America’s holy trinity beer, barbecue, and the Bible forms a belief system of carnivorous consumption and garish glitz in recent photographs by Bill Owens and Christian Patterson, well paired in concurrent exhibitions at Robert Koch Gallery.
Owens’s "Flesh," with its uncomfortable close-ups of pork parts and gnashing teeth, picks through gristly ribs, charred bacon strips, and headless mannequins, revealing an eat-or-be-eaten society starved for gustatory and spiritual succor. Patterson’s "Sound Affects" searches for musical solace in Memphis, Tenn., finding fundamentalist sass and the sick glow of neon lights where Elvis Presley used to reign. Both photographers old-guard Owens, whose seminal Suburbia study put him and his Livermore neighbors on the map 35 years ago, and up-and-comer Patterson, seen here in his first West Coast show saturate their semisurreal documentary images with alarmingly bright hues, recalling William Eggleston’s aesthetic approach. Their generous use of color gives these images of flesh and blood, bars and jukeboxes, an added kick, and the shows are energizing even when their subject matter is ugly or forlorn. "Revelations 21:8," scrawled on a dirty kitchen wall in one of Patterson’s photos as if prophesying doom resulting from the kitchen stove’s four burners left unattended, sets a foreboding tone. "But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone," this cheery verse promises. That’s bad news for the ravenous consumers in Owens’s images, whose sins of the flesh range from ogling Victoria’s Secret models and worshipping Prada mannequins to sprinkling mystery meat with synthetic seasoning and tearing into jumbo ribs with unsated appetites verging on vengeance.
Heedless hedonism is slathered all over Owens’s pictures like rancid barbecue sauce: his subjects pig out in skimpy underwear and strike a pose or decompose depending on their place in the food chain. Only in Freud at the Met, in which three museumgoers study master painter Lucian Freud’s portrait of legendary performance artist Leigh Bowery in all his corporeal glory, does the contemplation of flesh finally satisfy our appetite for skin, sin, and salvation. Otherwise, "Flesh" inspires a desire for vigorous flossing.
Patterson leads us away from Owens’s designer bulimia and deep into Memphis, where so many have wandered before. Like the Japanese teens in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, Patterson is lured by the promise of musical transcendence and authentic American cool. Void of people but crammed with their stuff twinkling Christmas lights, a Diary of a Mad Housewife paperback, a jukebox playing Floyd Cramer’s "Last Date," a poster of the classic Jam record that gives Patterson’s show its mod title these photos testify to Paul Weller’s, Patterson’s, and Presley’s belief in music’s ability to alter its most receptive listeners and their environs, from Tennessee to Woking, forever and for the better.
Imbued with tunes blaring at bars, skating rinks, and house parties, Patterson’s photos are melodious, bluesy, and edged with guitar feedback. The brightly colored fluorescent tubes that illuminate the Cozy Corner Restaurant are like a Dan Flavin installation put to good use, while the neon Alex’s Tavern sign, shot from within the late-night lush lounge, vibrates through creased Venetian blinds. Patterson fills out his compositions with musical filigree: white graffiti clouds on a light blue brick wall, the curves of a vampiric temptress wielding her pet bat in a salacious painting decorating a well-worn watering hole, the striated lines and lies of a tattered American flag. The whoremongers, sorcerers, and idolaters of Revelation 21:8 might be damned, but eternal suffering for doing bad, bad things in run-down Southern towns doesn’t seem so awful when the fire-and-brimstone soundtrack features "That’s Entertainment."
Skateland emerges as the key work in Patterson’s show and also offers an elegiac alternative to the meat eating and meat beating so rampant in Owens’s series. In this nostalgic image, a giant roller skate adorned with wings soars above an abandoned rink, no doubt once the site of Xanadu-like bliss, into a perfect blue sky. All flesh is pure here, all sins are forgiven. Elvis has not left the building. *
"BILL OWENS: FLESH" AND "CHRISTIAN PATTERSON: SOUND AFFECTS"
Through Feb. 24, free
Tues.Sat., 10:30 a.m.5:30 p.m.
Robert Koch Gallery
49 Geary, fifth floor, SF