ALEC SOTH AND JUSTIN VERNON?
The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota exhibited the first U.S. survey of photography by Alec Soth. The survey included selections from Sleeping by the Mississippi, Soth’s most critically acclaimed body of work. Sleeping by the Mississippi was not the original title of the series however. The title Soth explains was originally From Here to There. The Mississippi River, which serves as a backdrop and holds together the body of work, was not initially as central to the project as it became. The title was not abandoned though and in 2010, From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America became the title of the survey at The Walker Art Center and a catalogue by the same name, constituted by 15 years of photography by Soth. The catalogue is an examination of his various bodies of work along with essays about those series. Although the survey is not a body of work in and of itself, a common theme binds together bodies of work that do constitute it. For Soth that theme is perhaps the banality of modern America.
In 2008, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver recorded Mouthoil, which (although leaked) was never officially released. It was not however, a Bon Iver album. Rather it was with The Shouting Matches, a band led by Vernon and who in April of this year, released the album titled, Grown Ass Man. It is an album constituted by some of the same tracks originally included on Mouthoil. Considered a side project for Vernon, The Shouting Matches are at least sonically nothing like Bon Iver. They are a bluesy, rock band. Bon Iver is not. And although Bon Iver garnered recognition prior to The Shouting Matches, they were created within close proximity of one another. Each band, each album, as different as they may sound hold a particular theme of heartache and melancholy.
Listen to Bon Iver and The Shouting Matches back to back and you might have a hard time believing it is the same front man. Listen to the lyrics however and you begin to hear themes carrying over from one to the other. Heartache sounds like heartache whether it is clawing itself out from a distorted electric guitar or wailing and bending by way of overdubs. Study Alec Soth’s work long enough and you recognize that it was perhaps not a mistake to consider the title From Here to There for what became Sleeping by the Mississippi. The name was perhaps simply too big, a taxonomical misnaming, like referring to all cats as Calicos. Both suggest a predictable existence. One in which we drift with little direction. We start somewhere and we end somewhere else. And along the way we see familiar scenes repeatedly despite the constant, although slow drag of the river. Whereas a river does not double back on itself, like the efforts of Justin Vernon we do revisit places and ideas often finding a different perspective in a familiar place. We find ourselves perhaps repeating ourselves, sometimes as a baritone and sometimes a tenor.
A friend of mine, a gallery curator, believes that a photographer, or for that matter any creative, should be able to articulate what it is they care about or what it is they are attempting to communicate beyond the medium in which they create. It is often a question he asks artists looking to be potentially exhibited. And while distinctions from one creation to the next are needed, deciding what that thing is can be difficult. Especially when deciding what is and what is not part of a particular project. But distinctions help to keep work from becoming mundane or overly repetitive and they help make clearer our expression within a varied articulation of understanding from one project to the next. By doing so, the artist creates depth and erudition to voice, knowledge collected and assimilated into unique sounds or varying visuals but altogether a moniker of a very particular, and at times thorny inkling; dense like a brier, not a single thorn but a patch. In and out of the thicket grow new seeds, new ideas. And like new seeds, ideas are worth holding onto.