— Jed Perl
Photography confounds categories. Some nineteenth-century photographers, who set out to produce ethnographic or archeological records, might be surprised to find their work nowadays presented in the museums as art pure and simple. And others, who aimed to create Art with a capital A, made photographs that have turned out to have a considerable value as historical documents. These potentially paradoxical situations are part of what draws us to photography in the first place—and later keeps us bewitched. Looking at Atget’s studies of the gardens of Versailles, where the dramatically placed statuary is set off by inky dark trees, we have to wonder how this artist reconciled his avowed aim of producing “documents for artists” with chiaroscuro visions that suggest the last, glorious gasp of the romantic spirit. The more questions we ask of photography, the more slippery and bewildering the medium’s nature becomes. The photograph, a moment snatched from the river of time, is at once timeless, outside of time in the sense that a work of art must be, but also absolutely timely, as much a piece of evidence as a birth certificate. These proliferating possibilities help to explain why, as the relatively brief history of photography approaches its two-hundredth year, the question of what constitutes a photographic tradition becomes only more vexatious. If tradition is history in its timeless aspect, then is there not something especially challenging about a photographic tradition? How does an art dedicated to the containment of moments in time achieve timelessness? We know that it happens. But we do not necessarily know how.
Peter Kayafas’s Totems, this engrossing collection of photographs of abandoned buildings discovered along the back roads of the American West, embodies to an exhilarating degree all photography’s habitual confounding of categories. It is precisely Kayafas’s refusal to insist on some sharp distinction between the photograph as a work of art and the photograph as a document that gives his work its particular potency. The Totems are, at the most fundamental level, records of structures that have been abandoned, bereft of human attention for decades. Some are domestic in nature and extremely modest in size. Others were built to serve as barns, schoolhouses, banks, libraries, and churches. Kayafas’s explorations of an endangered vernacular architecture are at once straightforward records and unabashedly poetic meditations, a matter of the photographer testing the quality of his attentiveness against the facts on the ground. The lyric impulse is sharpened by the documentary convention. Kayafas is a tireless explorer who has clocked thousands of miles in Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and the Dakotas. In some instances the buildings he has discovered along lonely dirt roads are so far gone as to be near the point of vanishing entirely. His camera records a process by which flesh becomes spirit, the real house a ghost house. This is a moment in time in which time is running out.
I would wager that Kayafas has arrived at the striking name he gives these photographs—the idea of calling them Totems—as a way of conveying his own awareness of how fraught their resonances and implications can be. A totem is by its very nature exceedingly simple and exceedingly complex, complexity packed into simplicity. When asked about the word, Kayafas refers to a text by the author of The Golden Bough, James George Frazer. Frazer explains that totems are a class of material objects that are regarded with a “superstitious respect,” a regard that is “intimate and altogether special.” Kayafas has quite obviously found himself in precisely this kind of intimate and somehow uneasy relationship with the solitary, dilapidated structures he discovers in the American West. And he bids us experience these buildings in more or less the same way. Are the Totems meant to be embraced as signs or symbols of the most basic human needs for shelter, sustenance, and sociability? Are they all the more striking because we now recognize how tenuous their sheltering power always was? We grasp the hopes that went into the creation of these buildings, and also the shattered plans that may have precipitated their abandonment. As the buildings deteriorate, betrayed by man and battered by nature, the photographs become all that is left. The photographs achieve their own totemic power, magically preserving structures that are themselves lost or on the verge of being lost.
Kayafas presents his Totems as self-evident facts, sharply etched by the strong, steady Western light. Whatever allusions to the dark, the surreal, and the uncanny we may discover in these disturbing images—and who can deny such allusions?–are confounded if not trumped by the matter-of-factness of the presentation. The result is something like sweet reason confronting the unreasonable and the irrational, a serenity that nevertheless cannot disguise the turmoil within. When I look at these photographs I am sometimes reminded of Willa Cather’s stories and novels about the American West, where the solitary home suggests the struggle to sustain a tenuous yet brave civility and culture even as that home becomes the mausoleum in which civility and culture die a slow death. Kayafas, who lives most of the year in New York but feels a deep kinship with the American West, has something in common with the men in Cather’s stories, whose complex loyalties she obviously believes reflect aspirations deep in the national psyche.
There is something of the novelist in Kayafas’s approach to his subject matter, some recognition of the importance of the fact in the invention of a work of art. He sees much more in these battered buildings than the perverse romantic beauty that would attract a Baudelairean aesthete. He wants us to worry about precisely how they came to be the way they are. We find ourselves wondering who lived here, who worked here. Kayafas is attentive to modes of construction, so that when he examines a collapsing building he is simultaneously imagining it from the ground up, as it was in the beginning. The materials employed in these architectural projects are the humblest: wood, concrete, plaster, corrugated metal. And frequently the results are frequently mild triumphs of artisanal practice, quite refined in their primitive directness. The penetrating Western sunlight allows us to linger on architectural details: the width and thickness of planks of wood; how the simplest doors and windows are framed; the particular pitch of a roof. Looking at these elemental shelters, sometimes just a single room, I imagine they are not that far from the diagrams in a book of basic carpentry, or that the structures are more basic still, the sort of building an older carpenter might teach a younger carpenter to construct or a father might teach a son to construct, without recourse to any printed or drawn architectural plan.
Kayafas regards their aging–the rotting wood, the crumbling concrete and plaster, the peeling paint–with a steadiness that does not exclude sorrow. In the Totems, the rectangular orifices where windows and doors once were, now often midnight black from the darkness within, register as the cavities of a skull, and many of these buildings do have the quality of skulls, the walls as parched as bone, the doors and windows like gaping mouths and empty eyes. In this respect the Totems recall the arcades, doorways, and windows in de Chirico’s paintings of ghostly cities. Like de Chirico’s metaphysical canvases, the Totems are haunted by the enigma of progress, the advances that leave the old buildings and communities behind, the structures now little more than carcasses, communal life reduced to skeletal remains from which we are left to infer the shape of the mind and the heart that were here and are here no more.
Although the buildings that attract Peter Kayafas’s attention have without exception seen far better days, when he photographs them he insists that we experience them in the present tense. We feel the immediacy in his compositions, which are direct and unequivocal. He photographs architecture not with an eye for the picturesque detail but with an eye for the singularity and wholeness of the structure, an all-in-oneness that echoes the work of artists who began to emerge in the middle of the twentieth century, among them Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly, and Richard Serra. This is not to say that Kayafas has been influenced by these artists, but rather that his imagination was shaped after the tectonic shifts in compositional vision that took place in the middle of the last century and signaled the rejection of Cubism, with its multiplying force fields and intricate juxtapositions. It was Newman, who had no use for Cubism and saw himself as a new anti-romantic kind of romantic, who said that the Indian burial mounds in Ohio were among the greatest works created by man. He believed—and surely Kayafas would agree—that American experience has to precipitate an American way of seeing. In Kayafas’s American West the artisanal traditions are presented as bold, minimalist experiences. The ravages of time are approached matter-of-factly. That things are worn down by the wind and the rain is the way it is, nothing more. I am reminded of the sculptor Donald Judd’s attitude toward the old buildings he lovingly restored in Marfa, Texas. Judd was teasing some aspect of eternity out of structures that had been built with no thought of eternity—or maybe even of the day after tomorrow. Kayafas brings the same kind of phlegmatic gravitas to his Totems.
Some of the Totems represent relatively new structures, perhaps built in the 1950s or 1960s, and so their deterioration feels somehow unnatural; they are victims of our disposable culture and its here-today-gone-tomorrow mentality. We are also reminded that certain building types are quite simply the fundamental building types, forms that recur over very long periods of time, albeit in somewhat different materials and configurations. That we keep building in ways very much like the ways people built before, and that the buildings are occupied and then abandoned and left to deteriorate—all of this is related by Kayafas in a lapidary style. The buildings on the verge of collapse–the walls pushing outward, the roof sagging deeply—sometimes suggest aging animals giving up beneath the weight of some terrible burden. With their wildly skewed verticals and horizontals, these broken-down structures are tragic and also somehow comic. The anthropomorphic or animistic element in the Totems, the almost subliminal suggestion of human skulls and dying animals, only adds to the “superstitious respect” with which we regard them. The metaphors are poker-faced, allusions without illusions. The Western landscape confounds easy poetic sentiment, much as it confounds the picturesque. The tragedy remains an undercurrent, strong emotions bleached but not obliterated by the unflinching sunlight. Such are the enigmas that Peter Kayafas has discovered along the back roads of an America we cannot afford to ignore.
EVENT: ICP Book Signing for Peter’s Totems, December 20, 2012:
REVIEW: Art New England review by Robert Moeller of Peter’s exhibition Totems, February 2, 2012:
REVIEW: “Kayafas’s images have a timeless quality. They’re simple and spare, yet quietly overpowering with their evocation of a history on a scale beyond that of individual human lives.” The Boston Globe review by Mark Feeney of Peter’s Totems exhibition, January 21, 2012:
REVIEW: “Even the most dilapidated have character—the kind of pioneer spirit that refuses to accept defeat.” The New Yorker listing of Peter’s exhibition Totems, July 11, 2011:
REVIEW: “Peter Kayafas’ images of falling down barns and empty houses bring crisp formality and renewed reverence to these forgotten icons of vernacular architecture.” DLK Collection Blog review of Peter’s Totems exhibition at Sasha Wolf Gallery: