The untitled self-portrait, ca 1964-65, that begins this absorbing survey exhibition, on view through May 6 at Fraenkel Gallery, depicts Ralph Eugene Meatyard, dressed in a short-sleeved shirt, arms akimbo, standing in front of a wall, with the letter “A” centered above his head, the word “yard” to his right. His expression is impassive, possibly the scowl of a Midwestern dad (who resided in Kentucky), but the demeanor, and the language, are open to interpretation. It’s a fitting start to a show of more than 40 pictures that span his short career and reveal a practice that occupies a wonderfully fluid aesthetic position: the pictures can be viewed as playful, ominous, surrealistic, deadpan, and – as the show’s title suggests – mystical. While it all unfolds in a single room, the exhibition covers a lot of ground as an overview of one artist’s work.
The show next offers an example of Meatyard’s signature use of commercial Halloween masks, wrinkly rubber visages that are far more haunting than they have any right to be. The photographer created compositions that seemed to grow from dark family outings – he recruited his wife and children to don the masks in mischievous tableaux, with literary and philosophical references. The gelatin-silver Romance (N.) from Ambrose Bierce #3, 1962, offers a masked family portrait as as an interpretation of an entry in Bierce’s satirical Devil’s Dictionary. Well-chosen selections from the legendary Lucybelle Crater series continue the use of mask to illustrate an entirely fictional character. (A vitrine in the center of the gallery includes books of philosophy, poetry, and prose from Meatyard’s library, humanizing this legendary artist and revealing his range of inspirations.)
Fraenkel has published an absorbing catalogue in which Alexander Nemerov addresses individual pictures for their historical and narrative properties. For the haunting Untitled, 1959, an unmasked child ponders a seemingly magic mushroom – actually a dome-like hubcap in the grass – which Nemerov describes as “a thing imagined is dense and shiny, a discarded element of the real.” A similar mystical quality emerges from a series of motion-blurred landscapes, The Unforeseen Wilderness, 1967-71, while a lesser-known more abstract series, Untitled (Portraits of Self), 1959, are drawing-like compositions that are actually images of light dancing on water. Such works add a literal complexity of vision, expanding tones and textures to Meatyard’s insistent introspection.