Cumulative Effect in Art and Books

After reading the play "At the Vanishing Point" by Naomi Iizuka I discovered that not only was I learning about characters cumulatively through overlapping monologues, but I was learning about the photographer and optician Ralph Eugene Meatyard of Lexington, Kentucky, who inspired the play. Coincidentally, his work is currently on exhibit at San Francisco's deYoung Museum. So I went to see it.

The high, white walls are lined with sixty photographs at face height, black and white, mostly from the 1960s and taken of Meatyard's family. Ah, family portraits, you say, but with a twist: the children and their mother occasionally wear masks and are posed with dolls. Occasionally, only the masks or only the dolls are in the photos. The settings are seemingly abandoned buildings, his backyard, other wildernesses, other structures like stairs or bridges. All of the photos were staged. What struck me most was not one singular shot here or there (here's one that particularly caught  my attention) but the cumulative effect of the photographs: the strength of the work based on all of the parts together. I've modified the medical term for relevance:
cumulative effect n. the state at which repeated [viewing]…may produce effects that are more pronounced than those produced by the first [view]…Also called cumulative action
My first impression of Meatyard's work: creepy. But since I come to see it all, I continued to look. Next, I decided that some of the staged pictures were irritating, too contrived, arranged just so, sometimes on a grid; I wanted to see a doll that had fallen over or was partly out of the frame. Then, a few of the oversized masks on the children began to haunt me: old people's heads on young people, premature aging? a look into the future? I became interested in a series of photos of one of his sons, taken at different times and wearing different masks, but always by the same wall: facets of one person, perhaps. By this time it was clear that Meatyard had a finite number of masks, a finite number of kids (3) and also tended to use the same objects over and over in different configurations and settings. I found myself drawn to the photos with nearly hidden people: I had to look twice to see the figures in the shadows. By the last photo I felt I understood his eye for juxtapositions, his interest in the uncanny: familiar, yet strange.

In addition to viewing a body of work, multiple viewings of one image or a repeated reading of one book can also have this cumulative effect. Multiple layers and various components may make the story understandable from various angles and on different levels; the meaning just gets deeper.

A museum is a familiar setting but can hold strange things. A museum is also a stage, as is a book, as is a box. All can house related—but possibly disparate—scenes, texts, and objects that all point to one story, mood, or idea. Not random (An Artist's Book is Not a Taco), but carefully selected and staged to lead the way down a particular path: to produce that cumulative effect, a relationship between the parts. The Meatyard exhibit did just this and I imagine the exhibition catalogue would do the same.

The Meatyard exhibit at the deYoung runs through February 26, 2012. Other photos, not in the show,  may be seen here.

Distance, 2010

photo by Sibila Savage


jackie said…
I am passing on the Liebster blog award to you. Not so many of these around now so I hope that is OK. Details on my blog.
Alisa said…
Thank you for thinking of me. I'm sorry I can't follow up. I appreciate the thought, though.