Critics’ Picks

Colby Caldwell, blind (2) [fall], 2011, waxed archival pigment print, 28 1/4 x 34 3/4".

Colby Caldwell, blind (2) [fall], 2011, waxed archival pigment print, 28 1/4 x 34 3/4".

Washington, DC

Colby Caldwell

HEMPHILL
434 K Street NW
March 24–May 25, 2012

The southern gothic is a trope in American photography, and it has a long history in Washington, DC, well beyond the many exhibitions bearing the theme that have appeared in the capital, such as shows by William Eggleston, Sally Mann, and William Christenberry. Colby Caldwell, with his latest solo exhibitions at Hemphill and Civilian Art Projects, strives to prove that dilapidated antebellum structures still constitute a relevant subject and an integral component of the American photographic canon.

Caldwell’s series “spent,” 2009–12, divided between both galleries, presents oversize, highly detailed photographs of spent shotgun casings. At Hemphill, an untitled, roughly seven-foot-tall image of what appears to be a dead Baltimore oriole’s wing looks, under Caldwell’s theatrical lighting and backdrop, like a heraldic banner—a vanitas treatment of the hunter that upends the South’s hazy visual vernacular through electric, even credulity-straining color. Elsewhere in the gallery, Caldwell shows his latest images from an ongoing series, “how to survive your own death,” 2001–, in which he captures stills from a corrupted photo file; though these accidental abstractions bear no relation to his larger concern with southern still lifes, they demonstrate his range with color. (Caldwell prints his own work.) At Civilian, the shotgun-shell prints take on a different connotation. Several are presented without Caldwell’s handsome custom spalted oak frames. His photographs emphasize the impossible physics that leaves shotgun shells splintered and blistered—to the point that they look altered by biomorphic decay. In these works, every shell is impossibly individual.

Out of both shows, it is Caldwell’s landscape shots of Maryland that shine––these photographs, on view at Hemphill, are detailed to the point of appearing three-dimensional. Perhaps that is his solution for how to keep the southern gothic alive: Locate within it the brightest bandwidth of color.

This exhibition is also on view at Civilian Art Projects, 1019 7th Street NW, until May 5.