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Marshall Sceuttle's Photographs at CEPA


Photos can be used—often are—to tell a story. Sketch out or suggest a narrative. Especially multiple photographs, a series of photos, but individual photos also can suggest a narrative. But there’s something more of the essence of photography than to tell stories. What’s more of the essence is to present detail. Infinite details, fresh details, details never seen before. As opposed to the way every detail in a painting, say, was seen before, if only when it was put there by the painter. Among the infinite details in a photo are details the photographer surely could not have seen. And so are there for anyone to discover. And so all the details in a photo are there to discover, in a way they aren’t in a painting.

And out of the details we discover, we, the discoverers, may construct a narrative, which may be similar to a narrative intended or envisioned by the artist, but will be our narrative in a personal way, based on the details we discovered in a personal way.

Marshall Scheuttle’s large-format photos of a wide variety of subject matter, from portraits to prairie and mountain landscapes to Americana vignettes, play with this tension between telling stories and presenting details, out of which the observer may construct his or her own story. A current major exhibit of Scheuttle’s photos occupies four galleries at CEPA.

In the main floor gallery are five apparently at first glance unrelated photos. A kind of torch singer figure, with actual fiery torch (entitled The Sword); a guy with his shirt off and arms and torso covered with tattoos, including one large one, on his chest and belly, of a naked woman committing hara-kiri with a butcher knife; an odd little dirt pillar and scrubby tree in the middle of prairie land (entitled Eden, WI); a young woman in lacy black underwear on a bed with a lurid purplish-red silk cover; and a means-business-looking cop in uniform (entitled The Shield).

Apparently at first glance unrelated, but then a cascade of Garden of Eden references, starting from the center, first in the photo title, then the little plot of ground set apart, and the one scrubby tree—copious ironies notwithstanding—then the prohibitionary flaming sword and shield bookends, then the lethality message guy and temptress female—this is the artist’s vision, version, of the Book of Genesis story of the fall.

The oldest story, and a mighty one, but not so mighty as to take precedence over the individual photos, which are not story illustrations particularly, not subordinate to the storytelling, but have each their own integrity—in the sense of self-completeness—each their own primacy, as a part greater than the whole. And could be source material for another completely different story or stories.

In the other galleries, the stories are not so discernible, not so identifiable. But there are discernible storytelling signs, storytelling techniques, such as repetitions of themes and motifs—westerner self-reliant types, real and pretend, mountain landscapes, fire and water, birth and death, carney figures, carney midway scenes—in chiastic arrangements—bookends mutually resonant photos, in subject matter or mood, then likewise the next pieces in line, from the one direction and the other, and so forth. Concentric circle forms. And often in the middle, a death image. A half-dead tree in a desert setting in one case (echoing the scrubby tree in the Genesis story series). A corpse in a coffin in another.

With maybe a story in the ensemble. But again, the individual photos take precedence, have prominence. Each is its own story.

The overall title of the exhibit is Borderland, with both literal and metaphorical reference. Another motif is adolescence. A memorable couple of photos exposes contrasting attitudes regarding this particular metaphorical borderland. A trio of neophyte cowboy types—posing during a break in a riding or roping competition of some sort—can hardly wait, it seems, to leap headlong into the murky void of the adult world. Whereas, a quietly pensive young woman, rapidly and willy-nilly developing into physical at any rate maturity, seems not so sanguine about the prospect of abandoning for good the relatively carefree and irresponsible existence she realizes she has enjoyed up to that point.

In an artist’s statement, Scheuttle writes:

In youth we create new sacraments, build hidden sanctuaries and cry out in defiance of our heritage. Borderland is a venture into these youthful dream songs; the time after a ritual has begun but before its resolution…the place between two worlds.

My photography explores individuals who exist in this Borderland, struggling with ritual, loss, and the embrace of roles that are inherently mystic…

Jung proposed that in this Borderland we walk eternally between two opposing forces: the Depths and the Time. Pulled by the longing for one, stretching to embrace the immediacy of the other, it is this conflict that ultimately animates the world I have attempted to create through my work.

The Marshall Schuettle exhibit continues through August 10.

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