O Little Town of West Texas
You can tell a lot about people from the way they decorate for Christmas. Some get off on hypercompetitive suburban lawn decor, vying for yuletide dominance with galaxies of lights and armadas of painted cutouts and inflatable figures. There was a guy in Little Rock -- one of those self-promotional businessman/huckster types -- who covered his house with so many gaudy red Christmas lights that it could be seen from the air.
Then there are the Martha Stewartians with their truckloads of pine boughs, forever trying to re-create some "authentic" Victorian Christmas (of course, their mentor is from New Jersey and, as anyone not living in a Ted Kaczynski hut in the woods knows, in jail). And let's not forget the "true meaning of Christmas" people, who cast tableau vivant nativities using household pets, farm animals, children and Baptist ministers in drag.
And then there are the folks of West Texas. Lee Friedlander is an iconic name in American photography; he's known for exploring "the American social landscape." For "Lee Friedlander: Xmas in Texas" at Texas Gallery, he chose to concentrate on the geographic and social landscape of West Texas with shots of holiday decor from rural towns and working-class homes intermingled with shots of Big Bend. The Christmas of our collective pop-culture unconscious features snow, horses, sleighs and forests of pine trees, and the hard-packed dirt and mesquite trees of West Texas offer an inherent visual incongruity. Friedlander takes that incongruity and runs with it.
San Angelo (1997) was selected for the show's lush invitation. It was printed at Friedlander's request, and at great expense, by Meridian Printing, the same people who do gorgeous coffee-table art books of his work. My Martha Stewart suggestion: Frame it and give it as a Christmas present.
The image presents a homely hybrid of holiday symbols in front of a tidy white wooden-frame house. A plastic bas-relief Santa head hangs from an archway at the entrance to the yard. Someone has artfully welded metal letters to the structure. Their message: "Jesus Loves Ya." A plastic nativity sits in a corner of the scraggly lawn. Mary, Joseph and Christ rest inside a homemade metal cart/barn, another display of welding prowess. The scene even has a plywood cartoon Rudolph and a couple of plastic candlesticks. It's a wonky shot; the camera is tilted so the whole house looks crooked.
With gentrification -- yuppie owners, tasteful landscaping, relocation to the Houston Heights -- the home itself could be described as a "charming cottage." Instead, its hardscrabble landscape, wheelchair ramp and idiosyncratic yard art make it an icon of ticky-tacky quirkiness in the sticks. It's a nice shot with a certain exuberance, but it somehow feels a little National Geographic, as if Friedlander were finding and recording "local color."
Another image in a similar -- but less prosperous -- vein shows what could be described as a stucco shotgun shack. The front door of the narrow house is surrounded by chicken wire that hasn't been stuccoed over yet. A "HAPPY HOLIDAYS" banner hangs diagonally behind the glass. Two plastic lawn chairs are stacked next to it. The photograph's message seems to be "Look! People living in poverty still want to have a Merry Christmas!" It's a scene you might notice while driving through someplace, but that's about it. An unsatisfying sense of tourism crops up again and again, most obviously in the images shot from inside a car.
Next to each holiday image in the show is a Big Bend shot. The dusty, rocky outcropping and clusters of cactus reinforce a geographic sense of place, and sometimes they work as a nice juxtaposition. One shot spans from the bed of a truck (one of several in the show) to a carport next to a single-wide trailer. The roof bears a hand-painted sign that says "Jesus is the Reason for the Season." In the back of the truck rests an open toolbox and a tangle of electrical wires -- they have a visual symmetry with the tangled scrub brush in the adjacent image.
Friedlander's images of civic holiday decor work the best. The targets aren't as easy or as obvious as "yokel yard art," and he finds some great formal compositions in stark, flat expanses of country. An 18-wheeler with a cattle trailer heads down a stretch of road underneath a banner of letters reading "HAPPY HOLIDAYS." The letters cast huge reversed shadows over the blacktop. In another image, the tall, slender shapes of two evergreens flank the side of a warehouse on a barren street. A light pole stands in the foreground, ironically decorated with giant plastic candles and fake greenery. A similar shot of a wide, empty concrete street shows the shadow of a light pole adorned with the triangular wire outline of a Christmas tree wrapped with more plastic greenery -- another piece of civic decor the city council thought would liven up the place. Here Friedlander is doing what he does best. Rather than merely documenting, he's working for his shots, finding images within images and seeking out the strangeness in the seemingly ordinary.
In his famed series of photos from the '60s, "Little Screens," Friedlander used his perceptive eye to find oddness in the banal though haunting shots of TV screens illuminating domestic spaces. But in most of "Xmas in Texas," he's exoticizing the rural, the poor and the working class -- the people who don't watch Martha Stewart or own animatronic Christmas displays. His images of yard art don't really go beyond the superficial. Instead, Friedlander is documenting ready-made "strangeness" in a way that feels slightly patronizing. Friedlander is a pro, and these are all lovely images. But you get the sense he was seduced by his own vacation photos.
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