Every now and then, the ‘Decline of the American Empire’ rears its ugly head. Whether nationally or regionally, a wide range of experts discuss and generally agree that, at the very least ‘the times, they are a-changing.’ Yet how this phenomenon impacts our daily lives here in Utah remains unclear. What are the symptoms? Where are they to be found? And is it possible to address this phenomenon artistically?
These questions come to the fore in twenty unframed color photographs by David Baddley, on show at the downtown Salt Lake library. Measuring approximately two by three feet, the prints are pinned directly to the wall with thumbtacks. Baddley’s compositions are asymetrical and oscillate between genuine haphazardness and staged wrecklessness. The subjects too are arbitrary, banale and benign. Depicted are close-ups and vistas that scream of nothing in particular.
Subjects such as abandonment and alienation are dear to artists’ hearts; there is a vast body of work devoted to this subject. The paintings of Edvard Munch or Edward Hopper come to mind. And while some may resent the connection of this subject with the State of Utah, on another level Not Home offers a welcome reprieve from the Land of Positive Thinking. And yet, there are flies in the ointment.
Never, not ever do we encounter another human being. Baddley’s images are consistently void of people, though traces can be found in residual minutia, such as a peeling picture frame or an overpolished barstool. In La Casita, Springville a tobacco-stained wall intersects with a stucco ceiling. In Arshe’s Cafe, Beaver a fragment of neon tubing stares out into a nocturnal abyss. To whom do these objects beckon? To a crowd that never arrives, but opts to keep driving to the next exit? Such works ask whether there is anything quite as lonely as small town Utah? The answer of course, is yes. This kind of bewilderment is universal, and found anywhere from the cornfields of Andrew Wyeth to the beaches of Eric Fischl. If that is indeed so, what then is there to be gleaned from these particular works? That the American dream failed here too? Somehow, I suspect this is not new to American photography.
If Baddley’s interiors are gloomy, you should see his landscapes. Though not landscapes in the traditional sense, they depict the wilds of Utah, out there where the genre no longer exists. In these works, nature is the main subject, though always contaminated by something industrially manufactured. Storms rage and recover against a silhouette of mountains in Rest Area, I-80, Utah 2011, yet are pierced by one solitary lampost whose bulb glows faintly. Water Tank, Layton, Utah 2010 depicts a spectacular sunset at dusk, with shards of peach light forming what Friedrich might have called the Sublime. Lurking in the foreground is a water tank sporting the hopeful logo ‘Surf ‘n’ Swim.’
While we encounter the sheer desolation of these places, Baddley’s work does not portray antagonistic relations between man and nature, but co-existence in quiet lamentation. Therein, one can’t help noticing the violation, as if a strip mall had been photoshopped into an Alfred Bierstadt painting. Apple Tree, Susanville, California 2011 shows an apple tree bursting with fruit. Its branches incongruously harbour some kind of lighting contraption, replete with rows of fluorescent bulbs. The gravel of a highway shoulder is depicted in Kiefer-like focus, yet is punctuated by three black-and-yellow warning signs alerting drivers to a sharp turn. While we are aware of these infringements, I can’t help thinking that these scenes hover on the brink of sentimentality. As if we might next discover a headless doll, or a lost shoe. Other works depict small-scale facilities of unknown origin or occupancy. Here, metal siding is king and urban planning has gone the way of the dodo. Once pregnant with purpose, these buildings now lie defunct and lifeless, like the water towers of Bernd and Hilla Becher. As signs of a declining America, they too are over-familiar, and approach the world of the cliché. Once again, I fear Baddley will turn his lens to an untended baseball diamond, or a derelict post office.
Compositionally, Baddley’s works employ several time-honoured devices. Geometric elements are contrasted with scribly, looser ones. The shadows of a tree are projected onto a wall, mismatched tires pile up at an abandoned garage. As well, many subjects are cropped such that only fragments exist – like SNL’s ‘guy who just wandered in.’ A framed poster of a western couple is bisected at mid-waist. A corner of a billboard invades a cerulean sky. A blue column is amputated at the knee. Such devices betray a fondness for abbreviation which heightens a sense of disjunction. The viewer is left wondering what lies beyond? Or do they? Maybe they don’t wonder, but just move on. Because such fragments already constitute the currency of their lives.
The issue of vacuity and desperation in the darker recesses of the American imagination has repercussions for us all. Yet Baddley has rendered this subject in a visual language that is already common currency. This further trivializes his subject, and leaves us wondering whether the works signify anything beyond their own banality? In this way, Baddley’s works do not offer an aesthetics of decline, they are symptomatic of it.
David Baddley’s Not Home is on view at the Downtown Library until June 15th, 2012.