JTF (just the facts): A total of 28 black and white photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against grey walls in the main gallery space and the back office area. All of the works are archival pigment prints on Museo Silver Rag paper, made between 1995 and 2012. The prints come in 3 sizes: 17×22 (in editions of 10), 30×40 (in editions of 10), and 44×60 (in editions of 5); there are 26 small prints, 1 medium print, and 1 large print on view. The is the photographer’s first solo show in New York. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Part of what gives a successful documentary project its power is its ability to not only effectively capture the straightforward “what” of a situation, but to also begin to unravel the more complicated “why” of its often hidden causes. Matt Black’s serial projects The Kingdom of Dust and The People of the Clouds are like a pair of carefully constructed nesting dolls, the exterior layer looking closely at the lives of Mexican farm workers in California’s Central Valley and the interior center working backward across the border to the workers’ home region of Mixteca in southern Mexico. They invert the usual frontal focus on the insatiable demand for transient laborers coming from the vast fields, and instead get inside the day to day lives of these people and unpack the conditions back home that led them to search for a better life in California’s farm country.
Black’s pictures from California mix images of work in the fields and orchards with scenes from the makeshift home life of transient towns. The labor itself is undeniably hard, mostly backbreaking jobs that resist mechanization like climbing plum trees to harvest fresh fruit or clearing scorched tumbleweeds and weeding cotton with a hoe. Long hours of hot and dusty work (even the dog’s tongue is hanging listlessly it’s so hot) are rewarded with bus rides to poverty stricken shanty towns and migrant villages that spring up on the outskirts of the fields. Houses are made of plywood and corrugated tin, punctuated by a plastic bucket, a broken shaving mirror, or a menacingly feral cat.
Stylistically, Black’s photographs are gritty and surprisingly dark, given the sun blasted light of the valley. Views are often interrupted or obscured or taken from slightly off kilter angles, everyday life seen through the slats of a ladder, the blades of a fan, or a hanging tarp of mesh, narrowed slightly by darkening corners. His pictures capture a sense of improvised impermanence, like a church taking root in a humble featureless building; the construction of the homes is so flimsy that a passing dust storm can easily rip the roof right off and blow fragments of wood high into the sky.
Black’s subsequent pictures from back in Mexico start to answer the question of why these people have chosen this hard life. Drought has ravaged their homeland, the fields scarred by dark dry crevasses, forcing the increasingly difficult cultivation to move up into the hills and further away from the towns. The wide riverbed has become a wasteland of parched sand, and Black’s broad views capture the desolation of rocky scrub and dry desert that remains. While traditional festivals still occur, the horned mask of a child or the reality of yet another burial bring a definite gloom to the setting. These are villages that have been hollowed out and lost in time, all the able bodied people gone to the United States, leaving behind the kids and the aged to scratch out an existence from the unforgiving land.
Thematically, there is of course an obvious parallel between Black’s work and the FSA photographers (Lange, Rothstein, and others) who documented the failure of dust bowl farms and the migration of down-on-their-luck families to the fields of California in the 1930s. But while the shanties and dry lands look similar, Black’s pictures have moved away from crisp Modernism toward a more raw view of the rural fluctuations; visually, he’s closer to Daido Moriyama or Robert Frank than he is to Walker Evans and that edgy darkness gives his images of poverty (both in California and in Mexico) an underlying tint of the surreal.
By combining the two bodies of work into one show, Black has provided a sense of causation, a tale of before and after and how they are connected. The images tie together the environment and food production with families and life choices in two separate countries, turning the specifics of these particular regions into something more universally human. There is a despairing bleakness in this unflinching vision, but also a quiet sense of perseverance, of sacrifices willingly made in the hope for something better. Black has unraveled a complex set of societal pressures in these well-crafted pictures, giving faces to an abstract combination of actions and consequences.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced based on size, in rising editions. The 17×22 prints start at $2000, the 30×40 at $3000, and the 44×60 at $4500. Black’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.