Mary Ellen Carroll: Federal, State, County and City @Third Streaming

JTF (just the facts): A total of 70 black and white and color photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung in a single room gallery space with small dividing walls. 24 of the images are a set of cibachrome prints entitled Federal, each 20×24, editions of 5+1AP, from 2003. The other 66 images are a set of black and white Polaroids entitled Kruder and Dorfmeister, each 4×5, in a unique edition, from 1999-2000. The show also includes various letters, permits, and other ephemera from the Federal project, along with 2 large silkscreens on vellum, 3 watercolors, 1 neon sign and 1 work made of enamel on metal. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Mary Ellen Carrol’s unassuming photographs of public architecture in Los Angeles raise a surprisingly rich set of conceptual questions. In two separate projects, she set out to document local government buildings, loosely drawing on formulas introduced by Ed Ruscha and the Bechers. But her results aren’t bound up in clever groupings or rigorous variations; instead they probe both the nature of forgettable public structures and the changes in attitudes toward government after 9/11.

In Kruder and Dorfmeister, Carroll took straightforward black and white pictures of all 66 public libraries within the Los Angeles city limits. While most of the buildings are modest one story structures, an amazing variety of styles and approaches have been employed. There are libraries in strip malls, on street corners, in leafy neighborhoods, and in shopping storefronts, in every manner of brick, stucco, and institutional concrete imaginable. Unadorned and unimposing, they fade into the background, a nondescript government service both inextricably woven into the community and taken for granted. Nearly all of the libraries front the street in one way or another, a nod to the realities of LA’s car culture.

In the Federal project, Carroll used a Guggenheim fellowship to fund an effort to film the Los Angeles Federal Building for 24 hours straight. While this project was clearly related to her previous work documenting other government buildings, in the aftermath of 9/11, the atmosphere of security and fear had dramatically changed the willingness to support such an activity. The countless letters, permits, approvals, and hoops she had to jump through over the course of a year and a half are evidence of just how reluctant the government was to cooperate. In effect, she was turning the tables, watching those who were now watching us (the FBI is one of the departments housed in this building), almost like a piece of performance art. The photographs themselves document a view from the LA National Cemetery, the bulky structure covered in a grid of windows. As the hours pass from day to night and back again, the lights in the offices go on and off, creating changing patterns of small blocks. There is an eerie sense of surveillance, in both directions.

I came away impressed by the symbolic nuances that Carroll has uncovered in government architecture, and by the shifting sense of what those buildings represent to us as citizens. While these photographs have a deadpan aesthetic, there is nothing cool and detached about them – the looking going on here is much more active and urgent than it appears.

Collector’s POV: The photographs in this show are priced as follows. The Federal project portfolio of 24 prints is $38000, while the Kruder and Dorfmeister project set of 66 prints is also $38000. Carroll’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail is likely the only option for interested collectors at this point.

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JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2021 (here). Softcover (17 × 24 cm), 56 pages, with 34 photographs. Includes poems by the artist. In an edition of 100 copies. Design ... Read on.

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