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San Francisco
Ralph Eugene Meatyard
de Young Museum
Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, CA 94118
October 8, 2011 - February 26, 2012

In the Shadows of Children, Playing
by Andrew Berardini

A shirtless boy stands in front of a dilapidated house, his face blank, clutched in one hand a doll, in the other a disembodied arm arced as if the adult to whom it belonged had suddenly disappeared. A skull looks over him up near the front column, a mannequin head pokes out of the unkempt grass just a few feet away, another strange weed in this wild garden. What is that in the bush to the left, is it a bag? Hard to tell.

What is he doing here? Who is he waiting for? All the skulls and heads and arms and dolls, look fake of course, stand-ins or games, tricks or costumes. But the scene is real or real enough.

The story's unknown, but it is perhaps better that way. Right now it is full of any story we want to give it: Dorothea Lange dustbowl hardship brought to the decadent south of crumbling antebellum mansions, some modern cinema of contemporary poverty and dread like Cameron Jamie or Harmony Korine, a haunted netherworld, or something more peculiar and unique to the man who made this strange image. Ralph Eugene Meatyard. 

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Ambrose Bierce, 1964. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery. © The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard

Four children, each in street clothes and a mask, lounging against the rocks. Simple, each gesture is strangely awkward or overly symbolic, like some churchy image, each a saint or a demon, known by their accoutrements, their gestures. Some kind of dread here, maybe it's just the black-and-white, but the feeling still creeps over me as I stare longer at the picture. The small bodies and the ugly faces, the particular gestures of each child, each in their own way disconcerting. I don't want to say what I feel like one has to say about symbolic stand-ins: innocence vs. virtue, some quaintly gothic regionalism, the relative outsider status of the photographer (outside the art world that is, he was very much inside his own life as a dad, an optician, a contributing member of his community).

Perhaps it is their composition, the clarity of their strangeness, their fiction. It is this that haunts me the most, how bendable reality can become, how simple elements put together in just the right way can make one feel dread, fear, sorrrow. It is as if Meatyard has made his own strange world separate from ours, but also connected, an aspect of reality rather than a pure assertion of fantasy. Our reality, the status quo, the comfort of modern life is the real fiction. What we know as reality is actually illusory, it is so much stranger than we can admit. Bereft of animism and usually armed with only the threadbare nonsense of the Abrahamic religions to explain the world beneath the surface of the world, we Americans can no longer witness the dark mysteries, except maybe in places like this one. The photos may be staged, but they are, the children, bored, playful, identities hidden, their poses revealing a little about each. But is it urban dread that guides me past any news at 11 and into the discomfit of Meatyard? His subtlety unnerves me.

Andrew Berardini, ArtSlant editor West Coast & Worldwide

Top Image: Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Untitled, ca. 1962. Gelatin silver print, museum purchase, John Pritzker Fund, 2011.4.3. © The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard.

Posted by Andrew Berardini on 11/21/11 | tags: photography

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