MAYSEY CRADDOCK WILLIAM CHRISTENBERRY: PERMANENCE & CHANGE by Fredric Koeppel
The line between reality and the imagination is not only very fine but infinitely permeable. Artists make their choices about crossing and dissolving that line according to their personalities and temperaments, perhaps even following some philosophy or agenda, but whatever the results, ideally they accrue to the benefit of a viewer captivated by the transformation.
What Maysey Craddock and William Christenberry hold in common, despite the widely disparate nature of their work, is a submersion of themselves in a place and the transfiguration of that place into a heightened form of reality; in Craddock’s case into an ecstatic and almost abstract rendition of landscapes where water meets coastline, and for Christenberry obsessively detailed versions, both photographic and three-dimensional, of dwellings and other structures in Hale County, Alabama.
Maysey Craddock has returned over and again to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Alabama, where the miles of seashore, their rivers and bayous are constantly eroding, transformed and porous, a shifting arena of water, sand and soil, roots, animals and human beings. With their multiple and tantalizingly intricate strands, branches and filigrees, her work embodies the seemingly solid yet utterly ephemeral, ever-shifting environment that characterizes both material nature and our relationship with it, where the transient barriers between water and land seem to beckon irresistibly to an enchanted though impermanent realm.
Artists forge their methods and techniques from a necessity perhaps unfathomable even to themselves and often the product of long experimentation and labor-intensive effort. Craddock’s medium has remained consistent for at least 20 years. She employs gouache, a form of watercolor that is heavier, more opaque and chalkier than other watercolor mediums, on a surface of brown paper sacks unfolded and sewn together with silk thread. This surface lends her work a natural and roughened aura, a sense of making-do belied by the meticulousness of her painting technique.
Essential to her enterprise is the dichotomy between the humble and implied improvisational nature of the plane and the intricate, mysterious and romantic imagery of trees and rivers that she creates.
Craddock flattens the bags in a press built by her husband, because when the constructs get large, they tend to warp. At the end of the process, the backs are coated with a deacidification used by paper conservators. The thread she uses to sew the panels together was also a result of trial and error. Linen thread wouldn’t lay flat, and cotton thread broke. She settled on silk thread, because it’s strong and pliable.
For almost 10 years after Hurricane Katrina wreaked devastation on New Orleans and the Mississippi coast in August 2005, Craddock’s work focused on violence and destruction, both of the natural and the built environment, indicting the moral, physical and psychic damage that characterized the horrendous climatic episode and the human folly that abetted it. In the time that it took her to work through those feelings and to achieve her present state of (perhaps guarded) serenity, the artist has tended toward more abstract expressions of the human relationship to nature’s mutability while maintaining her sense of tension and resolution accomplished with ravishing appearance and lyrical elegance.
William Christenberry (1936-2016) offers a different perspective on the notion of place as a state of mind. Born and raised in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as a child Christenberry spent summers with his extended family in rural Hale County. Significantly, Hale County was the area immortalized by writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans in "Now Let Us Praise Famous Men" (1941), a book that profoundly influenced Christenberry.
In 1968, the year that he started teaching at the Corcoran School of Art and Design in Washington, the artist began making annual pilgrimages to the county of his childhood gambols, recording the shabby dog-trot dwellings, abandoned farms, back- road barbecue joints, isolated churches and enveloping kudzu with a Brownie Holiday camera he and his sister had received for Christmas in the early 1940s.
He photographed the same structures over many years of return visits through the periods of their abandonment and decay and, in some cases, eventual collapse. Working in color, then a medium relegated to glossy calendars and magazine advertisements, he lured his friend William Eggleston, in the mid 1960s, into experimenting with color film.
While Christenberry’s images of rural houses, churches and stores memorialize, they don’t deal in nostalgia. There is no catering to a drippy Southern past, only the impulse to create a record that through the innocence of the recording eye elevates the subject to a sublime, formally elegant level, though paradoxically self-effacing, direct and simple.
Throughout his career, however, the artist was compelled to remind people that photography, though a constant presence, was not the center of his creative life. He trained as a painter and sculptor – one of those mysterious, ambiguous pieces elevates the subject to a sublime, formally elegant level, though paradoxically self-effacing, direct and simple. Throughout his career, however, the artist was compelled to remind people that photography, though a constant presence, was not the center of his creative life. He trained as a painter and sculptor – one of those mysterious, ambiguous pieces are included in this group -- and exercised those arts throughout his career.
As he said in an interview with this writer several years ago, "I enjoyed teaching drawing and painting, but I never taught photography. I don't really know anything about it."
Both of these artists make a case for the notion that place is not just physical reality but a subjective construct of the feelings and the imagination. Christenberry begins with childhood and the unspoken history of a humble place and unfolds his concerns into a disquisition of time and memory. Craddock engages the mutability of the natural world in its cycles of ever-evolving gain and loss. From each, we extract a splendid yet hard true: Change is permanent, and in all permanence is change.
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