Will anyone ever see the man behind the masks? Probably not, but four dozen photographs span the art of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, at D. C. Moore through December 23, with nary a mask in sight.
Some ten years since a survey at the International Center of Photography fully introduced Ralph Eugene Meatyard to New York, he remains a shadowy presence. So, too, do his subjects, and he means it that way. His photographs show motion in bare trees, woods like a shower of rain, ripples on the water, and empty houses. They show his children, who moved him to take up photography in the first place. Yet no one glowers more than the occasion warrants or looks disfigured as if caked and rotting, as elsewhere in his art. Something covers the face of just one child, back to the ground, but it could be just nerdy glasses or a shadow.
In truth, everyday darkness was Meatyard's most tempting and frightening disguise. The empty houses, really little more than storage sheds for farmers straddling the poverty line, were a fact of life in Lexington, Kentucky, and he set out with his kids to document them all. The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater actually pictures his wife, Madelyn, alongside family and friends. Her store-bought hag's mask, in all its gruesome whiteness, contrasts with her thick legs and country dresses. A doll for Laurie Simmons or Morton Bartlett never looks so at home and so clumsy. Her companion invariably has his mask, too, but a transparent one.
Nothing of that memorable late series appears this time, in what might serve instead as a close-up of the photographer's working methods. Like most of his output, it runs only from 1959 to his early death from cancer in 1972, although he bought his first camera soon after moving to Lexington in 1950, after a stint in the Navy, college, and marriage. The medium is a fitting subject anyway for a man who earned a living as an optician. People often puzzle over the contrast between the suburban father of three, two boys and a girl, and his spooky images, but he took the prefiguration of death in stride. He can come across as a strictly southern or folk artist, although he studied photography with Minor White, learned about spirituality fromThomas Merton, collaborated with well-known writers, and took an interest in jazz and Zen. Sometimes outsider art is just another name for ordinary madness that never makes its way to New York.
Maybe he never could get normal enough, between his birth in Normal, Illinois, and his name out of some horror flick with an ending as yet unseen. Still, his family albums challenge anyone to tease apart the normal from the fiction. One boy presses up against the entrance to a shed in harsh sunlight, in a fateful and futile struggle, while his brother stares out from behind a window. It takes a few moments to spot him, and longer to put him out of one's mind. Another subject looms up from behind a worktable, as if resting on it like a Renaissance bronze.
Elsewhere the brothers share an arch out of Renaissance painting, but with one lying face forward and the other with his butt to the camera. Are they subject to their father's demons or just playing around? They never break into smiles or gape in fear, and the one that might be mooning is, innocently enough,fully clothed.
The whole family rests all but buried in dead leaves, somewhere between Andy Goldsworthy and an entombment. Meatyard had little interest in traditional portraiture on the one hand or the social fabric of America on the other. He did not need to cross America by car to penetrate the heartland, like Robert Frank or Lee Friedlander, and he did not need appropriation art to see nature or culture as a mask. No wonder he remained in his lifetime pretty much under the radar.
What he could do is experiment. The closest a boy comes to play is in twiddling his fingers like a puppet master, and Meatyard uses a long exposure to capture the blur. A double exposure multiplies tombstones, as if the dead were arising, and camera movement makes houses appear to crash into a tree. Near abstract landscapes take up half the show, their bareness in collision with their picture of motion. The sun seems trapped by undergrowth, while light traces across water like dabs of paint and planes in the sky. Maybe next time a show will take him back from sunlight and shadow to Halloween.