(james benedict brown) on the road

A taste of what’s to come

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 28 August, 2006

After a blissful morning exploring the long, interconnecting galleries of the Smithsonian Institution, I walk back across the Mall towards the downtown heart of Washington DC. I plan to head back towards Union Station via the American Art Museum and the National Building Museum. On an impulse, while walking north on Seventh Street, I stop into a large bookstore named Ollson’s. I have an urge to pick up a paperback novel for my trip, and browse through the travel literature section, hoping maybe to find a travelogue appropriate to my trip. The clerks at the back of the store recommend Bill Bryson, but I politely feign interest. Luckily, the particular novel of Bryson’s that is recommended for my trip is not in stock, and I decide instead to grab a copy of Paul Theroux’s travelogue The Old Patagonian Express. After mentioning to the clerk that I am on my way to Alabama, he comes back to me with another suggestion. “Depending what your timescale is”, I am recommended to go the American Art Museum and see the small exhibit by William Christenberry that has recently opened there. I do not know Christenberry: apparently he is an Alabama-born artist who now lives in Washington. He makes regular visits back to his native province to seek inspiration for his photographs, paintings, collages and models.

This recommendation turns out to be the most valuable of my trip so far. After a detour to Chinatown for a $9 lunch, the exhibit (Passing the time with William Christenberry) is easy enough to find, on the ground level of the American Art Museum. There are a number of framed photographic prints, some of them grouped together. On closer inspection, these reveal themselves to be time lapses: the same abandoned house, barn or bar photographed ever year from the nineteen-sixties to the nineteen-nineties. The thick landscape of trees dowsed in kudzu is immediately recognisable to me from the photographs that I’ve seen published of the Rural Studio in Newbern, Alabama, which I am on my way to visit. Seeing a second group of photographs of a green barn, captured every year from 1973 to 2004, my eye misses the explanatory title card. My eyes return to it a few moments later, to discover that this innocuous green barn is located in none other than Newbern, Alabama. A similar set of prints near-by depicts a progressively dilapidated joint called the Bar-B-Q Inn. The set finishes with a shot of an empty building lot, after the building’s collapse or demolition. The Bar-B-Q Inn once stood in Greensboro, Alabama, the closest settlement to Newbern, also home to many of the small architectural projects of the Rural Studio. Both buildings are recreated in scale models that accompany the photographs.

Christenberry’s work has a darker side too. A small quote recounts his feelings of intimidation upon stumbling into a KKK meeting in Tuscaloosa in the early sixties. This, and subsequent brushes with the darkest of America’s racist hate groups has inspired Christenberry to follow a more inquisitive and subtle line of projects: drawings, prints and even models of examples of vernacular Alabama architecture that allude to the white cloaks and pointed hats of this intensely secretive sect.

I float around the exhibition, buzzing with the excitement of this early glance into the landscape and society of the place I am about to visit. For one piece, Christenberry constructs a colourful abstract collage using old Alabama license plates, all bearing the region code 36, that of Hale County. Close to Newbern (in Hale County) students of the Rural Studio have built at least two projects that employ scrap metal and old license plates as external cladding materials.

Hungry for this beautifully insightful yet modest work, I buy the catalogue and splurge on FedEx shipping to mail it home. It’s a beautiful book that is worth every cent, and weighs enough for me to justify taking advantage of the museum’s discounted shipping rates. I will leaf through the pages again when I return from Alabama in a few weeks time.

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