M L Casteel, American Interiors

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by Dewi Lewis Publishing (here). Hardcover, 96 pages, with 56 color reproductions. Includes essays by Jörg M. Colberg and Ken MacLeish. Design by the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: When we think about the spaces we inhabit on a regular basis, they generally divide themselves into two separate groups – public and private – and depending on our location, we tend to adapt our behavior to suit the circumstances. But a car interior is a special kind of hybrid, a resolutely personal place where we make ourselves comfortable, but also one where we are routinely on display to strangers and passersby.

For photographers, the interior of a car has generally been a venue for looking out, sometimes on a road trip or long distance journey, and often using the edges and surfaces of the windshield, the side mirrors, or the side windows as a handy framing device. But few photographers have turned their cameras inward and cared to document what is to be found inside. This is what M L Casteel has done in his understated photobook American Interiors, and the results are more nuanced and compelling that we might have imagined.

Casteel worked as a valet in the parking lot of the VA hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, for a period of seven years, and during that time, he had a chance to interact with many military veterans who were coming there to receive care. Over the years, as he moved the cars back and forth, he noticed that many of the car interiors showed signs of decay and disrepair, and a few were clearly places where less fortunate vets were living. He started to snap anonymous images of the interiors as he did his job, in effect, creating indirect portraits of the absent owners.

Compositionally, the pictures are generally taken from the perspective of sitting in the driver’s seat, so there are only a handful of possible views – directly forward at the steering wheel, up toward the rear view mirror, down toward the pedals, to the right (taking in the passenger seat, the center console/gear shift, and the passenger door), and over the shoulder (taking in the right half of the back seat). These constraints keep the photographs inside a narrow band of outcomes, offering a basic structure within which Casteel could experiment.

When we step back and look at the content of Casteel’s photographs, patterns start to emerge, and it isn’t entirely a pretty picture in terms of how veterans are living (and being treated) back at home. Given that Casteel was shooting at a hospital, it isn’t surprising that he found medical material in many of the cars, but this practical reality doesn’t soften the blow of the parade of canes, pill bottles, and syringes that awaits him. The ongoing consequences of both the physical and mental injuries endured by vets weigh heavily here, and the simple grimness of a pairing of a breathing tube and a pack of cigarettes lying on the passenger seat feels like an overt sign of chronic despair.

This mood darkens as we start to find repeated evidence that some vets are likely living in their cars. Dirty socks and underwear crumple on the floor, bathroom gear (toilet paper, toothbrushes, towels) lies loose on the grimy seats, and the leftover remnants of meals (mostly fast food, soda, and beer) gathers in discarded, half-eaten piles. In the dirtiest cars, the trash and the useful items are so intermingled that the mess seems to have a life of its own, the stains and smudges climbing up the seats and onto the doors and ceiling.

Many images quietly allude to an abundance of empty time. Whether this is a direct result of long wait times at the hospital or more insidious truths about unemployed vets spending extended periods alone and isolated, we can’t know for sure, but the artifacts left behind tell the story. Newspapers, worn magazines, half done crossword puzzles, porn videos, and ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts add up to too much time idling, and the paper calendar taped to the steering wheel with one month marked with an X and the next scribbled out doesn’t feel like the work of someone too busy.

One clear consistent theme that comes through in these still life arrangements is a search for answers and paths forward. Handguns and knives tell us that violence (and protection from harm) remain fresh in the minds of vets, but many seem to be looking for new ways to live. Bibles and images of Jesus allude to a religious option, while snapshots of wives and children tucked in visors and kids’ toys on the backseat provide potential solace for others. While scratch-off lottery tickets and rabbits feet feel like pessimistic hope for a flash of overdue good luck, an American flag with the small handwritten caption “BETTER DAYS !!” seems to capture the combination of patriotism and perseverance that keeps many vets going. Bright sun and white sand beaches (on a box of tissues at least) feel like glimmers of optimism.

Casteel’s images succeed on several levels – not only do they bring empathy to the plight of veterans, they also deliver plenty of compositional sophistication if we take care to look. Curved dashboards and bucket seats create swoops and bends that organize his frames, the arrangement of these lines and sculptural forms becoming a subject all their own. The fabric textures (weaves, ribs, leather, duct tape) offer similar areas of surprising interest. Like Stephen Shore’s images from his American Surfaces series (to which there is an obvious allusion), Casteel takes the ordinary and infuses it with his active attention, the overlooked taking on a sense of wonder when seen with such intimacy.

What I like about this project, and about Casteel’s execution, is that it takes a simple photographic subject and transforms it into a rich, multi-layered study of something outside the pictures themselves. He’s also been careful not to offer a visual parable that is too obvious or one-sided; there is indeed plenty of discouraging neglect in his pictures, but there are also moments of hope, which provide some counterweight to the dark conclusions we might try to draw. It is this open-endedness that will draw me back to this book in the future, as its images have more subtleties yet to discover.

Collector’s POV: M L Casteel does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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