Ralph Eugene Meatyard @Peter Freeman

JTF (just the facts): A total of 40 black and white photographs, framed in black and and matted, and hung in the two room divided gallery space. All of the works are vintage gelatin silver prints, made between 1955 and 1972. Physical dimensions range from roughly 6×6 to 14×11, most in square format. No edition information was available. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: This show is best described as a selling companion to the touring exhibit of Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s work now on view in Philadelphia (linked below). It doesn’t provide any critical reappraisal or new perspectives on the photographer’s output, but simply offers a well-edited sampler of photographs from his various bodies of work.

Meatyard was an optometrist from Lexington, Kentucky, with an interest in more philosophical and introspective approaches to photography. His experimental works using multiple exposures and deliberate jiggling of the camera follow a path from Harry Callahan, his compositions organized around abstract echoes of trees and squiggling light on water. His many images of his children show the strong influence of Minor White, where melancholy portraits and dreamy, ghostlike scenes have been staged in empty corners of interior rooms or against decaying walls. His kids hide in the arms of tree limbs, are engulfed by overgrown grasses or leaf piles, and rush by in blurs near abandoned rowboats and rusty water pumps. The intimacy and psychological exploration in these pictures has obvious parallels with Francesca Woodman’s moody personal investigations of just a few years later.

Meatyard’s images of his family and friends wearing grotesque Halloween masks are perhaps his most widely recognized works, and this show gathers together a number of terrific examples. What remains interesting about these pictures is how seemingly boring snapshots of people standing in their backyards or in front of their houses can be transformed into something much more unsettling and inconclusive by the addition of the rubber drugstore masks. Specific people holding beers or standing with roses become unknowns, their faces erased or replaced by something both horrific and quietly comic. White shoes, modest dresses, and plain brick patios take on an edge of weird gothic drama.

While I certainly understand the logic behind a sampler show like this one given the timing of the museum exhibits, I’d like to see Meatyard reconsidered more rigorously in the context of contemporary work. Then a show like this one wouldn’t have such a stuck in the 1970s feel and would connect the dots between Meatyard’s photography and newer strains of both abstraction and scene setting. Perhaps we’d find that Meatyard is much more relevant and timely than a stately vintage retrospective might imply.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $8500 and $25000, with many intermediate prices. Meatyard’s work is consistently available in the secondary markets, with a handful of lots coming up for sale every year. Prices for his vintage works have generally ranged between $2000 and $34000, with most under $10000; a few posthumous prints/portfolios were also made, and  these prints have typically been sold for under $2000.

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