One of the roles an art museum can play is exposing the public to artists and work that they are unfamiliar with. The blockbuster shows with the big names we all recognize serve a different purpose. When the Picassos are packed up and take a trip around the world, it’s an opportunity for everyone who can’t make it to Paris to see famous works of art. At the same time, as an artist, I often find myself truly appreciating a museum when I get exposed to something completely new to me. Yesterday I went to the de Young and saw a show of work from the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard. It is a good example of why I visit museums.
Meatyard died young n 1972 and his work has remained somewhat obscure. The show at the de Young has over 50 photographs and is titled Dolls and Masks. He staged his photos. Many contain dolls and the models often wear masks. He usually used his wife and children as models for the masks. The photos are typically set in overgrown gardens and ramshackle, decaying buildings. If one was to classify his work, the term Southern Gothic immediately comes to mind. Some of the photos feel as if they are meant to illustrate the works of writers like Carson McCullers or James Purdy.
Dark images of broken dolls and rubber masks on children could be a recipe for a disturbing body of work. At first glance, the first word that comes to mind is creepy. But that reaction quickly evaporates as you look closer at the work. Perhaps because he worked with his own family, there is something innocent about Meatyard’s work. It’s hard for me to express why, but this work comes off as oddly pleasant. On the other hand, I can imagine if Meatyard’s contemporary Diane Arbus had come down to Kentucky. If she taken photos of the same subjects. I am certain I would have had that uncomfortable reaction I usually do to her work.
Even though I just discovered Meatyard yesterday, I keep going back to this photo I took a few years ago. It's of an abandoned doll down the street from my apartment. That day I may have been channeling. The Meatyard show runs until February 2012 and it’s one I need to see a few more times.