"Vivid Vernacular," currently on view at The Menil Collection, is a quaint little photography exhibit. Unfortunately, many viewers will walk away with that very thought. The photos on display are by three indisputable masters (Walker Evans, William Christenberry and William Eggleston), but the exhibit is somewhat enervated by photography's own trappings. The one-room show is a kind of straightforward dog run through these artists' output, emphasizing their influences — sometimes on each other — and the documentary style, along with the embrace of color process, they helped spearhead.
Evans, whose groundbreaking 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (with text by James Agee) documented Alabama sharecroppers during the Great Depression, commences this rather academic exercise. Moving clockwise, his photos appear first. While all three photographers sometimes employed humans as subjects, "Vivid Vernacular" exorcises them, leaving behind a mostly rural American landscape abandoned by inhabitants. Occasionally, there's an urban scene, like Evans's 1970 "Billboard," a snapshot of an exterior wall, presumably in London, plastered in show flyers. Scattered inside Evans's tightly composed frame are posters for the 12th National Jazz, Blues & Rock Festival, Chicago's "Only British Appearance" and a titillating poster for the Rolling Stones, which includes a nude female torso with blue-eyed nipples, puckered red lips (guess where) and a blond mane of hair framing the torso/face. (Perhaps coincidentally, the inspiration for this graphic is hanging in the "How Artists Draw" exhibition right down the hall — René Magritte's 1934 drawing Le Viol [The Rape].) "It's the Rolling Stones!" leaps from the image; it's a wonderful use of exclamatory text against a banal backdrop, a technique Eggleston will also utilize.
Christenberry came late to photography as an artistic medium; he was primarily a painter. But at the encouragement of Evans, he started spending more time with his Kodak Brownie than with his paintbrushes. Christenberry's stark photos of buildings are austere and unobtrusive, almost reverent. There's a certain sense of worship in photos like Church, Sprott, Alabama (1971), a simple, distanced shot of a rural church, and Gourd Tree, near Akron, Alabama (1975), an odd kind of wooden cross with dried gourds hanging from its two horizontal cross planks. I can't decide whether their tiny size (smaller than a postcard) emphasizes or erases their visual impact. Part of me (well, most of me) wants to see them blown up huge, while in some way they're like little packed firecrackers of imagery.
Eggleston is the star here. For one, his are the largest prints — still too small, though, in my opinion. And there's a sense of narrative, too, mostly dictated by where he places the camera. Evans and Christenberry shoot mainly from street level; Eggleston's perspective shifts from floor-level to floating above rooftops. Untitled (Living Room with Organ) is a rugrat's view of a seemingly suburban living room. A black electric organ is flanked by two upholstered chairs, one with a floral print, against white, bare walls, save for a single framed landscape painting. A songbook titled Best Loved Hymns rests on the organ. Eggleston, by shooting from a low angle, gives this image a threatening feel. He has captured a kind of energy in this room, a residual presence left behind after the characters have exited the frame. There's a ghostly sense to a photo like Untitled (Statue in Cemetery), in which a statue of an angel leans against a stone casket in a kind of bummed-out pose — elbow on casket, fist on cheek. Then there's the affirmative exclamation of Untitled (Peaches), a 1972 photo that finds Eggleston's lens drifting above a corrugated tin roof, in dead-eye focus with a rooftop sign that simply announces, "PEACHES!" And apparently nothing goes better with peaches than Coca-Cola, judging by the advertisement crowning this roadside fruit stand. Like Evans's Billboard, Eggleston uses humans' natural tendency for hyperbole as a stand-in for the actual animal. Untitled (Malibu Landscape 1970), a field of daisies peppered with bluebonnets, predicts the high color saturation that later marks his arguably most-famous image, Red Ceiling, which graced the cover of Big Star's heralded 1974 album Radio City. Malibu Landscape's contrasting yellow and purple flowers against the jagged stripe of deep blue sky across the top is an example of the pioneering use of color by all three photographers — Eggleston is often called the "father of color photography."
Perhaps because of the exhibit's design, though, many viewers quickly browse by it on the way to (or from) the big drawing show, enjoying a quaint little trifle instead of dwelling inside these worlds for a while. Maybe that's because big is always better in photography, and despite the large lives of its subjects, this show could benefit from a little growth hormone. Admittedly, that could be impossible depending on the photo process, but we all have a dream.