Art Review: William Eggleston, 21st Century

Dean Nicholas
By Dean Nicholas Last edited 107 months ago
Art Review: William Eggleston, 21st Century

When he dismissed William Eggleston's 1976 show at New York's MoMA as "the banal leading the banal", critic Hilton Kramer unwittingly helped to define what is so extraordinary about the photographer's work. Eggleston did more than just bring arrestingly bright, dye-transferred prints into an art world that regarded black-and-white as the only valid photographic form. He forced us to look closer at the unseen and ignored corners that meet our eyes: the telegraph poles, the electrical wires trailing out of a naked bulb in a room, the shimmer of neon on a dusky street, all the banal objects that the unconscious mind tends to airbrush out, and reinvested with a painter's sensibility. Eudora Welty put it succinctly in an introduction to Eggleston's The Democratic Forest: "No subject is fuller of implications than the mundane world".

This new show at Victoria Miro (run simultaneously at a New York gallery) brings together a collection of Eggleston's work since the turn of the century. Though the locations range across the continents — from Eggleston's native Memphis to New York, Chicago, Cuba, France, Russia — there's little in the way of geographical definition: the brightly-lit recesses in the peripheries of the world look much the same from one place to another.

As ever, the sequencing is unclear, non-linear: the photographer has said that he feels his work is "part of a novel [he's] doing", but if that's the case, either fistfuls of page have been torn out, or else we're reading B.S. Johnson's The Unfortunates. One constant is the absence of the human form. Where it does emerge, it's made to seem unreal: the woman contorting her body as she scrubs away at the side of a van, the model Santa Claus tacked onto a windscreen and framed by the car's bodywork, the wraithlike dresses suspended in a Mississippi clothes store. The one direct portrait, of "Leigh in black top", shows a distraught woman; possibly the climactic moment of that novel we're reading, or perhaps a false epiphany. Certainly, Eggleston would not want us to consider his work in such depth. His infamous press conference in Paris in the 1990s, when questions popped by young Left Bank intellectuals were met with gruff responses and incoherent blank stares, suggested a man loathe to think too deeply about his instinctual methods.

With Eggleston, as with many of his contemporaries, the eye pushes the mind to wander past the frame's edge, to wonder about what goes on beyond and behind, in the moments leading up to and developing after the one in which the photographer's finger presses the shutter release. It's a testament to the artist's skill that such a small show can prompt such a world of questions and considerations in the viewer

William Eggleston: 21st Century, at Victoria Miro gallery, N1. Until 27th February 2010. Entry is free.

Last Updated 26 January 2010