At first glance, the 25 black-and-white photographs in “Peter Kayafas: Totems’’ recall the work of Wright Morris. Both photographers elegize that rural agricultural region of flat terrain and immense sky in the heartland of this country, a place where time seems to stand still - except, of course, that it doesn’t. The show runs through Feb. 25 at Gallery Kayafas.
The similar names are not a coincidence. Peter, who heads the Eakins Press Foundation and has a notable photography career of long standing, is the son of gallery owner Arlette.
Morris was a native son. Kayafas brings to the region an outsider’s fresh set of eyes and something like awe. It’s a place, or set of places, that eludes any strict geographical designation. West, Midwest, and High Plains overlap. As if to compensate for that disregard of boundaries, Kayafas gives each photograph a geographic title: “Western Wyoming,’’ “South Dakota,’’ “Central Nebraska.’’ The pictures need to be named that way because their specific locations are not otherwise discernible. Location here is as much a matter of mythology as cartography.
It’s time rather than place that concerns Kayafas. He’s photographed abandoned structures that he likens to “the statues of Easter Island.’’ Farmhouses, barns, schoolhouses: They violate the relentless horizontality of the prairie with their peaked roofs and, really, just the fact of their having managed to remain upright. “More often than not,’’ Kayafas writes, “they stand alone and proud in the middle of a field or farm or fallow stretch of open land, as though their survival is a stubborn reaction to their obsolescence.’’
Defined by time, these structures nonetheless seem to stand outside of it. Which is to say that Kayafas’s images have a timeless quality. They’re simple and spare, yet quietly overpowering with their evocation of a history on a scale beyond that of individual human lives. An Idaho log cabin looks as though it has a steeple; and there is, however faintly, a sense of the holy to these photographs. There’s nothing fussy or pious about them, though. The warping of the wood in what looks like a barn in eastern Washington makes the structure look as though it’s offering a bow. To nature? To the camera? To us? Whoever the recipient, the effect hints at comedy as well as pathos.
There’s a terse, noble eloquence in how these tumbledown buildings have endured. They could be cabanas for stars in a Beckett epic shooting on location. “You can’t stay up, I must stay up, I’ll stay up.’’ Although that’s a paraphrase of the ending of Beckett’s novel “The Unnamable,’’ the title of the movie would be “Waiting for Collapse.’’
Surendra Lawoti’s nine large-scale photographs of the banks of Toronto’s Don River complement Kayafas’s pictures. His show also runs through Feb. 25. Lawoti and Kayafas are color vs. black and white, urban vs. rural, makeshift vs. sustained, and, most important, inhabited vs. abandoned. You could also add American vs. Canadian, except that would be to miss the point that what matters to both Kayafas and Lawoti is a concern that transcends nationality. It’s survival.
In situation and appearance, the Don River is a bit like the Muddy River, in the Fenway: a patch of nature surviving in the middle of a city, not quite unspoiled but definitely (and happily) undeveloped. As an environment, it’s slightly mysterious: tangly and brambly and with a fair amount of trash strewn about. It’s a setting, Lawoti writes, defined by “the complexities of urban land use where nature and urbanization are in precarious tussle.’’
The Don differs from the Muddy in being much more heavily used by people, both for recreational purposes and as a place where the homeless pitch tents. The tussle, in that sense, is incongruous as much as precarious.
There’s a sadness to these pictures, as there is to Kayafas’s, though here it’s more immediate. The delicacy of Lawoti’s wan, Canadian colors adds to that effect. Also as with Kayafas’s pictures, there’s a sense of indomitability intersecting with transience. That’s another source of the mysteriousness of the Don, how those two qualities aren’t so much opposed as allied, albeit in a wary, weary way.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.