Jessica Lange: Highway 61 @Howard Greenberg

JTF (just the facts): A total of 31 black-and-white photographs, in white mattes and black frames, exhibited on the four gray walls of the main gallery and the three walls of the book alcove. The prints are gelatin silver, most being 16×20 inches (or the reverse) while 4 are 40×30 inches (or the reverse.) All were taken and printed between 2011-2019 and are being published in editions of 10. (Installation shots below.)

A companion book of the same name has been published in 2019 by powerHouse books (here, 176 pages, 12 x 11 inches, $75 hardcover).

Comments/Context: Celebrities who want to reveal previously hidden artistic ambitions have the expectation that whatever they produce won’t be ignored. By virtue of their names alone, movie and music stars venturing into the art world will usually prompt a response or a meeting from a curator or a gallerist eager to tell friends and relatives about the encounter. Notoriety comes with privileges not given to anonymous mortals. On the other hand, fame can bring gnawing insecurity. If they’re honest with themselves, these would-be painters, photographers, and sculptors have to realize that their exalted media status invites resentment from anyone not blessed with a nominal passkey that opens fortified doors. Whatever success celebrity artists achieve in their secondary career, they will always wonder if it’s due to the quality of their work or the propitious aura surrounding them from their primary livelihood.

Over the last 25 years, only a few of the celebs with sidelines as photographers have been truly awful (Kenny Rogers, Tyra Banks, James Franco), while many others have showed glimmers of promise (Joel Gray, Leonard Nimoy, Patti Smith, Gary Oldman, Andy Summers, Michael Stipe, Lenny Kravitz, Viggo Mortenson); and one has been remarkably assured (Jeff Bridges.)

Jessica Lange’s work falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Her belief in herself as a photographer isn’t hubristic or a career misstep. As a student, she took courses in photography at the University of Minnesota and has been taking pictures in earnest since the 1990s when her partner Sam Shepard gave her a Leica as a gift. In the last decade she has exhibited at the George Eastman House and other venues. The pictures she is presenting at the Howard Greenberg Gallery are not amateurish. If they seem to be unabashed imitations of pictures by other photographers whom she holds in high esteem—Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ralph Steiner, Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, William Eggleston—she deserves credit for having chosen worthy role models.

The focus of her most recent series is Highway 61, which once ran more than 1,700 miles from Duluth to New Orleans and continues to pass through eight states. Following the meanderings of the Mississippi River, it’s a uniquely American road, like Route 66, with a storied past that dates back to 1926. Celebrants of its cultural juju include Bob Dylan who in his 1965 album and song Highway 61 Revisited made happenings along its length the site for a surrealistic reimagining of American history. “I always felt like I’d started on it, always had been on it and could go anywhere, even down in to the deep Delta country,” he wrote in his book Chronicles: Volume One. “It was my place in the universe, always felt like it was in my blood.”

Like her fellow Minnesotan, the 70 year-old Lange was born and raised at the highway’s northern end (Dylan in Hibbing, she in Cloquet) and has traveled along its two-lane and four-lane manifestations in both directions, for hundreds of its miles, much of her adult life. During the eight years of intermittent photographing selected here, she was witness to the steep decline of optimism associated with the road. Her wall text notes that “long stretches of 61 are empty, forlorn, as if in mourning for what has gone missing—the home-towns, the neighborhoods, family farms, factories and mills.”

Her eye is drawn to scenes of abandonment and struggle, to diners after closing time, deserted streets in deserted towns, storefronts or roadside stands adorned with hand-written signs, motels without customers, shacks decorated with American flags. Geographic or temporal markers are for the most part missing, except for a night-time view of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. It’s often hard to tell when a photograph was taken—5, 10, 25, 50 years ago?—or to guess why something or someone caught her eye. Because they reminded her of people and scenes in other photographs she admired? Or because nostalgia actually has a more tenacious hold on life along Highway 61 than elsewhere?

The two most successful images here, accidentally or not, have cinematic undercurrents. One could be a scene of sex or romance on a movie set; an attractive young man and woman—seen from behind—who are lying in the grass next to a sign that incongruously reads “Cherry Chill” on a hot Minnesota day. She is curled up beside him, bursting out of her top, while he turns toward her with McQueen-like froideur, his blond hair cropped short, his left hand holding a pair of sunglasses. The other uncommon image is of a docked riverboat in the fog on a stormy New Orleans afternoon. Neither image has a clear kinship with the automotive fare that dominates the rest of the show.

This is not the first time that Lange has depicted the plight of rural America. In 1984 she and Shepard starred in Country, a film widely interpreted as a protest against the destruction of family farms by Reagan’s agricultural policies. Her photographs from Highway 61 don’t register the same air of grief or anger; they seem more resigned that the hollowing out of small towns in the Midwest and the lowering of economic opportunities won’t be stopped no matter who is president. (The book and show are dedicated to the memory of Shepard.)

Would Lange have the chance to exhibit her views of this situation in a New York gallery, were she not a movie and television star? Almost certainly not. PowerHouse Books and the Greenberg Gallery have calculated (correctly) that newspapers, magazines, and TV would publicize the work because of who she is, not because of what it is. (By reviewing the show, I am aiding and abetting.) Photographers who don’t have her advantages can rightfully object to these kinds of deals. What’s forgivable is that she is bringing attention to a region of the country that could benefit from her reflected fame.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $4500 or $6500, based on size. Lange’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those interested in following up.

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