionless face topped by the rising hair echoed in the scraggly bushes beyond. The shape of the reflection presents a puzzle in the manner of Velasquez’s Las Meninas for one does not know how far the sphere or the zombie lies behind the cloth and thus whether the reflection is of something between the viewer and the sphere or, because of the nature of spherical geometry, of something beyond.
Damien and Listine is a playful work, as if one is witnessing a magical performance. The circular objects taped over the eyes, the larges eXes over the eyes, and the hands raised with fingers pressed against temples may suggest to the art historically inclined a parody of Munch’s Scream. The slight asymmetry due to the positioning of the head and shoulders to the left of center is abetted by the revealing light and obscuring shadows from the rays of the sun raking across the features of the faces. The texture of the skin of the forearm is radically different between left and right, the right appearing as if disembodied, the head floating above an amorphous pool of shadows beneath, the texture of the hair mirroring the skin of the forehead. The body of Listine twists slightly, her right side pulled away, edges hidden by the right side of Damien, her left hand holding a queen of hearts, the card of love and of power. Considered from the critical position of the documentary one can reasonably conclude that these two prima facie unusual compositions, rather than being bizarre concoctions of the artist, are in fact objective recordings of a the playful imaginations of the two individuals who are the subjects.
Miss Cotton is a straightforward portrait in the mode of Sunday Morning and Stripes. Her knitted cap protects her against the cold. The joining of the neck at the shoulders is aligned with the horizon as in Sunday Morning, and Stripes. Miss Cotton stands in a shadow less landscape, a curious expression on her face, questioning, perhaps a bit suspicious, wondering why anyone would waste their time taking photographs of ordinary people like herself.
By contrast, Ear, originally titled Near Yellville, is a study in design at the same time as one’s attention is drawn to the ear on the man’s knee and into thinking about what type of personality would have an ear on his knee and what were the events leading to the situation. The anonymous man sits as if one with nature, as integral a part of the woods as the stacks of Tobacco in the field, a primordial being poised on the edge of a fallen tree trunk, as if in a trance. The immaculate folds of his clothing overlap themselves as his body leans forward in a subtly twisting pose as he carefully balances himself with arms and hands extended. Eyes embedded in a labor and weather worn face seem focused on the ear lying on his knee as if it were the most natural thing in the world. An engorged vein glides beneath the skin across the elbow and along the inside of the forearm as the right arm stretches into long elegant fingers. Subtle differences among the textures of the cloth and that of the skin, the roughness of the tree bark and the tatted shadows of the leaves and branches in the background enliven the shaded woodlands.
Careful consideration of depth of field produces the surrealistic Prisoner and impressionistic Walnuts. In Prisoner, there is an apparent disparity between the light that illuminates the back of the prisoner that would be due to a sun from the left and the nebulous luminosity hovering above the horizon such as one sees in the intensely humid heat of a midsummer’s day. The vector ex-tends through the body and arm as the prisoner appears to fling a thick vine into the air from which bits of debris scatter through the air, creating an effect like a surge of ectoplasm in late nineteenth century spiritualist photography. The soft focus sustains the sense of indeterminateness; nowhere is one allowed to feel an edge or grasp a form as the artist wields fluid light and dark in a broad brushed calligraphy in which as much shadows are as much sub-stance as absence. In Walnuts, the photograph captures the dry brittleness of fall in a network of twigs and branches and trunks whose substance seems conjured of light from the soft veined mesh of the distance into the ever less indistinct foreground to the palpability of the globular walnuts.
The attention of the camera focuses on the thin slice of wizened flesh of the neck of Rosesucker Retablo. The eyes stare blankly out of the aged face. Wrinkled lips echo the senescent flesh around the eyes; deep lines carved by aging connect the nose and mouth; a string of bird forms hangs around her neck, their lifeless bodies silhouetted against the soft flesh of the body. She too like the man with the ear seems lost in her own thoughts or in a trance.
In Septima with Tadpoles, the columnar forms of legs and dress are compared to the cylindrical form of the jar, the patterns of the dress with the cloudy water in which dark shapes of tadpoles flagellate through their liquid world. The clear details of the embroidered and tatted design and gently puckered and creased surface of the cloth contrast with the smooth fullness of lower legs and feet stained with mud that has begun to dry along edges within a wooded world perhaps shared with the man near Yellville. The subtle strength of the real keeping imagination at bay with the delicately ironic interplay between the artificial vegetal arabesques and flower forms aka art within chaotic natural woodland world.
As a whole, and in parts, Luster has produced a diverse collection of photographs that subvert simplistic expectations with respect to photography as documentary medium. Through deft deployment of a wide range of the technical possibilities of photography, the artist has realized intriguing effects that stimulate one’s engagement with individual works through feats of formal, conceptual, and technical legerdemain.