“Untitled, 1963,” Ralph Eugene Meatyard, gelatin silver print © The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco and DC Moore Gallery, New York

The photographic images of Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925-1972) are intentionally difficult and bizarre, and yet he is only growing in his stature as a towering figure of American photography.

Meatyard was a Lexington, Kentucky, optician for his entire professional career and only did photography on the weekends, often using his wife and children as models for his surreal images. Curated by Janie M. Welker and organized by the University of Kentucky Art Museum, “Stages for Being,” now on display at the Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, features more than 80 vintage prints from throughout his career, many of which have never been exhibited because they come from the collection of one of his children.

Meatyard’s photos are silver gelatin prints – the standard bearer for high quality black-and-white photography. His images are most often staged shots of figures in forgotten places, such as abandoned houses. But the figures often wear masks or are actual dolls. His blending of children and adults (generally, his own family members) plays into our Western cues of psychological complexity (think of, for example, Edgar Degas’ seminal portrait of the Bellilli family).

In many ways, Meatyard is the quintessential “American” artist. He was driven by personal reasons to make his work, which combines many of the artistic ideas that went into creating the post-World War II Abstract Expressionist movement in American art  — surrealism, cubism, photographic realism, formalism, absurdism and regionalism.

“Stages for Being” is carved into chapters, each introduced by a hefty but effective chunk of wall copy. “Masking” is the first – and more important – section. The first half of the section is marked by literal masks. “Untitled, 1963,” for example, features a man in a T-shirt holding a doll next to his (rather Doctor Doom-like) monstrous face masked by papier-mache. That we see more humanity in the doll than the living being opens many disturbing doors. And yet Meatyard is a photographer: The tones and textures, however much they might be camouflaged by distractions, are gorgeous. In the second half of the section, the masks are more subtle, such as “Untitled, 1964,” in which a boy and girl (about 10 and 6 years old) stand in front of an art deco-fireplace. The girl is centered in the image and looks up towards the face of the boy to her right which is blurred, presumably by shaking. This is where things start to get interesting and complicated. Is she looking at a blurred face or a shaking face? Either is freaky. (Remember Adrian Lyne’s super-creepy 1990 film “Jacob’s Ladder”?)

“Untitled, 1964,” Ralph Eugene Meatyard, gelatin silver print © The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco and DC Moore Gallery, New York

You could stop there or visit the idea that Meatyard is actually using a photographic effect – blurring by motion – as a theatrical prop: a mask. And considering how many actual masks Meatyard uses on his subjects this bubbles up poignantly to the surface. This is theater, after all, but what kind of theater?

The next group features images from Meatyard’s best known series: The Family of Lucybelle Crater. In one image, a masked man and woman stand next to each other over a snake-like pile of garden hose. It’s a standard outdoor portrait, save for the strange masks. The models are Meatyard and wife, Madelyn. While Madelyn was often noted for her beauty, she only wears a grotesque mask in this series. But the title opens a door to something else: “Lucybelle Crater and her 40 year old husband Lucybelle Crater.”  Every person/player/figure in this series is named “Lucybelle Crater.” This leans directly on the French playwright Eugene Ionesco’s brand of absurdism best illustrated by his 1950 play, “The Bald Soprano.” In the first scene, a conversation takes place between a husband and wife about many related and interrelated characters all-named “Bobby Watson,” starting with a married couple.

Meatyard’s dolls make undeniable references to the surrealist photography of Hans Bellmer (and indirectly to surrealism’s father figure, Sigmund Freud). His masks tilt their hats to the cubism of Picasso. His formalist compositions pay respect to the pictorialism of early American photography and the geometrical structures of abstraction. While the surrealist connection dovetails with the American art juggernaut known as Abstract Expressionism, absurdism looks to postwar Europe. Surrealism is about personal subjectivity and letting the unconscious have its say. Absurdism is far more philosophically complex.

In philosophy, absurdism represents the conflict between finding rational meaning in life as opposed to accepting a fundamentally chaotic or irrational universe. You can take this in the terms of existentialism (think Camus or Kierkegaard) but, with Meatyard, we can follow an American – read: romantic – outlook as opposed to a European worldview based on the inflexible objectivity of Enlightenment thinking. In other words, as a (Romantic) American, your perspective matters, your psychology matters, your personal history matters, et cetera. And Meatyard gives us proof: You don’t for a moment believe your perspective matches the young girl and the boy. It can’t match the children and the adults. It can’t match both the masked and the unmasked. It cannot simultaneously align with the subject and the photographer. Truth, in this perspective, is subjective: It is – like the Einsteinian world – relative.

We see a picnic table in front of a couple of trees and garbage cans. One visual line of the table leads up the central tree. The other points to the far can, which is black rather than silver. The trees are flat and black and create a system with the far, black can. A disembodied doll’s head sits on the table. “Untitled, circa 1968” is a gorgeous silver print, and yet it could hardly be more subtle at a glance or more disturbing as memory.

A woman sits on a porch, unaware of a barely perceptible peering at her from the shadows of a screen door. A masked man in black stands at the door of a decrepit building, but the space between him and the viewer is impassable because the porch boards in that spot have rotted through.

Meatyard gives us a family-style photo, presumably shot by the dad: Big brother stands to the left, fist balled by his crotch. Legs spread, little brother straddles the center, endangered doll held low. Little sister seems to be holding a black scarf from strangling her as she stands under mom in a white mask with a branch crossing her face. Somehow, we can still read this as “normal” even though every following glance whispers of something gone wrong.

Meatyard quietly leads us into a world of the weird, the uncomfortable – the uncanny. Yet he finds a way to twist the seemingly chaotic from merely unknowable into an almost partisan narrative of the Cold War competition between the surreal and the absurd. He gives voice to the individual screaming across the void. We might not be able to hear it, but we can see.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

“Lucybell Crater and her 40 year old husband Lucybelle Crater,” Ralph Eugene Meatyard, gelatin silver print © The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco and DC Moore Gallery, New York


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