NEW ORLEANS – Prospect 2 isn’t just about the new or the conceptual or the overwrought: William Eggleston brings a pair of several decades-old works to his Prospect installation at the Old US Mint on the edge of the French Quarter, and together they offer the most satisfying viewing experience of anything I’ve seen so far in this edition of the biennial.
Eggleston’s “Nightclub Portraits” (1973), first shown en suite at Cheim and Read in New York a few years ago, is a series of large scale black and white photographs of the denizens of the dives and juke joints of Memphis. At first glance they’re a world away from the intimate color studies many viewers still associate the artist with, though despite their brash presence they exhibit the same subtlety and attention to detail that characterizes all of Eggleston’s work.
In another gallery, Eggleston’s “Stranded in Canton” (1973-2005) plays on a continuous loop. Two prominent wall labels and an eager Prospect docent warned me on the way in that the content in the film might be “disturbing” to some visitors, and indeed I was barely there for thirty seconds before a flustered mom bundled her twin six year olds out of the gallery after one of Eggleston’s drinking buddies let loose a string of profanity-laced babble. (Good thing she didn’t stick around for the part where one of his subjects bites the head off a live chicken.) Reading as a sort of filmic cross between Brassai’s portraits of the Parisian demimonde and Larry Clark‘s documentation of teenage heroin addicts – but with a sensibility wholly Eggleston’s – Stranded in Canton” is alternately poignant, tragic, violent, tender, and sublime.
There are plenty of excerpts of “Stranded in Canton” online, and you can even watch the whole thing on YouTube if you don’t mind a couple of commerical interruptions. Watched in its entirety at the Old US Mint, however, the film gains additional resonance from its immediate environment: several of its scenes were filmed in the streets and bars just a few blocks away in the French Quarter, and its characters engage in a conceptual dialogue with their “Nightclub Portraits” counterparts in the adjacent gallery.
Taken together, “Nightclub Portraits” and “Stranded in Canton” not only add an unexpected layer of depth to Eggleston’s already rich career, but some welcome historical heft to the Prospect lineup.
Prospect 2 runs through January 29, 2012, in various locations around New Orleans. Visit www.prospectneworleans.org for more information.