photo by Jack GouldAt the Orange County Museum of Art's Pacific Craft show earlier this year, artist Susan Cauthen showed wonderfully loopy and joyous statues of old black folk. They were highly stylized and obviously sculpted with great admiration and affection. Still, it would have been easy to construe the work as patronizing; it's not necessarily appropriate for young white artists to depict happy darkies.
On the other hand, Howard L. Bingham's photographic portraits of the dirt-poor residents of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, are immensely dignified. Bingham shot the photos while on assignment for Life magazine in 1968. Now showing at Gallery Two Fifteen in Santa Ana, they depict a community with 75 percent unemployment and an average annual family income of $900. Residents lived in shacks with "sunshine privies"—a board on which to sit and nothing else.
A black man himself, Bingham eschews pathos in favor of absolute normalcy. These people are like you and me, the photos suggest, except they're black and poor and have a whole lot of time on their hands.
Mound Bayou was settled by the former slaves of Joe Davis in 1887; a plaque on a dirt road commemorates that fact. In one picture, an old woman smiles broadly. She has few teeth. In another, she works in a field, her broad back doubled over. Several women sit idly under a hand-lettered sign announcing, "Mustard Greens." They are waiting for customers who do not come.
A baby sits on a bed. He is a tiny, tiny baby. He is cute. He is either smiling or he has gas.
A man walks through a pile of lumber that was once a house. A washer and dryer sit in the rubble. Who has a washer and dryer in this town?
A family gathers in front of a wood shack. The children wear shoes, though the laces aren't long enough to reach all the eyelets.
People sit in the back of a pickup truck. A bumper sticker reads "Humphrey-Muskie."
The pictures go on and on, lining the walls of the gallery, which feels—with its couch and coffee table—like the waiting room for a very artsy dentist. But though these people are poor—the wall text says so!—it is not the flies-in-their-eyes kind of poverty. It is instead the perfect stillness of desolate waiting. There are no jobs; there is no medical care. There are just varieties of mustard greens.
Ed Meese, the attorney general under Ronald Reagan, once said that no one in the U.S. was really poor because he saw people standing in line for welfare, and they were all fat. That's good to know. In one photo, an advertising poster for Van de Camp's pork and beans hangs on the wall; whether it is to brighten the place or conceal a hole is unknown. On the poster, a white family frolics over a picnic in a tree-lined park. The black people who live in that home must be glad to know they're not poor. They may not have picnics in the park or a red convertible in which to get there, but they've got posters of picnics. In other countries, people don't have posters at all. Perhaps we should be grateful for what we have instead of bitching about "medical care" and "malnutrition" and "rampant disease" and "indoor plumbing and electricity."
The shoeless children hauling jugs of water across the highway should remember that.
It has been brought to my attention that last week's column, "Road to Nowhere," was the worst review ever written and that I am the most ignorant art critic in the entire world. And I ignorantly called Chris Burden's piece in the Irvine Fine Art Center show "tenuously connected" to the car-culture theme when in fact the photo of stigmatized hands resulted from Burden crucifying himself atop a VW. I also misidentified an Ed Ruscha work. In my haste to leave the rancid show, my notes were unforgivably sloppy, and I apologize. I stand by my assessment of the marketers' shots of happy couples gazing at a Lincoln, though. Despite my corrector's view that they are "edgy," I maintain that we get enough fucking commercials in our everyday life without having to be inundated with them in a fine-art show.
"Mound Bayou, Mississippi" at Gallery Two Fifteen, 215 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 664-0215. Through March 7.