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New Horizons in Road Trip Photography

Photo by Dru Donovan (courtesy the artist)
Photo by Dru Donovan (courtesy the artist)

MEMPHIS — The American tradition of road photography has typically captured a certain spirit of adventure, a search for unexpected beauty, oddity, maybe even enlightenment out there in the far corners of the country. The gaze is most commonly male, white, and aloof (think Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Alec Soth). The idea is to locate something new — the “other” — that might illuminate or reinvigorate the things we thought we knew back home.

The photographs and videos in Anthology: Somewhere Not Here, the current group exhibition at Crosstown Arts, point to different reasons to light out for open territory, different types of journeys, and a different vision of the other. “You walk down the street an innocent black man, and you getting stopped and frisked for no reason,” says an aspiring rapper rolling a blunt in the backseat of an SUV in Hannah Price’s 20-minute experimental documentary “Blueprint” (2014). Johanna Case-Hofmeister’s 14-minute video “Go By Feel” juxtaposes a scene of cowboys burning a mattress with a woman’s harrowing story of her mother running through the woods after being set on fire by her deranged boyfriend. These videos push the boundaries of road photography by pointing to urgent motives outside of our romanticized vision of the open road and beyond the artist’s control.

Photo by Justine Kurland (courtesy the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York)
Photo by Justine Kurland (courtesy the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York)

The wall opposite these large-scale projections is mostly blank, except for a series of postcard-sized photographs backed by aluminum and set on ledges like a distant line of train cars. Presented at that scale, the pictures seem to hold secrets; they require you to lean in and take a closer look. In them, we witness the malaise of travel: Rory Mulligan’s black-and-white images of an old-model sedan in different weather; Justine Kurland’s photo of a shirtless man draped over a motorcycle. We find hints of tension and unease: Curran Hatleberg’s nighttime shot of an elderly white couple glowering at a biracial couple in front of a garish, overgrown azalea bush. We see ghostly shadows in Price’s photos, and outright madness in Case-Hofmeister’s “After the Assassination.” These are postcards of things we weren’t meant to see, things we won’t soon forget.

The photographer Tommy Kha, who curated the show, has assembled a strangely cohesive collection of 40 photographs, six videos, and one video mixtape. As an “anthology,” the exhibition makes the case for something of a new generation of American road artists scattered across the country and representing many different racial, cultural, and sexual identities. The sheer spectrum of voices points to a shift in the notion of “the other” on the American road. The other is now behind the camera — quite literally in Jen Davis’s self-portraits — and speaks in a multitude of voices. Kha, a first-generation Chinese-American who grew up gay in Memphis and now lives in New York City, has a strong feel for narrative that holds these individual voices together.

Manal Abu-Shaheen , "Beirut/Big Ben. Dbayeh Suburb of Beirut, Lebanon" (2014), archival fiber inkjet print, 16 x 24 in (courtesy the artist)
Manal Abu-Shaheen , “Beirut/Big Ben. Dbayeh Suburb of Beirut, Lebanon” (2014), archival fiber inkjet print, 16 x 24 in (courtesy the artist)

The title, Anthology: Somewhere Not Here, suggests displacement, a desire for movement, a dream state, but also a futile search for a sense of place. It echoes the adolescent lament “anywhere but here,” a siren call for photographers to take to the road. And the photographs here evoke both the thrill and the potential nightmare of giving in to that impulse. The first photograph that we encounter along the set of ledges is Dru Donovan’s profile shot of a house, which on second glance is actually just a fragment of a house, all façade propped up by two-by-fours like a child’s drawing of a house, the mere idea of home. In between the travel images, several other photographers hark back to Donovan’s idea of home and the disruption of its illusion. Manal Abu-Shaheen photographs trompe l’oeil billboards of familiar scenes (suburbia, Big Ben) partially hiding the rubble-filled and unfinished landscape of her native Beirut.

This vacillation between the road and domesticity is perhaps the strongest statement of the exhibition. It dramatizes the pull between old and new, between the familiar and the strange, and the artist’s experience of not fitting in either place and longing for a place you can’t go back to. This tension is particularly strong in Ka-Man Tse’s depiction of the first meeting between her new wife and her Chinese parents. The three subjects are seated around the dinner table, not making eye contact, while the father holds up a pale piece of meat in front of the mother’s face. Tse’s unofficial title is “steakface.” The other that we once sought on our road trip adventures has come home to roost.

Photo by Ka-Man Tse (courtesy the artist)
Photo by Ka-Man Tse (courtesy the artist)

None of the artists in the show hail from Memphis. The closest they come is Pixy Liao, who has an MFA from the University of Memphis, but her material is set on the Chinese train system and at Coney Island. This openness to outside perspectives is part of the mission of Crosstown Arts, which strives to cultivate a rich local arts community by connecting it to artists from other places and larger cultural trends. Memphis’s situation matches perfectly the in-between state captured in the exhibition; located deep in the heart of the country, a crossroads between east and Midwest, north and south, the city is a melting pot of styles and sounds, part rockabilly, part hip-hop. It’s also the hometown of William Eggleston, and his influence can’t be ignored in the sublime and secretive nature of the objects and scenes captured in many of these photographs — and in their humor.

Photo by Ryan James MacFarland (courtesy the artist)
Photo by Ryan James MacFarland (courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

For all the dark shadows that fall over the canvas of Anthology: Somewhere Not Here, threads of levity and playfulness are woven throughout, reflecting the droll comedy we find in Kha’s own work. What appear at first to be abstractions of water, grass, and sand in Ryan James MacFarland’s photos turn out to be the artist’s stream of urine hitting various surfaces. Liao’s video mixtape reenacts the ultimate staycation: a threesome version of John and Yoko’s lie in.

The last piece we encounter, having made the round of the gallery space, is Lilly McElroy‘s video “Hopeful Romantic” (2011), which features her in various natural landscapes, from Maine to California, boombox raised over her head as she shimmies to the Bruce Springsteen anthem “Dancing in the Dark.” It is a parting gesture of humor and defiance, dancing across the country, heading west, which, for the Arizona-born McElroy, is home.

Sara Maria Salamone, "Christmas Day 2006" (courtesy the artist)
Sara Maria Salamone, “Christmas Day 2006” (courtesy the artist)
Photo by Pixy Liao (courtesy the artist)
Photo by Pixy Liao (courtesy the artist)

Anthology: Somewhere Not Here continues at Crosstown Arts (442 North Cleveland Street, Memphis, Tennessee) through September 17.

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