Every one whose ever taken a creative writing class has probably come across a dictum by the poet William Carlos Williams stating simply, "No ideas but in things." If they haven't heard the quote directly, they've come across it in essence via the abbreviated suggestion "ex" handwritten in the margins of their papers - "ex" being the instructor's shorthand for "Give me a specific example, please." The teacher is basically pleading: Stop talking about Envy and tell me about how Aunt Lillith consistently denigrated Margerie's Sterling Silverware at every second Sunday of the Month Family Dinner. Stop wailing about the desolation on the Boulevard and tell me about the corner of Mackenzie and Seventeenth. Give me a name, a chair, a blue '98 Ford Bronco - forget the broad reaches of America - give me an address.
So much of today's desperate search for "the authentic" is really just a search for the specific. This applies, especially now, to the sense of place - even the most casually described location, like "the overpass between 36th and Sikorski." In North America, where homogenization is as much a fact as air, the act of looking at something specific is a real jolt to the nervous system. The four artists appearing here all have an instinctive sense of place, observing and describing in a way that makes the general specific, and thus, in a wonderful paradox, universal.
Daniel Kukla's general idea is captivity; his specific place is a cage in one of eight American zoos. His Captive Landscapes might at first glance be taken for mediocre photo-realistic landscape paintings, until you realize that mediocre photo realistic paintings are exactly what he's photographed. The "landscapes" are paintings on the walls of "enclosures". Branches emerge from a tree and fasten themselves into what is, after all, not an evening sky full of soaring northern pines, but a plaster of Paris wall. The owl is sitting on a prosthetic tree limb. In almost all of the pictures, a door is visible with its hinges, overhead light fixtures, and knobs. Not only does Kukla focus on the specifics of these apparatus, he highlights exactly what they aren't. From the general "an enclosure," he extracts the real. Specific place: a cage. The Amazon river basin or the volcanic island beach that might house Japanese Macaques all have doors in them that will never open. Likewise, the skylight overhead in the jungle will never allow a real shaft of sunlight to penetrate the Sheetrock sky. Kukla's photos define a surreal common sense, like the picture of the large egg in the too small birdcage.
Adam Ekberg's places are likewise surreal, but more deliberately so; they're immediate and magical at the same time. He uses what could be vague and vast symbolic backdrops - mountain tops, empty rooms, the ocean - but he makes them particularly his by placing unlikely objects in the frame. His Disco Ball on the Mountain Top instantly recalls suburban make out parties, the light from the parent-less house seen hazily through the trees out back, but it also seems ethereal, like the arrival of an elfin queen, or the soul of someone's departed loved one. A generic empty condo looks out on other equally generic housing units in a third tier suburb, but the addition of a lone, mustard colored balloon instantly calls up the specter of a single parent trying to make a child's birthday party happy, even though they are too far into the sprawl for most of the parents to make the drive, and so there were hardly any kids there, and even though it's now Sunday night, and there's still no furniture because happy hour at the strip mall went on too long to actually get to Ikea. In other words, what says disappointment better than a lone yellow balloon looking out the sliding glass balcony door of an empty apartment?
Unlike the honest space of an empty room, painter Marie Koetje's works are deceptively decorative. She uses the soft brush strokes and gentle colors of the kind of still lifes you'd find on the wall in an upscale house and garden boutique, but her eye is hard and her sight clear. She paints "still lifes" of mining pits, basement shops flooded in blue/green aquarium light, a corner of a vacant lot where the shards of red plastic and swathes of pink cellophane look like weedy flowers among long stems of grass. It's a scene we've walked by a thousand times on the edge of a thousand parking lots, but Koetje looks at it and dares to drape it in the colors of Matisse and springtime. The result is work that's both sad and doggedly cheerful - Mary Cassat infused with a good dose of Edward Hopper.
Jamie Maxtone-Graham's formal portraits might at first seem to be more about face than place, but these faces belong with the place around them. Maxtone-Graham's people are the vendors at Hanoi's Long Bien night market in "a rough section of town next to the Red River." They are posed formally, in the manner of the 18th and 19th century French colonialist portraits that still intrigue the photographer. They seem larger than life, but also extremely individual. The fact that these are taken by flash against the backdrop of nighttime makes them appear even more special, moments of stillness snatched and preserved under moonlight. Maxtone-Graham says these pictures are trying to capture "the nuance of a specific place and time," and they do. The faces of the children holding stuffed animals, the adults standing tall and firm, are soaked with the place and moment they are in.
To observe and describe, I've heard, can be a form of celebration, but also resistance. The artists here resist the drift toward vague generality and broad category inherent in so much of our lazy-dazy modern life. Their eyes, focused on one thing at a time, are agents of clarity.
Emily Carter is a writer and cultural critic living in New Haven, Connecticut. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories and The New Yorker, for which she won a National Magazine Award. Her novel Glory Goes and Gets Some won the coveted Whiting Foundation award as well as The Bush Grant. She is currently a contributing editor to the books section of The Minneapolis Star Tribune where her reviews appear monthly.