Tracy Wagner (click here for detail) and Mark Starnes (detail here). Photography by Benjamin V. Grad of Proclaim It Lost.
Lust, gluttony, and that old Southern longing for “days gone by” – Tracy Wagner and Mark Starnes attempt a visual commentary on a number of stated themes. The difference in media made for a nice contrast: collage and mixed media for Wagner and photography for Starnes.
Water tower series by Mark Starnes.
Mark Starnes' photographs depict a handful of “phallic” silos, barnyard interiors, and a local pie-eating contest near his native South Carolina. Caked with industrial grime and the usual sort of country erosion, his water towers achieve a convincing sense of loneliness, decay, and nostalgia.
The series as a whole, however, forms a rather hodgepodge narrative, united by the vague explanation, “from seed to table.” Starnes’ compositions lack dynamism and convey almost little aesthetic or social consciousness beyond the merely incidental. While the details are quite strong, the choice to perfectly center each tower feels a little too “documentary.”
I can’t hear the artist’s voice; I can’t see his intervention as a professional re-presenter of cultural landscapes.
I'm reminded of
One of many water tower series by Bernd and Hilla Becher.
those obsessively serialized water towers (above) by the mid-century German duo, Bernd and Hilla Becher. Their shots of single towers are another interesting comparison. Documenting towers – their shape, construction, and for the politically inclined, their physical relationship to power – is a familiar strategy.
Although I don't feel qualified to comment accurately, it seems like the Bechers had a vision similar to Starnes. According to the Goethe Institute, "What they photographed mainly found itself in retreat from the present."
But what is the aesthetic value of nostalgia? What is its mission, culturally, in America today?
A local pie-eating contest. Notice the posture on this figure: the county fair prepares America's youth for the all-important, "adult" task of performing fellatio.
In his critique of the Mule Day festival in Columbia, Tennessee, Rodger Brown dissects the melancholia of white Southern consciousness:
Nostalgia is a homesickness displaced from any geographical reality, involving reconstructed versions of the past … Remembering a revised, obsolete past is the prescribed remedy for those troubling disturbances of the present that keep us awake at night.1According to Brown, rural festivals like Mule Day and the Rattlesnake Round-Up are rituals of American nostalgia. His logic extends to the pie-eating contest. A routine celebration of rural, agrarian life:
- Rodger Brown, Ghost Dancing on the Cracker Circuit, p. 175.
Typically, the ritual translates into a lame exercise in low culture vulgarity (eating a pie headfirst, the way a horse devours oats).Local Grain + Oven = Momma’s Home Cookin’
Starnes' photo project has potential, but I'd like to see the concept refined and taken much further.
Tracy Wagner, click for detail here.
Tracy Wagner's mixed media pieces, on the other hand, were a lot more interesting. Wagner's colors recall the smothered icing of a layered birthday cake. It's a fitting analogy: sugary decadence, one of the few vices acceptable to middle-class, Puritan sensibilities. Wagner evokes the classic American home - reconstructed here as a '50s sitcom.
When paper is used, Wagner takes extra care into choosing surfaces that evoke the camp of that era. This image is composed of pages from a vintage cook book:
Does anyone recognize that heart shape enclosing the shortcake? A curvilinear silhouette, modeled after antique jewelry or perhaps plaster designs in the Rococo style. The outline reminds me of the Young Blood logo.
I preferred the pieces that - in addition to detailed surface textures - incorporated grays and earth tones to balance the overly saccharine, pastel hues. But overall, I'm not sure if I understand Wagner's strategy: are these "country collages" attempting to criticize or celebrate her source material?
Normally, this wouldn't bother me, but there's something terrifying about the '50s and its sugar-coated fantasy about itself. If you doubt the subliminal terror of that decade, take a moment to watch the documentary, Atomic Café. (And for dessert, I'd probably wash that down with The Fog of War).
I'm told that this is Wagner pushing in a new interpretive direction. When I look at her earlier, more "draftsmanly" works, I wonder which direction she'll go.
Despite the works’ honesty and playful, clean presentation, neither artist seems to fully achieve the goal of the show. I don’t see anyone taking risks. Moreover, both Wagner and Starnes seem burdened by our wearily familiar, “regional” aesthetic.
Ironically, the artist statement makes a clever use of “comfort food” as a metaphor for the harmful effects of nostalgia. In what way are we - the artists and writers of this region - stuck in our “comfort zones?” How can we comment on our heritage without losing ourselves to its boredom?
Manqué: also known as that burning lack that causes one to desire more.
1 I should credit Jerry Cullum for recommending this book. I haven't finished it yet, but so far, it's a great blend of journalism and applied critical theory. Google has the passage on nostalgia and denial here.