Portsmouth Harbor Salt Pile Series
Hyatt’s work is important because in it the commonplace is made mysterious and monumental. Threads of the spiritual and the archetypal run through Hyatt’s work, including his ongoing series of photographs of the Portsmouth, NH salt piles.
The harbor salt piles, leviathan mounds, yearly appear and disappear from Portsmouth’s working waterfront, where the salt is unloaded from ships and stored for use on northern New England’s wintry highways. So much for the facts.
Hyatt’s salt piles magnificently transcend the actual. Hyatt’s lens documents a spiritual geometry: he fixes not just form, light, and shadow, but the timelessness of the contemporary moment, even as it passes. Removed from their everyday context, their scale rendered ambiguous, the images in Hyatt’s Portsmouth Harbor Salt Pile Series have an epic quality, a sense not just of grandeur, but of the cosmic and the impersonal.
Though apparently as fixed as the Egyptian pyramids (“S17,” “S18”), in fact the Portsmouth Harbor salt piles are ever changing, as Hyatt points out, “constantly moving and yet contained.” For Hyatt the site seems to function something like a zen rock garden, a nexus of chaos and order, inviting spiritual contemplation of the time-bound and the eternal, “a meditation on light, sky, fog.”
These images reflect a lifetime of exacting attention to detail, technique, and assimilated art history. In their begetting also are the majesty of glaciers and the sacred mountains of Machu Picchu, Peru (“S1,” “S3”), where Hyatt has spent significant time photographing the landscape and the shamans who intuitively understand the spirituality of nature.
The photograph designated “S14” in particular recalls the lyrical precision and perfect balance of Ansel Adams, with whom Hyatt studied as a young man. Here, however, Hyatt mediates between earth and the heavens with a mighty manmade Ararat of salt. Caterpillar tire tracks assume the character of ancient petroglyphs; foreground tread marks resembling an outspread wing mirror an overturned arc of radiant cloud.
Several works in the series make dynamic use of abstract industrial elements. Images like “S28” recall Charles Sheeler, the master modernist photographer and painter, whose gelatin silver prints emphasized the harmonious “architectural cadences” of industrial complexes, plants, and factories beginning in the 1920s. Hyatt has a similar feel for the sublimation of industrial complexity within simple shapes and elegant, expansive abstractions.
Other precursors in Hyatt’s work are the great modernist photographers Paul Strand and Edward Weston, both of whom made abstract images of objects in nature as well as the manmade forms and “indigenous architecture” of modern industrial America. Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia had introduced the machine into American art when they arrived in New York in 1913. Sheeler and his contemporaries responded by recalibrating photography. Indeed, Hyatt has mastered what Weston called the “deepest moment of perception,” the intense concentration on rhythm, texture, and form needed to transmute the essence of an object, creating an image more “real” and “comprehensible” than the object itself. (The Grove Encyclopedia of American Art, vol. I, p. 195).
Yet Hyatt’s work also encompasses the minimal, the ethereal, and the ideal. The whiteness in salt pile images such as “S17” and “S18” with their pared-down, atmospheric geometry, are distant cousins of Kazimir Malevich’s radically elemental “Suprematist Composition: White on White.” Arriving in 1918, Malevich’s work established a new threshold for abstraction, an evolutionary moment in Western painting, providing an early foundation for important later developments such as monochromatic painting and the American “color field” movement rooted in the abstract expressionism of New York during the 1940s and ‘50s. Hyatt’s fogbound monoliths also bring to mind Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings of the mid 1950s; functioning like visual koans, John Cage called them “mirrors of the air.”
Yet of course Hyatt’s subject matter is contemporary and specific. His is always an examination of value relationships across multiple surfaces, the expressivity of texture and nuance. In this he is a bit like contemporary painter Robert Ryman, who has said he wants his minimalist, ostensibly all-white paintings to function like objects capable of producing an experience of enlightenment. Hyatt’s whites, like Ryman’s, are never just “white,” much less are they blank. Rather, both artists employ an intentionally restricted vocabulary to achieve pictorial complexity by manipulating scale and texture. Also like Ryman, rather than considering the work of art as a window onto another world, Hyatt sees it as a means of focusing perception within the time and place of the present moment.
It was Thoreau’s example, that of “picking a place and boring into it,” that Hyatt, who is from the Conneticut, says landed him in the Seacoast region of New Hampshire. Here he has developed his talent for profound observation and his ability to enter so deeply into a place that, as he describes it, the place begins to feel as aware of his presence as he is of it’s.
Hyatt’s photographs represent for the artist, as for us, a hard-won and meticulous record of a visceral response to the world: How alive can you be? They are a calling to a deeper, more authentic way of being in the world, to ineffable truths that transcend the facts: “Things we all know but dismiss because we don’t believe it. This is our condition. It has taken me years to believe in what I know.”
Carl Austin Hyatt’s photography suggests that art is still capable of transmitting the authentic experience of beauty and truth, however ineffably, and that both are always closer to hand than we think. “The value of great art is transmission and transmission is priceless,” he has said. It allows us “to instinctively feel someone has revealed something about life – even if it cannot be named.”
-Christopher Volpe, for the Banks Gallery