William Eggleston The Democratic Forestby Sara Christoph
David Zwirner Gallery, 20th Street
October 27 – December 17, 2016
“The prophet is a realist of distances,” said Flannery O’Connor in 1960. In urging young fiction writers to grapple with the grotesque (O’Connor’s grotesque being a clash of the violent and the comic) she went on: “it’s a matter of seeing near things with their extensions of meaning and thus of seeing far things close up.” In the decades since, the photographs of fellow southerner William Eggleston have offered a similarly saturated irony; in The Democratic Forest, O’Connor’s axiom of realism reverberates off the walls. Through the lens of Eggleston’s sensuous, radical color, the things that seemed so distant at the time—most poignantly, the fragility of the American Dream—were very close indeed.
At David Zwirner today, Eggleston’s images are the epitome of the Southern Baroque: dazzling on the surface, splintered underneath. In one photograph, a landscaped swimming pool sits squarely in a sparsely populated parking lot, a mother sunbathing across from the family Buick; in another, a shimmering, turquoise picnic table casts shadows on impossibly green Astroturf, the jewel-toned brilliance only highlighting the artificiality beneath. Aside from one striking instance (a portrait of the photographer’s son, Winston, modestly reading a glossy advertisement for handguns), this collection includes images largely devoid of people. Rather, the tools and remnants of daily life stand in for human pathos: table-top condiments, tobacco stands, a nightgown dangling on a clothing line, a telephone un-hooked. Each image pulsates with novelistic intrigue, echoing Eudora Welty’s original introduction: “pure human nature proves itself in likely or unlikely places.”
In the exhibition’s companion publication, The Democratic Forest: Selected Works, the photographic pairings are rich and harmonious. Early in the book, three silk-white candles—now extinguished—rest within a candlestick embellished with crystals. Across the page, a bowl of peaches and figs, too voluptuous to eat, are placed against gorgeously aged mahogany floor boards. A Delta still life by way of 17th-century Haarlem, the iconography of the genre still rings true: fertility, indulgence, sacrifice. And still, in the photographer’s unforgiving jest, a turn of the page reveals a basement laundry room with an erect, mint-green Hoover vacuum atop an expanse of mauve carpet.
Yet prophets, to borrow O’Connor’s terminology, are always persecuted. In 1976, when curator John Szarkowski hung Color Photographs by William Eggleston as the first color fine art photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, it was scandalous. (“Color photography is vulgar,” Walker Evans famously quipped.) Set in fiery reds and luscious blues, Eggleston’s pictures of his Mississippian towns and their inhabitants disarmed critics, who were quick to label the work “tacky” and “banal.”
At the time, it was the smoldering color that sparked outrage, but even today, his pictures leave one with an arresting inarticulateness. “The only thing one can do is really look at the damn things,” the photographer, now seventy-seven, recently told Augusten Burroughs. Perhaps this is because his pictures seem to well up from the soul, like a haunting, from a place with no shortage of ghosts. “Ghosts,” O’Connor wrote a few paragraphs later, “can be very fierce and instructive.”
Sara Christoph is a former Managing Director of the Brooklyn Rail.