Artists Jim McGuire and John Baeder share a friendship that goes back decades, and the evidence is now hanging on the walls of The Arts Company on Fifth Avenue. Both photography exhibits could stand alone, but together they shed appealing light on one another.
McGuire got his start taking black-and-white aerial photos for helicopter pilots in Vietnam. His darkroom was an Army tent. Baeder learned his particular image alphabet of now iconic diners, cars and hand-painted signs on his early travels across Highway 29. Eventually all roads led both artists to Nashville.
Known for his thoughtful photographs of legendary Nashville music figures, McGuire became friends with many of the artists he shot, and the outtakes from their portrait sessions reflect the camaraderie between subject and photographer. In his portrait "The Highwaymen," McGuire captures Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson in what would otherwise be a more or less standard portrait of the four legends. What sets it apart is an almost adolescent moment of laughter as Waylon tells the punchline of a joke just as McGuire takes his shot. It's almost as if McGuire has captured that moment on a talk show when the host announces a commercial break, the mics go dead, the stage goes dark and the camera backs out — and the host and the guest start making wisecracks and busting each other up. It's a revealing flare of candid voyeurism.
There is a related yet subtler voyeurism in John Baeder's pictures. The Vermeer-like photographs use a series of miniaturized automobiles in still lifes that function like kitchen-table-sized cultural cornucopias. His photograph "Homage to Aunt Emma and Uncle Zolty" features a notebook that belonged to Baeder's aunt — it contained the family's prized cologne recipes, and it's something she kept hidden in her jacket throughout the Holocaust. Baeder arranges the notebook behind a tiny perfect die-cast car, agleam in natural light on a black stage, flanked by vintage bottles of his family's perfume. The image is a haunting distillation of his own American experience.
Baeder's mock oil-on-canvas photographs in this exhibit are an interesting twist on the photorealistic paintings of roadside restaurants and other Americana that have made him famous. "Royal Street Mandolin With 1921 Hispano-Suiza" is so finely staged and lit, the tiny wood-paneled replica car so highly detailed, that for a moment it's unclear whether the car has been shrunk or the mandolin behind it enlarged. All of Baeder's prints in the exhibit are meticulously arranged, yet he manages to create an effortless illusion of self-portrait through the the revelation of personal details.
Unlike the objects in Baeder's photographs, McGuire's subjects know they're being watched. Guy Clark removes the bandages from a wound he endured many days prior, when a verbal brawl with his wife Susanna led him to break a window with his fist. Clark doesn't look proud, but there's a resigned indifference in his expression suggesting it's just another day at the office for him.
Still, it's the artist's whimsical tendencies that most shine through in this exhibit. One of the few color photos in McGuire's side of the show is a portrait of John Prine serenading a crowd of Bob's Big Boy statues as they seem to huddle around him for a closer look. The story goes that after Shoney's pulled all their Big Boy statues off the restaurants in Tennessee, each and every one of them was stored at the restaurant's headquarters. The bizarre community of hundreds of mothballed Big Boys became a kind of hallowed ground for McGuire, Prine, Baeder and others. Offerings of Jack Daniel's were often brought to appease these exiled American gods.
McGuire's most powerful photograph in the exhibit is "End of an Era." Back when Gaylord Entertainment announced its plan to tear down the Ryman for fear that it might compete with Opryland, McGuire began work on a photograph that would take him a year to complete. Whenever a thunderstorm brewed over Nashville, McGuire would set up outside the Ryman and wait for lightning to strike. At last, he caught the desired eruption of crackling light over the seemingly doomed cathedral of music. The image warns the viewer to beware the wrath of the Mother Church of Country Music, or be doomed to an existence without its cultural riches.
It's easy to approach these two exhibits with a light heart, yet they reflect the refinement of so much private experience that their humor and illusion of simplicity only serve to widen the windows into the artists' souls.