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Alec Soth: Summer Nights at the Dollar Tree at Colby College Museum of Art

Alec Soth’s video, Summer Nights at the Dollar Tree, concludes with an excerpt from the Allen Ginsberg poem “A Supermarket in California.”

   What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.

   In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations! [1]

Alec Soth. Summer Nights at the Dollar Tree, 2012 (video still); single-channel video; 6:23. Courtesy of the Artist.

Alec Soth. Summer Nights at the Dollar Tree, 2012 (video still); single-channel video; 6:23. Courtesy of the Artist.

Ginsberg’s verse is an unsurprising endnote to Soth’s video, a nearly seven-minute-long work composed of dozens of fixed camera shots, lingering on sites throughout Minneapolis in the fading light of a summer evening. The locations documented are so mundane they could be from any middle-American town: a freeway overpass, a gas station, a commercial parking lot, a strip mall, the pavement outside a fast-food restaurant. A moonlit “neon fruit supermarket” is very much at home amid this imagery. But beyond the similarities in the settings conjured, Ginsberg’s quote captures a dynamic at the heart of Soth’s project: acknowledging the profound influence of an artistic predecessor (Whitman) while making art very much about one’s time, art that describes a uniquely contemporary experience. Summer Nights at the Dollar Tree was created as an homage to one of Soth’s greatest influences, the photographer Robert Adams and his 1985 publication, Summer Nights. Adams’ revered photo book documented his late-night walks in Colorado, focusing on spaces where artificial illumination bled into darkness. Summer Nights first motivated a young Soth to shoot in the evening.

Alec Soth. Summer Nights at the Dollar Tree, 2012 (video still); single-channel video; 6:23. Courtesy of the Artist.

Alec Soth. Summer Nights at the Dollar Tree, 2012 (video still); single-channel video; 6:23. Courtesy of the Artist.

In its present installation at Colby College Museum of Art, Summer Nights at the Dollar Tree is shown alongside another Adams project, Turning Back. Featuring more than 100 photos picturing deforestation in Oregon, the series was made in response to the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Alongside images of clear-cut swaths of land, Adams includes quotations from Lewis and Clark’s journals, describing the thick and dense expanse of trees they encountered when they first arrived. These sharp points of contrast present the legacy of westward expansion with solemnity. Turning Back flickers between a call to action and a wrenching acknowledgement of all that cannot be undone.

Alec Soth. Summer Nights at the Dollar Tree, 2012 (video still); single-channel video; 6:23. Courtesy of the Artist.

Alec Soth. Summer Nights at the Dollar Tree, 2012 (video still); single-channel video; 6:23. Courtesy of the Artist.

Summer Nights at the Dollar Tree, on the other hand, doesn’t elicit any sense of moral urgency or overtly lament what was lost to the current built environment. Instead, through Soth’s impeccable framing and the richly ambient noise captured with every setting, viewers cannot help but slow down and revel in the inadvertent beauty found in the most ordinary and drab spaces. Wind ripples through bushes overlooking a highway overpass; a woman combs her hair with her fingers while waiting for her ride outside of a strip mall; a man wearing a headset sits on a patch of grass in a parking lot, perhaps on break from his call-center job; one person practices a golf swing while filling up the car at a gas station; a lamp is turned on in the living room of a small, one-story ranch home, illuminating an American flag hung on the wall. As the video progresses, dusk slowly creeps into the frame, and each scene descends deeper into darkness, punctured with neon and halogen lights. The little vibrations captured through video, the small movements and oscillations of everyday experience within these landscapes, are visually captivating but without sociopolitical motive or message. Soth’s camera idles in the most banal of American settings and, in doing so, invokes both the recognizable malaise of killing time and a surprising reevaluation of such settings that only prolonged looking can bring forth.

Alec Soth. Summer Nights at the Dollar Tree, 2012 (video still); single-channel video; 6:23. Courtesy of the Artist.

Alec Soth. Summer Nights at the Dollar Tree, 2012 (video still); single-channel video; 6:23. Courtesy of the Artist.

It is undeniable that Soth’s practice is heavily informed by the contributions Adams made to the American photographic canon, both formally and conceptually. And while both artists share a deep sensitivity and visual attunement to their environment, Soth’s embrace of video in this project renders this artificial and ubiquitous landscape in vivid, simmering, unforeseen dimensionality.

Alec Soth: Summer Nights at the Dollar Tree is on view at Colby College Museum of Art through June 5, 2016.

 

[1] Allen Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California,” Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/47660.

 

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