JTF (just the facts): A total of 7 color photographs and 1 color video. Two of the photographs are installed on opposite walls in the foyer, while 5 other photographs are hung on four walls (painted blue) in the main gallery space (entered through a black curtain) where the video is projected on the western wall. All of the photographs are pigment prints and produced in editions of five. Six are dated 2017 and one is dated 2016. Sizes vary between 27×36 and 39×52 inches. The video is 25 minutes 16 seconds in duration, and produced in an edition of seven. (Installations shots and video stills below.)
Comments/Context: Jeff Whetstone is one of America’s outstanding landscape photographers, with a particular appreciation for the creeks, ponds, swamps, and rivers that snake across the landscape of the South. There is seldom anything pristine left in these watery wildernesses by now, and he seems to prefer looking at them in this compromised state. In one of my favorite pictures of his, from the early 1990s, a mountain bike lies on its side in a rushing stream. Abandoned some years or maybe only months before his arrival on the scene, the metal frame is mottled with lichens and missing its seat. A cluster of stones has lodged itself in the spokes of the rear tire, pushed there by the relentless flow of the fast-moving water. An all-too-familiar example of thoughtless littering, this scene would not be fun to come across on a hike in the woods and would remain an ugly stain if not for this photograph, which transforms it into a grotesque and touching work of art.
Trained as a scientist—he has a degree in zoology from Duke as well as an MFA from Yale—Whetstone is curious about the many ways that human beings have intervened in nature and the equally creative ways it has resisted domination over the centuries. Several bodies of work (he features a dozen now on his website) are about the tension between these countervailing forces and attempt to understand the reasons why, despite constant and careless abuse, these outdoor places continue to be touchstones of solace and contemplation.
Batture Ritual, his fourth solo show at Julie Saul, perfectly reflects his sensibility. The word is French in origin and refers to the shifting alluvial plains along the Mississippi River, between the water’s edge at low-tide and the levees. It is unstable terrain, the extent of its deposits fluctuating with the daily or yearly cycles of the salt-fresh waters.
In New Orleans, where Whetstone was commissioned to make this work for the Prospect 4 Triennial, these interstitial pieces of land have also been politically contested. During the decades after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the battures, which had previously been reserved for public use, attracted speculators, who sought to privatize them.
Whetstone’s series is almost wholly concerned with the rituals and rhythms of life in these semi-wild areas. Although they front on the water, they are not desirable places for real estate investment. In scenes both sunlit and nocturnal, he portrays the people who scratch out a livelihood or recreate in the battures. Still Life with Catfish presents the eviscerated torso of the animal, which a fisherman has left, head intact, on a makeshift cutting board by the river, the carcass dotted with a metallic shimmer of green flies. In Ictalarus a pile of freshwater catfish lies on a dock at night next to the legs of the heavily tattooed fisherman; while in Nerodia, a disembodied hand, wearing a coiling, harmless water snake like a wriggling bracelet, holds it against a round pool of soft light.
The only misfire in the show may be Ode to the Algiers Batture, a staged photograph of a woman at night who, wearing a white nightgown and half-submerged in the water, hangs on to a white rope suspended from a tree—an image that is more historically disturbing than it was probably intended to be.
In earlier series, such as Central Range and in the more recent Crossing the Delaware, Whetstone has exaggerated the spatial ambiguity of various subjects when he photographs them running parallel to the picture plane and creating disorienting layers of flatness. Here, he has photographed the container ship Hammonia Venetia as it passes along the river, its serrated profile of boxes stacked at various heights against the horizon like an urban skyline.
He has further investigated these properties in the centerpiece of the show, a 25-minute color video entitled The Batture Ritual that was shot over two years and edited to simulate the 24 hours of a single day. Placing his medium-format digital camera in a willow tree, he recorded from a fixed point of view, and with wide-angles lenses, the goings on in a tiny cross-section of the river.
In a moonlit landscape of trees and water—a bucolic scene perhaps anywhere except in this batture—we watch from behind as a lean shirtless young man fishes with a pole and net on the shore, accompanied by the sound of lapping waves and whirring crickets.
His efforts don’t appear to be successful, however, and the silence is continually broken by the hot thrum of diesel engines, as barges and cruise ships of immense dimensions, and bristling with lights, pass from right to left, often eclipsing half of the frame. The video is like a battle between the slow, unobtrusive processes of Nature and the crushing implacable might of industry and commerce, with Whetstone’s watchful camera as a referee unable to interfere.
Movies such as Mud (2012) and Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) have tended to romanticize the desperate hardships of life along the riverine coast of the Mississippi Delta. The atmosphere of Batture is likewise wet and sticky—these are images that relish the dankness of silty water and steamy nights—but Whetstone is careful not to get too close to the characters in his photographs or videos. Watching The Batture Ritual, I was reminded of T.S. Eliot’s impersonal voice in The Dry Salvages (“I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river/Is a strong brown god, sullen, untamed and intractable…”) or The Wasteland (“I sat upon the shore/Fishing, with the arid plain behind me/Shall I at least set my lands in order?”)
In his 1991-96 series Kingdom Come Creek, Whetstone wrote: “The land is active and alive like a river, and it plays upon us even now in our apparent modernity. We make footpaths between sidewalks, we congregate where fish swim, we hunt even though we don’t need food, and we search for space, open and wide to play. We all live close to the land, not just farmers and miners, but also children who find themselves at home in a vacant lot, and suburbanites who are affected by the powerful urge to nurture the scraggly vines of a tomato plant. We may believe that our will to form the landscape around us is an essential element in the power of our species, but we are riding on a river of earth that bends around the seasons and courses through the days. The changing view it offers us is the main force that guides us to adapt and evolve. Our ownership of the land is a myth. We die. We dig a hole. And in the end, the landscape owns us.”
With the flooding in the Carolinas this week and the growing threat of global catastrophe from climate change, Whetstone has more evidence every year to support his belief that we are no match for Nature and that the watery landscape will own us sooner than any of us had planned.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The photographs range between $6800 and $8200, based on size, and the video is $8000. Whetstone’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.