Art

With a Wall of Photos, Bernadette Mayer Evokes a Landscape of Memories

Bernadette Mayer’s installation of a wall of images from 1971 is far too evocative of my own history for me to step back and see it “objectively.”

Bernadette Mayer, Memory, installation view (photo courtesy of CANADA, LLC)

Bernadette Mayer’s Memory, now on view at CANADA gallery, was originally shown at Holly Solomon’s performance space in 1972. Mayer shot a roll of 35 mm slide film each day for a month, in July of 1971. For each roll of film she created a diary entry. She made snapshots from the slides and displayed them unedited in a large block and read the entire diary aloud recording it on tape. The installation at CANADA shows all 1,100 images with the recording functioning as a score.

The images are faded, much like the ones you find in a shoe box in your mother or grandmother’s attic, with yellowing edges that tuck into the traditional stick-on photo corners meant for an album or scrapbook. At first glance the installation is one massive abstract grid and it’s difficult to focus on any one image. I wander along in front of this wall of images and then, to my amazement, I see someone familiar.

Single photo detail, Memory (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The man in the photograph looks like Dennis Budrick, someone I last saw when he looked about the same age. He is not Dennis, but the resemblance is striking: a skinny boy with long, brown hair and a cigarette in his mouth. Suddenly, I can see all of us — Dennis, me, my cousin, her boyfriend Scott — lying on her front lawn, stoned, staring up at the clouds. A short way off, in the neighbors driveway, moving men are loading a large truck. My cousin’s parents are away and we are free to do as we please. Our sole task is to watch her maternal grandfather, a tiny patrician man born in the 19th century, who had a white, waxed, handlebar mustache, was maybe five feet tall, never appeared outside his bedroom without a suit jacket on, and looked so brittle I always feared he would snap like a dried out twig.

Bliss. Days were spent watching the moving men and lying about in the grass in a state of oblivion. My cousin mentioned at some point that the neighbors had been there a long time and never even mentioned they were leaving. When her parents got back we discovered that the neighbors were on vacation too, and we had watched for days in broad daylight all of their belongings being packed into a truck and stolen by thieves. The house was completely empty. Not even a roll of toilet paper remained.

Single photo detail, Memory (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

At first, Mayer’s words are as hard to distinguish from one another as are her images. Listening to them is akin to adjusting ones eyes to the dark. Somewhere in her text she remarks: “I say I don’t remember this day at all and these pictures I can’t remember.”

The first car I ever drove was a ‘66 gold Dodge Dart. It belonged to my mother. I had a weekend job at Rockland State Hospital and I was always running late to work. In those days, in the winter, you had to warm a car up before driving it and I never had the time or patience. One morning while speeding along the Palisades Parkway a pounding noise began to rattle the car so hard I thought it might explode. Then the engine cut off and I was coasting. I’d thrown a rod. I was late for Jimmy Maloney, who wore a football helmet 24 hours a day and who banged his head against walls and even his own shoulders so vehemently that he sported the cauliflower ears of a true boxing champ; late for Andy, the tallest boy on the ward across the hall, who painted pictures on the wall with his feces and whose father was a doctor at the hospital who never once visited him; late for Macmillan, who greeted my entry on the ward every time I came in with, “Miss Silas, this is your lucky day.”

Single photo detail, Memory (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Bill worked at Rockland State too. That’s how I met him. He drove a green MGBT. He once left it broken down at the bottom of my mother’s driveway for a week. That was hard to explain. Mayer says: “The whole world doesn’t exist for him he’s a monster without tails.” Pretty accurate. He worked as an attendant on the psych ward across the hall. He was handsome in a sloppy way and wore a black eye-patch over one eye like a pirate. When he was tired, he would check himself into the adult ward at the hospital, his Nurse Ratched keys to the children’s ward temporarily checked like a policeman’s gun upon entering a courtroom. He seemed to enjoy himself there on a Thorazine-assisted holiday.

Mayer’s photograph is beautiful. The image was taken somewhere suburban. What looks like a green MG to me, is on the road passing a white, wood frame house with dark shutters that has a small outbuilding one-car garage. An elongated, brown station wagon is parked at the end of the driveway. It looks so time specific. Of course, the cars contribute to that, but so does the quality and resolution of the photograph, its modest scale, the way it has faded over time.

Single photo detail, Memory (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In my last year of high school, the gold Dodge Dart blown, my mother picked up a black Cadillac at an estate sale. I think it was a ’67. It was the most magnificent object I had ever laid eyes upon. It had belonged to an elderly woman who never drove it. It might have had 15,000 miles on it, if that. Unlike Mayer’s Cadillac it was a hardtop. The seats were black fabric but the edges of each seat were lined in white leather with a thin band of white leather piping where white met black. It had a very large diameter steering wheel that looked like a jewel and felt in ones hands like the reigns of a magical steed. The steering wheel too was black and white and the white portions were opalescent. I had a long black raincoat, which I donned to drive this enormous car. I never felt so glamorous as I did when I swung the door to that car open and stepped out of it.

And there was one other Cadillac of that vintage in my life back then. It was bright pink with a white convertible top. It was driven by an attendant at Rockland State Hospital, the man who ran the numbers. He was Hispanic and always wore a white jumpsuit and a hat. He was easy to spot driving through the grounds, collecting chits of paper with bets on them, and on occasion delivering money to some lucky sap whose numbers hit. As soon as someone eyed that car everyone instinctively ran to the windows to watch him drive by.

Single photo detail, Memory (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Wikipedia entry on Maxwell’s Plum reads:

Maxwell’s Plum was a “flamboyant restaurant and singles bar that, more than any place of its kind, symbolized two social revolutions of the 1960’s — sex and food,” at 1181 First Avenue (64th and 1st Avenue) in Manhattan. Owned by Warner LeRoy, it closed abruptly on July 10, 1988.

To this day, on the rare occasions when I find myself on the Upper East Side, a part of me still looks for that red awning — not that I frequented the place often. A friend’s much older boyfriend was a waiter there. I remember sitting off to the side of the action one night, watching Rex Harrison, seated at a choice table, with a woman whom we suspected of being a paid escort. She was heavily made up and her hairdo, makeup, and clothing suggested she had just finished modeling for Velázquez. Richard Burton had quite a bit to say in his diaries about Harrison’s various female consorts, but prior to that moment, the only consort I had imagined him with was Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.

Single photo detail, Memory. Image by the author.

I arrived at Reed College in 1971. The school had a basement poolroom. I spent way too much time there trying to learn to play and watching two people who nearly made a living playing pool. One was Mark, an African-American student, very petite and fine boned, who drove an old Jaguar convertible to school, and the other was John, a tall, working class history professor, who was hoping for tenure. This was where I learned about Willie Mosconi and where I learned about keeping your cards close to your chest. I went to college to meet talented pool hustlers. What I knew about pool up to that point I learned from Fast Eddie Felson and Minnesota Fats. Fast Eddie, played in The Hustler by the screen idol Paul Newman, was especially beloved in my family for being part Jewish. And then there was Jackie Gleason, who reputedly played his own game for the film.

Mark graduated and he and the beautiful, old, white Jag with the red leather interior moved on and I have no idea what became of him. John didn’t get tenure and began hustling in Portland trying to figure out what to do next. He was smart and capable, so I never knew whether he lost out on the tenure offer because he was working class. Maybe word got out that he could take the best players at all the local pubs and pool halls, something the stuffy Reed history faculty would surely have frowned upon. In a prior tenure meeting a brilliant and much loved faculty member was reproved and voted against because he was caught having sex with a male student in his car. When a fellow faculty member, and the only vote in favor of tenure (and the source of this savory tidbit) in the history department pointed out to the chair that he too had been caught once having sex in a car with a student, the chair turned beet red and bellowed, “But that was a girl!”

Bernadette Mayer, Memory, detail (image courtesy of CANADA gallery, LLC)

What has all this to do with Bernadette Mayer? It wouldn’t normally occur to me to review an exhibition by regaling the reader with personal memories — not exactly a review. But what I found extraordinary about this show was the degree to which it got me thinking about things I hadn’t thought about in a very long time, things connected with roughly the same period Mayer documents. The events I describe took place between 1969 and 1972.

There is something exacting and precise about this installation and I am tied to the time it was made. Her writing has a certain style, short on punctuation and long on ampersands. And of course there is the photography itself. One of its significant attributes is that it can show us what something used to look like, something that has vanished, or taken place elsewhere, or grown and changed — the “what it used to look like” effect. Mayer created a series of photographs that make no attempt at being artful or formally beautiful. There is no sense that each roll is somehow a preplanned narrative. It feels very much like the document of a moment. The text is not a caption but functions as a layer of memory about the images. She recounts her day to herself in her diary after she had shot the roll of film. She doesn’t actually see the images again until the end of the month. This lag between shooting and developing has disappeared with digital photography. But for Mayer, by the time she sees her images, her memory of what she shot may have changed too. It’s a month since the first roll. She even edits her text once she sees the images.

And then I walk into the gallery, with my life and baggage. I am younger than Mayer, but not by a lot. So what is depicted is part of the landscape of memory for me too. And it’s so very particular. Instead of thinking about the show critically, I am swept up in the tailwind of it and I end up creating a new layer of memory that rests on top of what she has given, and I suspect that this can only happen to those for whom these images exist in direct correlation with experience. In other words, if you weren’t yet born in 1971, it is a question what happens when you enter this show and look at this installation and hear Mayer’s comforting and confident voice. Truthfully, I have no idea. It was far too evocative of my own history for me to step back and see it “objectively.” For me, this exhibition was a real gift of memory.

Bernadette Mayer’s Memory, continues on view at CANADA gallery (333 Broome Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 8.

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