I like that Fraenkel Gallery doesn’t present the pairing of the two artists featured in their latest exhibition with an overwrought thesis. Burchfield / Meatyard is its own kind of poetry. The painter and the photographer do have a “shared sensibility” of nature that’s maybe summed up by a shared preference for peace and quiet, a place to go and think about looking.
Burchfield said that an artist “must paint not what he sees in nature, but what is there.” I dig deep to try and reconcile this quote with what I’m seeing in his Summer Sun of 1920, to put them in a corner and sort out their differences in the service of meaning, but I can’t. And I don’t have to, because I’ve decided that Burchfield is lying. The sun is clearly dead, and the sky that he makes dominate the picture is as grey and swollen as the belly of a dead lush.
I can’t un-know the fact that Charles Burchfield spent a good deal of his professional life designing wallpaper, or that Ralph Eugene Meatyard was an optician. I think I know that if Burchfield’s ephemeral watercolors are about seeing, then Meatyard’s buzzing, blurring photographs of the kind on view are slightly more grounded in the interest of vision itself. What I see more immediately is sad—albeit ecstatic, intelligent, dreamy, and perhaps reticent—men. I can’t see shit.
Charles Burchfield, White Picket Fence, Ca. 1965, Watercolor, charcoal, and chalk on joined paper, 53 x 40 inches; © The Charles E. Burchfield Foundation/ courtesy Fraenkel Gallery and DC Moore Gallery.
I see some hardcore looking, not totally unaffected by the artists’ other, more pedestrian professions. Burchfield sometimes deigns to suggest aerial perspective here and there in his earlier work, but even the most sprawling, energetic watercolors are stuck to the plane. White Picket Fence, 1965, is fraught with movement, but mainly left and right, up and down movement, ready to take over the entire room. Time itself is flattened in the strips of paper added to the picture years after its inception, and faded accordingly to various degrees. That part is my favorite.
Meatyard’s silvery black and white photographs don’t offer up their process very easily. Depth of field is often absent, refracted into kaleidoscopic patterns, sometimes blurred to the point of indistinction, other times just enough to recall the hazy vision with which many of his patients must have moved through the world. He doesn’t seem to want to fix it in this optically more experimental body of work. (The photographer is better known for his photographs of masked children looking mundanely sinister).
Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Untitled, 1964, Gelatin-silver print, 7 ¼ x7 1/8inches; © The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.
The frenzied strokes of Burchfield’s later work in particular, read like the screams of a tortured agnostic raging against the dying of light—of course, his ambivalent relationship to God is another piece of outside information butting into my vision, but I privilege it because I empathize with it.
If Burchfield and Meatyard achieved transcendence through nature, it is only insofar as nature in these bodies of work is largely unpeopled. I don’t feel very consciously situated in relation to their pictures, and I don’t think their visions of nature are out to teach me anything. I think they just want me to go away.
(Image on top: Charles Burchfield, Night, ca. 1920, Watercolor on paper , 22 ¼ x 30 ½ inches; © The Charles E. Burchfield Foundation/ courtesy Fraenkel Gallery and DC Moore Gallery.)