In an unassuming room with bright white walls and cool cement floors hangs a body of work that is delightfully dark. The nearly sixty black and white photographs taken by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, currently on view at the de Young in San Francisco, call attention to the human body, identity, and family relationships in the most unsettling ways. Even his name connotes viscera: physical bodies, weight, animal, slaughter, tearing flesh apart, clawing, chewing, raw… (what does my quick word association say about me?) Most reviews point to the dichotomies in Meatyard’s work, arguing for example, that he “explores the contrasts between youth and age, childhood and mortality, intimacy and unknowability, sharing and hiding.”
This is true. I find tension even in the act of viewing the work. Because they are dark and extremely detailed, the viewer must get physically close to each photograph to discern all the objects, figures, and settings. Once the viewer is able to read these details, she realizes how troubling some of the imagery is and she takes a step back. Pauses. Thinks. Intrigued, she takes a step forward to get a better look. Back and forth, back and forth, she does this dance between wanting to look, but not wanting to see.
It’s the imagery and composition that are so enticing. What could be more appealing and subversive than small, black and white prints of dolls and masks on family members taken in the 1960’s (think cutoffs and long hair in wide open spaces or abandoned houses)? Dolls are fascinating. Ever since I saw slides of Hans Bellmer‘s work in my first art history class I was hooked on creepy dolls. (Actually, it probably goes further back than that. Back to when Seana and I would get dolls as gifts. For instance, my mom brought us grandparent dolls from Germany. They were made of fabric. The grandma was posed with knitting needles and the grandpa was smoking a pipe, and boy would they freak us out.) Dolls are creepy because they are stand-ins for humans. They are also associated with children which makes them especially creepy when placed alone against decaying architecture or fractured mirrors. Meatyard uses a fair amount of mannequins and dolls as human substitutes in his work, and it gets me every time. It’s somehow easy to put oneself in the shoes of a doll or mannequin, somewhere between human and object. They make the viewer second guess what humanity is, particularly in photographs because they are static images. The expressions and poses of mannequins are just as frozen in time as the human figures’, making it easy to confound the human and non-human. And when the viewer guesses wrong, it’s troubling.
The other tension I felt looking at the photographs was in trying to read their messages. As soon as I started focusing on the imagery, I would start picturing the behind-the-scenes activities that went into setting up the shot. I got distracted by this and could no longer focus on the work in front of me. Meatyard would have family members wear masks and pose for his photographs in dilapidated buildings, mossy steps, backyard spaces, fields, or somewhere else in their “backyard” in Lexington, Kentucky. Knowing this makes me picture the communication that occurs between father and child. “Why don’t you put on this clown mask and perch on that broken step for dad,” I imagine Meatyard saying to his son as he sifts through a pile of rubber faces staring back at him. I love imagining the production behind these scenes and only wish there were more of his work to explore.
Ralph Eugene Meatyard said that masks erased the differences between people. Romance (N) from Ambrose Bierce #3. 1962.