The Lower Trenton Bridge, which spans the Delaware River, bears a century-old slogan that is now marked with tragic irony. Spelled out in bold metallic letters nine feet tall, “TRENTON MAKES / THE WORLD TAKES” once celebrated a golden age of American manufacturing, but today offers only a stark reminder of its gradual decline. This dolorous shift in meaning underpins Jeff Whetstone’s third solo exhibition at Julie Saul Gallery, on view through March 11, in which the Chattanooga, Tennessee-born photographer takes advantage of a recent relocation to Princeton to riff off the nearby landmark. Juxtaposing multiple negatives to make each print, Whetstone has developed a kind of postindustrial découpé, shuffling the famous sign’s components into allusive and enigmatic new orders.
Homes Owned Words Deeds (all works 2016) is a typical entry in the series. Here, as elsewhere in this tightly organized show, Whetstone has applied his “aggregate contact printing” method to extract letters from the sign and patch together the words of the title. Diagonal fragments of the bridge’s struts strike through some characters, suggesting a continual reassessment – an editorial marking-up carried out in solid steel – while the horizontal struts recall musical staves. A couple of more straightforward images taken in the shadow of the bridge help set the scene, while a long, scroll-like print that descends from ceiling to floor constitutes a literal and figurative extension of the project’s concept and execution.
At a distance, the effect is pleasantly, even decoratively, abstract; seen up close, the words become clear, their fractured poetry exercising a quiet power. Other examples include Woke Solo Read Note (evoking, perhaps, an abandoned lover) and Seek Another Nest (an injunction to find a new home?), as well as more oblique, playful exercises such as THTHTH SOSOSO and Oooooo. Finally, in the scroll-format A Wonder, A Wonder, Whetstone strings dozens of short lines together into three longer poems, each boasting a narrative dimension. Making effective use of a quasi-architectural format, Whetstone here weaves the natural and artificial elements of his subject together in an affecting paean to a structure – and a way of life – with one foot in the past.