There are 20 black-and-white photographs hanging in Jay Etkin's main gallery on South Main. The artist, Jonathan Postal, calls the collection "State of the Union." That's a pretty bold move considering the uncertain state of this union, when America is torn in half by a controversial war overseas that has cost us our standing among longtime allies; a union battered by economic woes and ongoing battles over religion and culture on the home front. Could it possibly be defined in only 20 pictures? Could it be defined in 20,000? It seems unlikely, at best.
And yet in Postal's case the answer is a qualified "yes." While his shots may seem a bit too exotic to express the mundane concerns of the heartland, and too for lack of a better word isolationist to address global concerns, he has managed to capture a post-9/11 America as reflected in a funhouse mirror. He finds danger in our most seemingly innocent pastimes, potential tragedy in pictures of happy families, and expressions of faith everywhere. It is a magnificent show, put together by an artist working at the top of his game. It is, by turns, upsetting, whimsical, and uplifting.
"I think it's good if you have to look at a photograph more than once to see everything that's there," Postal says, referencing a picture of a young couple sitting on the grass with their newborn child. "You see this picture and you see the parents and the kid, but you might not notice the first time how young the parents are. I'd seen the father the day before riding around on a BMX bike and figured he couldn't be more than 15 or 16. The girl couldn't be over 14. But you might have to look at the picture several times before you really see the baby. Before you see how old the baby looks. It's almost like it's looking right at the camera and saying, 'I'm going to have to raise my parents, you know?' But it's not all bad either, because you can tell there is a lot of love there."
Postal, who studied at the Kansas City Art Institute and the San Francisco Art Institute and has taken pictures for such publications as Vogue and Rolling Stone, subscribes to an almost journalistic school of social landscape photography. It's a way of using the camera to invade a space and capture elements that might seem too mundane for the front page. In Postal's work, formal concerns are as important as the subject matter.
"There are times," Postal says, pointing to a blurry background figure in one shot, "when I look at a picture and I wish I could erase part of it. And it would be so easy for me to do too, now that everything is digital. But I just can't bring myself to do it. I still think of photography in terms of 'evidence.' What you see in a photograph should be exactly what the photographer saw at the time he took the picture."
And what you see in a Postal photograph is exactly what the photographer saw at the moment he was taking the photograph. Postal shaves the negative carrier off his cameras, which leaves a hard black line around the edges of his shots, proving that they have not been cropped. He composes with his eye, in the moment, and gets his shots the first time.
"There was a time when I might look at a picture in a magazine and think, Wow, what a great shot that is. But not anymore. Now if I see a shot of a lion running, and there is a mountain in the background and a big sky with lots of clouds I think, Okay, someone took a pretty good picture of a lion. Then they went through their photo files and digitally added the perfect picture of the perfect mountain, then they dropped in the perfect picture of the perfect sky and maybe they added some orange to it. Nobody actually took that picture. Nobody has ever seen that actual picture in nature, because it didn't exist."
Postal is a veteran of both the East and West Coast punk movement of the 1970s. As the bass player for Penelope Houston and the Avengers and frontman for the Readymades, Postal had access to such seminal music figures as Devo, Blondie, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, the Clash, the Dead Kennedys, and the list goes on.
Even now, some of his best photographs are of musicians in action. There is only one such picture in this collection, but what a shot it is. In Joe Buck, a young hillbilly singer who owns and operates the Bluegrass Inn, a honky-tonk on Lower Broadway in Nashville, holds his bass like a weapon. The look on the singer's face is rather aggressive and mean. His toothy mouth is stretched to its limit in what might only be described as a roar. But these are perhaps the second things you notice about this picture. Joe Buck is a traditionalist. He dresses like a country star from the 1940s, and the first thing you wonder isn't where but when the picture was taken.
It's a quality that runs throughout Postal's work. In fact, gallery owner Etkin claims that at one of Postal's previous shows an elderly woman wandered in off the street and claimed to have dated a man in one of the photographs in 1943. The shot had, of course, been taken in the 1990s.
Other timeless pictures in "State of the Union" include Burlesque Girl, a pair of shots depicting a dancer backstage taking a less-than-smooth shot of Seagram's 7 from the bottle; a weathered street person standing underneath a sign reading, "Jesus Saves"; an elderly clown applying makeup in a mirror; a trio of African-American children diving off a bridge on a summer's day; a woman walking in a hurricane in vintage clothing with an antique umbrella; and a pregnant couple done up rockabilly-style in front of an antique car. Unless you knew that these photographs were all grouped under the title "recent work," there would be no way to identify the year they were taken.
And then there are images that bend time, bringing disparate eras into the same frame of reference. One print catches Elvis Presley in blurry profile, but in the center of the frame we see a shot of an Elvis impersonator checking his hair in a mirror. We know this is a picture of an Elvis impersonator, but we can't help but wonder if this isn't exactly what Elvis saw the last time he looked into the mirror. Shots of Elvis and Elvis impersonators are too easy and too readily available. Elvis' icon status makes any image of the King into instant art, and lazy artists take advantage of that fact all too often. But Postal moves into too-familiar territory and finds imagery that is unique and compelling.
"The two things I wanted to focus on in this show were faith and combat," Postal says, leafing through a pile of photos. There are shots of sweaty boxers and professional wrestlers, shots that didn't make it into the show. "I could have easily done a whole show on combat," he says. He shows a photo of a shirtless boy not more than 10. He is holding a giant pistol. It would have made an interesting addition to the show, but it was too obvious.
Postal's images of combat for "State of the Union" are subtle and powerful. In one, a pair of arcade combatants stand with toy guns outstretched, their eyes as cold and dead as a mafia hit man's. You have the sense they are in training for something that lies ahead.
But the most telling and terrifying image in the show is a simple portrait that combines faith, combat, and entertainment. In it, a couple expresses pure rapture. The man's eyes and mouth are open so wide you'd swear he had to be singing the finale of a Broadway show. The woman stretches one arm to heaven, her eyes closed in ecstasy. You would think this shot, like so many of Postal's other ecstatic images, was taken in a charismatic church, a document of two people high on the Holy Spirit. But it's not. According to Etkin, the picture was taken at a wrestling match.
"Jay wasn't supposed to tell you that," Postal says. "That was supposed to be a secret."
"I know," I tell him, "but sometimes it's good to know these things."
Postal captured an image of joy, verging on religious ecstasy, generated by a violent act disguised as an entertainment. Had Postal chosen to show only this one image and call the show "State of the Union," it would have been a success.