Once upon a time, people lived off the land. The earliest landscape paintings were magical visualizations replete with bison and other beasts that had everything to do with Stone Age survival. Now the landscapes are all linked and made abstract by global distribution networks that mysteriously transfer apples from Trinidad or New Zealand to your local Winn-Dixie or Whole Foods Market. Yet we still only live in one place at a time, and despite globalization the tone of life can still differ greatly from place to place.
Today those variations of place provide raw materials for artists able to see the extraordinary within the ordinary, no matter how subtle. Matthew Kohnke's landscape photographs at first suggest William Eggleston's color photos of the South as it moved from a traditional agrarian backwater to a modern suburban backwater, a land of old pickup trucks, fast-food joints and neon signs. Eggleston's oblique, color-saturated views of Mississippi and Tennessee made a big impact on photography and film buffs including emerging lensmen like Kohnke. But look again and there's really more to his work than that.
Auto Parts is emblematic, a view of a very New Orleans auto-parts store at night, glowing from within. Scabrous, cluttered and greasy, it's no sterile franchise but the real, St. Claude Avenue or Airline Highway, deal, an icon of colorful squalor. A blocky sign offers to press your bearings or grind your flywheel, while the big American flag by the door all but ensures that the owners speak with foreign accents. A horror-vacui hell of cut-rate components, the straight-up tone and composition evoke a latter-day Walker Evans. Even so, some adjacent views of seedy Airline Highway motels at night should take us back to Eggleston country, and Texas Motel, with its Sputnik-era neon and furtively glowing parking hints at it. But the Sugar Bowl motel returns us to a humid Caribbean surreality more akin to the Saturn Bar than anything typically Southern. As with Auto Parts, the view is frontal, yet the Sugar Bowl Courts, with its pink and green color scheme and jaunty signs that say "Offic" and "Adult Movies" is loopy enough without any Eggleston touches. (Here I flash back to the time I was taken to an Airline Highway motel lounge, ostensibly a lair of truckers and shady ladies, but where the main attraction was a vast model railroad, with tiny trains chugging everywhere. Now that's surreal!) Kohnke's rural landscapes are pristine if a tad more predictable. In all, it's an impressive first solo show.
Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can't Go Home Again, but he wasn't from Louisiana. Debbie Fleming Caffery is from Franklin, in Cajun sugar cane country, and while she ventures forth with her camera to many intriguing places, she always returns. Recently awarded a Guggenheim grant for her work in Mexico, she makes Louisiana the focus of her current show, nonetheless. Caffery works in black and white, and stylistically she's about as un-Eggleston as you can get. She finds mystery everywhere, and her near-apocalyptic landscapes and dusky interiors appear lit by the scant, ebony light of a solar eclipse. Her Polly series features portraits of an aging if effusive black woman, like a Dylan Thomas character reborn in zydeco country, and the sparse furnishings of her old, plank-walled cabin: a bowl with eggs by a curtained window, an opened Bible on a table with a spoon for a bookmark, a simple smock hanging expectantly. And if the views might almost as easily have originated in rural South Africa, the cool, clear light harks to the Dutch baroque still life.
There are a lot of images in this show, perhaps too many, yet most are beautiful, mysterious and dramatic. Still, it is the land that sets the tone, which in these views is dark, turgid and infernal after the workers and farm machines have performed their violent seasonal ritual of tearing the cane from the earth before setting the remnants ablaze. The sky-blackening fury that appears in images such as Burning Cane at Sunset depicts a mytho-poetic Louisiana, a netherworld realm of Persephone where the ordinary borders between the landscape and the psyche no longer exist.
- Debbie Fleming Caffery's photograph Burning Cane at Sunset evokes a darkly poetic vision where the usual boundaries between the landscape and the psyche no longer exist.