Corrosion & Desolation
Through Feb. 28
National Humanities Center, 7 Alexander Drive, Research Triangle Park
Corrosion & Desolation, the title of Greg Myhra's exhibition at the National Humanities Center, tells a prospective viewer exactly what to expect. To some viewers the murky black-and-white photographs, many taken with plastic lens cameras, seem a little too much to bear during this time of year.
On a visit to the show last month, two staff members commented that they would have preferred more splashes of color in their winter art, while acknowledging the photography's stark beauty. But lack of color or the show's dim view isn't the real issue with Corrosion & Desolation. The show succeeds or fails with each viewer's willingness to entertain what is perhaps an unchallenging vision of the country's no-man's lands.
At this particular time in history, it's not difficult for neophytes to transverse the Mojave and Sonoran deserts—possession of a serviceable automobile or the willingness to wait for a trucker going your way will both grant relatively swift passage. Observant East Coasters who have traveled extensively in the Southwest will immediately recognize many of the individual subjects of Myhra's photographs: The abandoned truck stop, the teepee motel, the boom town signage—all well-photographed icons of the mythology that has developed around the culture's physic and economic relationship to this expansive region.
Along with his images of road-culture decrepitude, Myhra also includes photographs of robust cacti, yuccas and Joshua trees—the point being, presumably, that these hearty floras endure regardless of the ebb and flow of human activity. Interestingly, Myhra's stoic saguaro cacti appear utterly healthy and completely removed from civilization. Myhra almost certainly went out of his way to show us fine specimens. Many of Arizona's saguaros are dead or dying, evident victims of suburban cowboys who wantonly pack them with explosive charges or use them for target practice—so called "cactus plugging." Also, scores of these once stately cacti are now blighted by a mysterious epidermal browning—a good argument for placing the slow growing population on the endangered species list. That Myhra doesn't focus his lens on a rotting saguaro skeleton in a show titled Corrosion & Desolation tells us volumes about his point of view. Above all else, he appears interested in achieving a stylization that evokes a meticulous romanticism of the region.
It's obvious from the passing-through nature of Myhra's photographs that he's not digging in deep for the long haul. Corrosion & Desolation does succeed in conveying a common sensation that people often experience when visiting the desert for the first time. It's like an expedition to Mars: One's connection to the sustaining planet is stretched beyond the breaking point. Those who live in greener pastures might enjoy Myhra's trip—even if it offers only a cursory and idealized glimpse of huge swatches of lands teeming with rich histories. These apparently inhospitable territories once cradled vibrant cultures, and even today there are eccentrics beyond the interstate who call them home.