William Christenberry & RaMell Ross, Desire Paths @Pace

JTF (just the facts): A paired show of works by William Christenberry and RaMell Ross, installed in a series of connected gallery spaces. The following works are included in the show:

William Christenberry

  • 1 set of 20 pigment prints, 1974-2004/printed 2014, each sized 4×5 inches, in an edition of 9+4AP
  • 2 pigment prints mounted to Dibond, 1978/later, 1981/2015, sized roughly 39×39, 40×50 inches, in editions of 9+4AP
  • 1 set of 21 Ektacolor prints, 1973-2004, each sized roughly 3×5 inches, in an edition of 9+4AP
  • 1 set of 20 pigment prints, 1961-1988/printed 2022, each sized 4×5 inches, in an edition of 9+4AP
  • 1 beeswax and encaustic on wood, 2001, sized roughly 11x14x2 inches, unique
  • 1 wood, paint, and Alabama red soil, 1995, sized roughly 16x32x34 inches, unique
  • 4 german ink on paper, 2004, 2007, 2008, sized roughly 13×10, 23×17, 26×20, 30×22 inches, unique
  • 1 wood, metal, paint, and encaustic, 2006-2008, sized roughly 44x11x11 inches, unique
  • 1 wood, metal, paint, 2008, sized roughly 103x25x25 inches, unique
  • 1 wood, metal, paint, 2008, sized roughly 11x11x11 inches, unique
  • 1 fibre board (wood), encaustic, paint, wood, 2006, sized roughly 3x9x5 inches, unique
  • 1 vitrine, wood, metal, paint, found objects, n.d., 36x24x6 inches, unique
  • 1 wood, gourds, encaustic, red soil, 2004, 92x17x28 inches, unique
  • 1 “Klan Tableau” installation, 1962-2007, in separate room, mixed media, dimensions variable

RaMell Ross

  • 2 pigment prints mounted to Dibond, 2013, 2014/2022, sized roughly 36×36 inches, in editions of 5+2AP, 5+1AP
  • 3 pigment prints mounted to Dibond, 2019, 2019/2022, 2022, sized roughly 48×60, inches, in editions of 5+2AP, 5+1AP
  • 3 pigment prints mounted to Dibond, 2019/2022, 2021/2022, 2022, sized roughly 59×74 inches, in editions of 3+1AP
  • 1 Alabama red soil, museum glass, padauk wood, 2021, sized roughly 47x68x3 inches, in an edition of 3
  • 1 Shel Silverstein illustration, Alabama red soil, brown crayon, museum glass, 2021, sized 11x9x1 inches, in an edition of 3
  • 1 memorial flag case, Alabama red soil, museum glass, 2021, sized roughly 19x26x4 inches, in an edition of 3
  • 1 memorial flag case, Alabama red soil, museum glass, 2021, sized roughly 19x26x4 inches, in an edition of 3
  • 1 Alabama railroad ties, synthetic baize, bed roll foam, LED light, plywood, hardware, water, urine, stencil text, bill of lading, Polaroid, 2021, 4x4x8 feet, unique (with video documentation)

The show also includes a poem by Jumoke McDuffie-Thurmond (printed on wall and recited by the author on headphones).

(Installation shots below. No photographs of the “Klan Tableau” installation were allowed.)

Comments/Context: In recent years, the prevailing wind in the world of contemporary photography has been in the direction of overturning, and in some sense more forcefully and overtly rejecting, the legacy of the white male gaze. So the fact that this engaging and thoughtful pairing of the works of William Christenberry (a 20th century white photographer) and RaMell Ross (a 21st century Black photographer) isn’t a tacit repudiation of Christenberry and his vision comes as something of a surprise. In fact, the show is rooted in the shared history of these two artists, and in particular, their enduring focus on the specific location of Hale County, Alabama, with Ross openly acknowledging Christenberry’s influence on his own artistic practice. These respectful linkages make this much more than a typical two-person show – it’s not a point-counterpoint setup or a pairing of contrasts, but an elegant harmony between two alternate but intertwined perspectives on life in a richly resonant (and conflicted) place.

Christenberry (who died in 2016) is best known for his work in photography, but this show goes beyond his images made with a camera to include a range of drawings, sculptures, and installations made over several decades, which meaningfully expand our sense of Christenberry’s interests and artistic approaches. His methodically serial portraits of barns, sheds, and other buildings in Hale County over the passing years will be familiar to many, and three sets on view here anchor the proceedings, providing an extended sense of time and memory. What’s fascinating is that when we see these kinds of photographic sets in other contexts, where they are isolated or otherwise stripped of geographic specificity, we think of Christenberry as a conceptually-driven photographer or even a Minimalist, with his strict attention to composition and the structured intervals of time coming to the forefront. But as seen here, within his larger practice, those same sets of pictures turn out to be less about time in the abstract, and more about place and the slow process of memory.

Christenberry’s works in other mediums filter his observations, sensations, and experiences of Hale County through his artistic process. In contrast to the controlled precision of his photographs, Christenberry’s ink drawings of trees and branches feel expressively loose and improvisational, the scratchy lines capturing a moment of movement or scattering wind. And his sculptural recreations of buildings feel like an effort to reprocess his memories, turning dreams and ghosts into simplified physical objects and reliefs that evoke places both real and imagined. The elemental forms of churches and buildings are reconsidered again and again in different proportions and guises, with some incorporating the red soil of Alabama as a grounding element and others using dripping encaustic to mimic the encroaching kudzu.

People are essentially absent from Christenberry’s works, so when RaMell Ross’s photographs are interleaved with Christenberry’s in the flow of the gallery show, an inevitable dialogue between people and place is created. Like Christenberry, Ross isn’t just a photographer; he’s an accomplished filmmaker (his 2018 film Hale County This Morning, This Evening won at Sundance that year and was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary film), and in recent years, he has further branched out into sculpture and performance.

Most of Ross’s photographs are delivery vehicles for mood, with Black life in the South (and in Hale County in particular) as the central subject. Ross finds poetic softness in a man relaxing on a park bench at twilight, a young boy lying in the wheel well of a car, and a young girl in a bright yellow dress crouching behind a rose bush, each moment seeming to stretch out and linger. More mystery is found in an image of a man carrying long plastic pipes through the overgrown woods and another of a barefoot child covered by dark cloth like a ghost, these scenes feeling freighted with more history. And when Ross turns his camera away from people and toward the quiet world of Hale County, he captures details that might be gestures or the end of stories – a fallen church steeple in a nighttime parking lot, the scrapes of dirt made by a bulldozer along a dirt road, and geometric markings in the red dirt, the equivalent of delicate snow angels in the snowless South.

Taking a cue from Christenberry’s inclusion of red Alabama soil in a few of his sculptures, Ross has fashioned a group of his own sculptural works that use the red soil as a more active force. Two works bury Shel Silverstein’s illustrated characters (now colored in with brown crayon) in the red soil, leaving just heads and hands poking up through the dirt. Other works give the dirt more structure, squeezing it into the triangle of a folded flag casket and shaping it into echoes of mountains and hills, like a landscape made of the land itself.

The measured back and forth that develops between Christenberry and Ross in these initial exchanges and groupings of works is pushed to an entirely different level of intensity in the very back of the gallery space, where a provocative installation from Christenberry is paired with a similarly demanding performative piece by Ross. Christenberry’s “Klan Tableau” (first displayed in 1982) sits behind a curtain in its own small room, with a clear notification in front that the material inside is disturbing. Inside, it’s a densely packed assemblage of drawings, photographs, dolls, and sculptures, filling the room from floor to ceiling, with each and every piece a meditation on Ku Klux Klan motifs and themes. To be clear, the “Klan Tableau” is not a gathering of actual historical memorabilia or an homage of any kind to the white terrorist organization and its values. Instead, it is an obsessive effort by Christenberry to get at the heart of his own unease and revulsion, almost like an attempt to exorcise demons by forcing himself to examine the evil close up. In many cases, the hooded silk dolls and sculptural structures (some with coffin and gun references, others covered in red light and encaustic blood) feel like fetish objects, Christenberry reimagining his own encounters with the Klan in his lifetime and obsessively wrestling with the inflammatory implications of their presence in his community. It’s an intensely personal and private piece, one that isn’t easy to observe but that shows Christenberry desperately trying to process what he has experienced.

Ross’s nearby work “Return to Origin” has a related experiential component. It recreates (or better, reverses) the trip taken by the 19th century abolitionist Henry Box Brown, who mailed himself in a box from Virginia to Pennsylvania to gain his freedom. Ross essentially did a similar trip in reverse in 2021, sending himself from Rhode Island to Hale County in the custom built box now on view in the gallery. While Ross was en route (some 59 hours in total), he inscribed words and their definitions found in his childhood dictionary (starting with A) on the inside of the plywood walls of the box, putting the word “black” in front of each word. Both the exhaustive, uncomfortable journey and the word play feel like active exercises in reclamation, with Ross trying to place himself inside a painful history that took place before he was born. Like Christenberry’s “Klan Tableau”, Ross’s experience is a charged and personal effort to wrestle with his own past, and when seen together, it’s clear that both men have struggled to process and reconcile difficult versions of the historical realities that find their home in Hale County.

There will of course be some who feel that the display of Christenberry’s “Klan Tableau” is offensive, and gives air to an organization that should instead be roundly condemned and ignored. But the fact that Ross, particularly as a Black man, saw the important nuances in Christenberry’s anguished efforts, and intentionally paired the work with his own intense journey into the escape from slavery, says that we as an audience should bring a similar willingness to openly engage with hard truths that the two artists have demonstrated. The simple dialogue about two versions of place that greets us as we enter this show gets amplified mightily as we are drawn deeper into its complexities, and by the time we emerge from the two haunted works in the back, the richness of the artistic arguments that have been offered resonates with profound power. The red soil of Hale County has clearly seen many pasts, but instead of hiding those traumas away, Christenberry and Ross have both thoughtfully probed those wounds, hoping that the process of art making will bring with it a dose of learning and redemption.

Collector’s POV: The photographic works in this show are priced as follows. For Christenberry, the single image prints are $18000, while the multi-image sets range from $37000 to $55000. For Ross, the prints are priced based on size, between $10000 and $20000 each. The sculptural works in the show (by both artists) are variously for sale or NFS.

Christenberry’s photographs (and groups of photographs) have been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices ranging from roughly $1000 to $20000. Ross’s works have little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: RaMell Ross, William Christenberry, Pace Gallery

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Francesca Woodman @Gagosian

Francesca Woodman @Gagosian

JTF (just the facts): A total of 59 photographic works, generally framed in beige wood and matted, and hung against white walls in the divided gallery space. (Installation shots below.) ... Read on.

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