Maya Mercer: Parochial Segments
Through February 20, 2021
By PETER FRANK, February 2021
Maya Mercer’s “Parochial Segments,” despite its implicitly constricting title, opens up the ongoing sequence of photographs Mercer has been compiling of her Northern California neighborhood and neighbors. The new series shifts emphasis, away from the inwardly turned gaze of “Cult” and the brittle sociology of “Westend Girls” and towards a seemingly picturesque comprehension of the poor Sierra foothills community on which Mercer concentrates. But the landscape, however grand, however much breadth it may afford its inhabitants, is a prison more than a free field. The distant mountains and the nearby water do not promise release; they promise entrapment. And, as Mercer’s photos insinuate, they threaten devastation.
The children in these Parochial Segments, slouching towards adolescence, are caught mid-chrysalis, abandoning their innocence and waking to a realization that home is not simply their refuge, but their fate. They — or the people who came here and made them — settled this forsaken corner of America as if landing on Mars. They found themselves safe here, so they are safe, they think, only here. Their lives and their surroundings are degraded, but they have convinced themselves — and these, their children — that the outside world is worse. This was once “Indian country,” inhabited by Native American peoples who roamed as they could and needed to. But Mercer’s subjects are the descendants of Caucasians who made their way here not 100 years ago, fleeing the disruption of their Great Plains farming. These “Okies,” about whom John Steinbeck wrote so sensitively, flooded California in waves reminiscent of today’s migrations, and encountered the same resistance, prejudice, and cruelty — from their fellow Americans, their fellow white people, who disdained them as poor filth. Theirs was not a race conflict, but a class conflict. And still is.
These children have not inherited the land; they have inherited the fearful, ingrown mindset of those who were able to stay but were not quite able to sustain themselves and had nowhere else to go. And now these children will face a 21st-century version of rejection and isolation, as even the land will change beneath their feet. In the great Anthropocene die-off, they will be the first to go. Or will they be the last?
Refusing simply to document poverty, Mercer practically paints a picture of the doomed, not simply capturing their aloneness beneath a big, empty sky but infecting her images with what can seem a veil of blood, a persistent red saturation that augurs sickness and death, with or without violence. This red can be naturally found in the atmosphere, especially at sunset (and most especially during the lengthening fire season). But in the intensity it takes on in Mercer’s lens, this crimson suffusion signals a poisoned ecology as well as the catastrophic immobility of the next human generation. The Grapes of Wrath turns, seamlessly, into Children of the Damned.
Mercer, born to a family in cinema, is not afraid to work melodramatically. Indeed, by fantasizing apocalypse around these orphans of the American outback, she helps liberate them in a sense from their dismal quotidian existence. She provides them clothing and devices, for her photographs or for real, to begin elevating them. But, finally, she can uproot them only by articulating the calamities waiting to descend on them from the mountaintops and down the rivers. Spectacular extinction will cut short inglorious life.
Doubtless, these damned children would rather survive. So would we all. But they have less to lose than we do — and, living as close to the land as they do, they may prove more resourceful than we are. Wouldn’t it be just if Mercer’s little colony of the prepubescent becomes an oasis in the midst of global environmental collapse? WM
PETER FRANK is an art critic, curator, and editor based in Los Angeles, where he serves as Associate Editor of Fabrik Magazine. He began his career in his native New York, where he wrote for The Village Voice and The SoHo Weekly News and organized exhibitions for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Alternative Museum. He is former Senior Curator at the Riverside (CA) Art Museum and former editor of Visions Art Quarterly and THEmagazine Los Angeles, and was art critic for LA Weekly and Angeleno Magazine. He has worked curatorially for Documenta, the Venice Biennale, and many other national and international venues. (Photo: Eric Minh Swenson)
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