Some artists are fortunate enough to sieze upon something early in their careers that they are then able to pursue for the rest of their lives. Perhaps all successful artists do this on some level, presenting variations on an individualized perspective that is deemed compelling by others. The case of William Christenberry is particularly clear in this regard. Since the 1960s, his art-making has revolved around annual trips to Hale County, Alabama (the place of his birth) where he takes photographs, often of the exact same places. His subject is the visual culture of the rural South. His documentation gives focus to vernacular architecture, signage, and the inevitable decline of both over the course of the past several decades. Christenberry also touches on the dark, historical underbelly of this region in the form of imagery of the Ku Klux Klan. Although he is known primarily as a photographer, he also makes sculptures and assemblages of found materials that draw on the same source material.
Christenberry’s retrospective at Hemphill incorporates all elements of his practice, including the abstract paintings that he made in the 1950s, following his training in painting at the University of Alabama. At that time, the photographs he was taking with his family’s Kodak Brownie were being treated by Christenberry as an addendum. Commenting on this fact in an interview from 2001, Christenberry said, “I still feel very strongly that those little Brownie snapshots are as honest a statement as I’ve ever made in my work, because I wasn’t thinking about making art. I was photographing things that caught me eye.”1 While Christenberry may have been referring to the unconscious, uncontrived nature of these images, his photographs do, in fact, feel a little “artless.” They are tightly framed, mostly straight on images that follow in the traditions of journalistic, documentary photography à la Walker Evans, the conceptualist efforts of Bernd and Hilla Becher, and at times his more eccentric, Southern contemporary, William Eggleston. Christenberry knew all of these photographers. Evans is featured heavily in the creation myth of Christenberry the photographer, and Eggleston, too.2
The centerpiece of the installation is a long table, in a shape reminiscent of one of Christenberry’s house sculptures. The surface is covered with red soil, on top of which are arranged a multitude of found objects collected by Christenberry. In some ways, this table could have constituted the entire show. It is a perfect culmination and heuristic for what the artist does in terms of seeking out remnants of the past and present of a particular place, and exploring over and over again in different mediums the visual forms of that place.
William Christenberry: Assembled Memory runs through October 27th. Hemphill Fine Arts is located at 1515 14th Street in Washington DC. It’s hours are Tuesday though Saturday 10am to 5pm. Thank you to Shira Kraft for allowing us to photograph.
1. Anne Timpano, William Christenberry: Architecture/Archetype (Cincinnati, OH: DAAP Galleries College of Deisign, Architecture, and Planning, University of Cincinnati, 2001) 7.
2. For more information, see William Christenberry (New York: Aperture, 2006). This book also features really nice grid-form assemblages of Christenberry’s photographs of the same places from different years.