Exhibition Review: Jeff Whetstone - Batture Ritual
By Scarlett Davis
The Mississippi River, a twisting brown ribbon which separates the east bank of New Orleans from the west, has a long history of being romanticized. Photographer Jeff Whetstone brings forth a lesser-known narrative --that of the people and ecosystems along the “batture,” a kind of antediluvian world which exists between the levee and the Mississippi River. “Batture Ritual” has ties to New Orleans and was exhibited at the University of New Orleans’ St. Claude Gallery as a part of Prospect 4, a triennial collaboration of artists launched in the wake of the 2008 hurricane Katrina. Tucked away in the Julie Saul Gallery is a kind of swamp oasis which shields observers momentarily from Manhattan’s cold concrete and hustle and bustle in exchange for the crackling of bark, the sound of mating frogs and cicadas, and the enveloping of a Southern river lethargy.
At the entrance hang two of Whetstone’s printed images, while sectioned off behind closed black curtains, under a kind of cloak of night, are five additional images along the perimeters of the room, with the focal point being a twenty-four-minute video that maps the river’s edge over the full course of a day. The photos provide what Romantic painter J.M.W Turner did for English landscapes; Whetstone is masterful in his capturing of colors, which seem to dance and refract along the water’s surface. He is able to intermarry what is innately beautiful with what is also innately dangerous or harsh, which is to say the defining feature of this landscape. To view his gutted catfish bejeweled in emerald flies or the snake interwoven between the fingers and wrists like a rosary or prayer beads is to understand the ritual behind all acts of life
Beyond a motif of the Southern Gothic, Whetstone’s photography offers a kind of andragogy into a lifestyle not entirely remote from our Industrial upbringing. After the devastation of Katrina, many people were uprooted from their homes. Some of these people elected to live a life on the outskirts, to join a small community along the batture built on stilts known to locals as “camps,” which are said to cling to the river. A small fragment of that world is experienced through the video. While the passing of container and steamships is alive and robust, there is something to say about the quietness left in its wake with the water crashing against the terrestrial levee. The batture is not depicted as a break from the horizon or something divisionary between man vs nature - or industrial vs primitive - but rather an immutable constant, a kind of relic in time.
In his Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain had a dual appreciation for the river, in terms of both its beauty and its utilitarian benefits. The Louisiana wetlands is a part of erasure with an estimated 2,000 square miles of swamplands, barrier islands, disappearing before our very eyes. “Batture Ritual” is a special and captivating collection. It anchors our focus to a rooted piece in what appears to be a shifting puzzle.
Jeff Whetstone Batture Ritual is on view at Julie Saul Gallery from September 6-October 27, 2018.