BooksWeekend

When Will Ralph Eugene Meatyard Get the Retrospective He Deserves?

Meatyard’s use of masks, shadows, abandoned houses, and figures in motion open up a deep and multi-layered place of feeling that we have yet to fully address.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, “Untitled” (1964), gelatin silver print (© The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery)

When I was in my mid-20s and I had not traveled much, the poet Jonathan Williams made me aware of Lexington, Kentucky, and the possibility that powerful occult forces might have converged upon that area.

All I had previously known about Lexington was that the poet and Trappist monk Thomas Merton lived in a monastery nearby. After Williams began to send me letters and books, many of them published by the Jargon Society, the small press he founded in 1951 with the painter David Ruff (which is now under the auspices of the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center), I learned of the numerous photographers and artists working in the South, including Lyle Bonge, Howard Finster, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Guy Mendes, and St. EOM (Eddie Owens Martin), whose drawings, made while he was living in New York, were the subject of a review I wrote for Hyperallergic Weekend in October.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, “Untitled” (1960), gelatin silver print (© The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery)

What struck me was that Meatyard and Mendes lived in Lexington, along with a number of other people Williams thought I should know about. It was around this time that I bought a copy of longtime Lexingtonian Guy Davenport’s Tatlin!

I mention this for two reasons. Before I began writing reviews for Art in America in 1977, Williams made it clear that art could happen anywhere, not just in New York. The other reason is that I recently traveled to Lexington for the first time and met Guy Mendes. Naturally, we talked about Jonathan Williams, the master of bon mots, who used to sign his letters, “Lord Nose,” and the many different people that Williams knew, championed, and photographed. One thing that came out of the friendship between Williams and Mendes is the posthumously published book, Walks to the Paradise Garden: A Lowdown Southern Odyssey (2019) by Roger Manley, Mendes, and Williams, and edited by Phillip March Jones, which was reviewed by Edward M. Gómez for Hyperallergic Weekend.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, “Untitled” (1966), gelatin silver print (© The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, courtesy Fraenkel Galler)

I had been invited to Lexington by Stuart Horodner, the director of the University of Kentucky Art Museum, whom I have known for many years, to give a talk. Knowing of my enthusiasm for the enigmatic photographs of Meatyard (1925–1972), Horodner sent me Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Stages for Being, which was published this month. It is the catalog of an exhibition that originated at the University of Kentucky Art Museum (September 8–December 9, 2018) and will travel to the Bates College Museum of Art, in Lewiston, Maine, in the fall (October 25, 2019–March 28, 2020). It seems that I missed the exhibition in Kentucky and must now decide whether or not I am going to Lewiston.

In “Being Here,” her essay for the catalog, the curator Janie M. Welker provides a very useful biography of Meatyard and some of the people he knew in Lexington. These people included Merton; the abstract painter Frederic Thursz; the writer, farmer, and environmental activist, Wendell Berry; and the writer, translator, essayist, poet, artist and philosopher, Guy Davenport.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, “Untitled” (circa 1971), gelatin silver print (© The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery)

She also conveys the likelihood that “the waiting room/gallery of Meatyard’s own business, Eyeglasses of Kentucky” taught him as much as he learned from his friends and mentors. She points out that Van Deren Coke, who went on to become an important photography curator at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among other institutions, was the informal leader of the Lexington Camera Club, to which Meatyard, Mendes, James Baker Hall, Robert C. May, and others belonged.

What distinguishes this book and makes it an important contribution to what we know about Meatyard is the trove of unpublished photographs it offers. Best known for his last, disturbing body of work, The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater, which was published by Williams’s Jargon Society in 1974, Meatyard, as the current volume informs us, had other sides of his short, intense career: ghostly silhouettes; figures in motion and blurred landscapes; weathered shacks in the wilderness. The other distinguishing feature of the book is that it includes responses to Meatyard’s photographs by a wide range of — as the back cover states — “contemporary artists, curators, and educators.”

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, “Untitled” (1960), gelatin silver print (© The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery)

While this kind of situation — a living artist writing about a dead one — can lead to extravagant fluff and hyperactive praise, this is not the case here. Roger Ballen’s memory of his discovery of Meatyard’s photographs in the Strand bookstore in the 1970s, Judy Linn’s analysis of a dark, moody portrait, and Laurel Nakadate’s description of her journey through Kentucky, discovering distant relatives, suggest the extent of his still under-recognized achievement and legacy.

At a time when issues of identity and gender are important to many artists’s work, Meatyard’s use of masks, shadows, the architecture of abandoned houses, and figures in motion open up a deep and multi-layered place of feeling that we have yet to fully address. The beautifully designed Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Stages for Being helps us on our journey to understanding this great photographer’s enigmatic work.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Stages for Being (2019), edited with text by Stuart Horodner and Janie M. Welker, is published by The University of Kentucky Art Museum. It is available for purchase on Amazon and other online retailers.

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