“Todd Hido: The Poetry of Darkness” & “Francisco de Goya: Los Disparates” 

By Jonathan Kamholtz

at University of Kentucky Art Museum

The University of Kentucky’s Art Museum is a two story jewelbox of a home for art. It is small, well-lit, and was—when I visited—unusually concerned with encouraging visitors to see behind the curtains of what an art museum, of whatever size, did and why. There was a small exhibit about the sorts of questions a museum asked about the objects it collected and a larger show about how the museum contextualized its new acquisitions in terms of the objects it already owned. I got the impression that it had a small collection but had some resources that would help it grow the collection wisely and well.

I was interested in seeing the show of Goya’s Los Disparates from the museum’s permanent collection. Los Disparates—the follies, the crazy things, the absurdities—was Goya’s final series of etchings, a suite probably intended to consist of 25 plates, that was never printed until about thirty-five years after his death. In Goya’s considerably complex canon, they are among the most difficult to interpret. There is even disagreement about what the title of the series was intended to be; they are sometimes called Proverbios or Sueños (Proverbs or Dreams). Each title suggests a different possible source for the erratic, topsy-turvy behaviors depicted in the prints: they are innate and potentially universal qualities of humans, who are subject to follies; they are timeless behaviors that have been codified by cultures as proverbs; they are particular dreams to which this artist has been subjected. The series is probably related to the Ship of Fools tradition, which suggests (and illustrates) what is foolish about each walk of life and social position. It may go back even further to the medieval tradition of the Dance of Death: nothing that you think makes you distinctive in this world matters more than what is true about everyone, which is that they must die. There is something almost harmless about the Ship of Fools. Goya’s contribution to the tradition may be in merging it with the Dance of Death (several prints feature large, shrouded figures stalking those engaged in folly).

It is certainly among the most interesting things about the University of Kentucky Art Museum’s copy of Los Disparates that it once belonged to Vincent van Gogh. There is a fair amount that can found about van Gogh’s literary interests; he read widely, from Hans Christian Andersen to Emile Zola, with side interests in such authors as Dickens, Keats, George Eliot (and a number of French novelists), Longfellow and Shakespeare. It is harder to find out about his art library, though we can tell a good deal about what absorbed him by what he copied in paintings—Hiroshige prints, for example, and a Dore illustration. His connection to Goya is more puzzling. What did they share, besides a birthday, and a possible descent into madness at the ends of their lives?

Leaving aside what I think about the current extravaganzas that let you feel that you are living inside the paintings of van Gogh, it is plain that people would not be lining up around the block for an immersive exhibit of Goya. Goya’s world is teeming, dirty, alarming, and perilous. It is filled with monsters, many of the worst of which are our fellow humans. Their smiles may be their most dangerous signs. It is especially hard on mankind’s breezy illusions about itself: you may not think you are behaving foolishly, but what are you really doing when you engage in war (of course) or anger or fear or social relations or even happiness? 

Goya literalized his sense that human beings were not unitary wholes by drawing creatures with two heads or two bodies. In “Disparate Desordenado” (Disordered Folly), a monstrously doubled being, part male and part horrified and horrifying female, accusingly lectures another monstrous being while a crowd of grotesques look on. Whose disorder is being shown? The world’s at large? The twinned figure’s absurd attempt to be a governing voice? The artist’s? Goya suggested that our bodily desires lead us to folly but also that ignoring our bodies would lead to its own bizarre folly. In “Los Ensacados,” people are enshrouded in bags from feet to neck, either denying the body or radically privatizing it. Barely interested in each other (except perhaps for one woman in the foreground twisting around to take in the scene or display herself from within the bag), they go shuffling off towards a precipice in the ever-present darkness that characterizes the series.

In the world of these prints, individuals do not have much chance of escape or hope of immunity. In “La Lealtad” (Loyalty), a monstrous, unexpressive simpleton sits at the center of a crowd who push to court his attention and perhaps favor. Plainly he has nothing to give them, but that doesn’t stop them from craving his ear or laughing at his jokes. In the background sits a man on horseback, literally above the rest of them, who seems to embody calm and guides his horse away. But where will he go? Like many of the prints, “La Lealtad” is set on a flat and empty plain. The only light is on the writhing band of scoundrels. There is no alternative world aside from the frenzied and statuesque embodiments of folly.

Escaping from folly is its own folly. In the series’s most well-known print, “Modo de Volar” (A Way of Flying), several men have rigged up da Vinci-like self-powered flying machines. The men are all flying in different directions; they do not form a new community in the night sky. They imitate birds—or possibly butterflies. The central figure is of heroic proportions, but is he looking out with the wisdom of detachment or determination or regret? The machines are powered by hands and feet, but the main figure’s hands are secured to the wings with what could pass for a prisoner’s manacles. In a print bluntly called “Disparate Ridiculo” (Ridiculous Folly), a group of humans, mostly older and mostly female, is gathered close together, as if for warmth and security. By and large, they are calm and at peace— a bearded man has fallen asleep on the shoulder of the person next to him—except for a hidden but speaking figure and one woman facing us with a malevolent smile. But they are all sitting at the very end of a very high leafless branch, so high that the moon seems to be below them. It is, of course, the least secure place imaginable. Perhaps that is the smiling woman’s secret.

To me, none of this seems like the world of van Gogh. We might see a commentary on human folly in his famous “Café de Nuit,” but that seems a more personalized nightmare from which others can escape but not the painter or the viewer. By and large, for van Gogh, Goya seems to represent an interesting and significant road not taken.

Downstairs at the Museum was the main show, a collection of 31 photographs by Todd Hido, almost all on loan from Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell, significant collectors of photography from the Cleveland area. Hido, born in Kent, Ohio, in 1968 but currently living in California, is perhaps best known for his works from the Homes at Night series, many of which were published in the cleverly-titled House Hunting (2001). In the aggregate, these pictures show suburban housing, either isolated or in rows, seen from the outside at night, with few—and most frequently, just a single—light on. They form a haunting series. We are always on the outside, but they draw a sort of line at voyeurism: we are never really looking in. He has, perhaps, the voyeuristic spirit–“I take photographs of houses at night because I wonder about the families inside them”– without the voyeur’s sense of permeable space. He has aptly called his work as typifying “intimate distance.” The wall tag notes that he deals in “the memories of what a child sees but doesn’t full understand.” Hido is naturally drawn to walls as well as windows, and their flatness, as well as the complex way surfaces receive light at night, suggesting their relationship to theatrical backdrops, another context in which voyeurism is being invoked.

Todd Hido, “7373” (2009)

In “#7373” from 2009 (Hido only numbers his works rather than naming them, (which I find dreary and cumbersome), we look at a house from its driveway on a night after a light snow. Cars have already been in and out, leaving tread marks. In the Houses at Night portfolio, there is very little that has not been touched and transformed by man, including small parcels of garbage on the driveway. It looks like the garage door has received some touch-up painting, softening the geometry of the built, suburban world. The scene is oddly rich in color. There is the blaring blue green of a bright fluorescent street lamp, the distant dull red of the city or town center, the bright warm yellow light from the one room that seems occupied. Hido has said that “I photograph like a documentarian, but I print like a painter.” The combination of warm and cool colors are reminiscent of Hopper, of whom Hido has said “I am a fan of Edward Hopper, and I was delighted to have my work hung next to his at a show at the Whitney.” 

In many cases, though, he produces prints that suggest the outlook of a theater designer, where a scrim may allow us to see two surfaces, two dimensions, at once. Hido became well known for taking pictures in a car through its front windshield, which we are aware of because it is blurry or spattered with rain. The idea of the photographer living in a car-centered world gives him something powerful in common with some of the documentary photographers he most admires from their work with the FSA like Dorothea Lange. It also seemed to me to suggest a quality of patience on the artist’s part and distance from his subjects, quite unlike the FSA aesthetic: it is as if he is saying “I don’t have to take this in a rush, and I don’t mind that the world I portray isn’t crystal sharp. What is?” He has explained that he carries three spray bottles of water with him and a jar of glycerin when he goes out; it can’t, after all, always be raining. There is something secure about staying in his car; in one interview, he noted that “very early on, I realized that your car is a space shuttle, and you can take your space shuttle out into the world.” Perhaps Hido’s most colorful print in the show is “#10789-2109” (2012) where the beads of water on the windshield make the varied lights of a one-story motel look like Christmas decorations or a circus. The light is made more complicated because he has left his headlights on; he is willing here to make his presence known, perhaps because there seems to be no one occupying the hotel. It is all front, like a Potemkin village. As is typical of his architectural photographs, he doesn’t confront the building head-on, but sees it at an angle, allowing the diagonals to recede perspectively into a row of towering dark trees. Nature has been both beaten back and is rising up.

Todd Hido, “10789-2109” (2012)

Balancing Hido’s pictures of quiet, possibly unplanned suburban elegance, like “#2524” (1999) which has a row of houses, probably originally built alike, now showing color variations between them so rich and subtle that they could come from Vermeer’s palette (a reminder that Hido is a powerful and expressive colorist), are his photographs of trailer homes and double wides. In “#28100” (2001), it is hard not to think about lower middle class squalor. I realize that I say this from the highly privileged position of a middle class museum-goer, but this is part of the price Hido pays for taking out the human faces that we might identify with; we can only judge the human and social beings on the basis of the surfaces they surround themselves with. But then it is Hido’s habit to make those surfaces strikingly rich in formal design. The sky is divided by sweeping traceries of power lines and telephone lines. An abandoned rubber hose curves along the grass along the front and side of the house. Hido seems to go out of his way to include chain-link fences. Why can’t we value their geometries? Behind towers a pair of huge pine trees. It’s hard to believe that he could be making fun of something with so much elegant design to it. He also suggests that there must be a reason why houses that began as identical commodities now look different from each other: there have been interventions on the part of the people we never see.

But it is still impossible not to ask certain kinds of social questions of a print like this. The house in this photograph has all its lights on, and we can make out hints of the room inside. But where are the people? What are we to make of this house’s relationship to the human community? Is the photographer’s consciousness the only one that matters? I find myself returning to the analogy of the child trying to comprehend the mysteries of the world adults prepare for a family to inhabit, as plain as a bright light in a distant room, and as impossible to interpret. I wonder what the inhabitants of all these houses might have to say about Hido’s project. The photographer makes it clear that does not actively collaborate with his subjects. He takes his pictures while standing or parked on streets and sidewalks–public land–and then, he says, “I just do it. I don’t ask permission.” In a sense, he cannot be violating their privacy because there are no persons to attach to the outsides of their properties. I do not believe that he is being cruel or satiric, though he may be self-centered, like other artists whose inspiration comes from quests to make sense of their pasts. In a way, it is the audience who is being put to the test. We have our own baggage to deal with, our own associations and assumptions about lights and nights and the partly protected and partly vulnerable position of being in a car at night. 

Todd Hido, “2424-A” (1999)

Sometimes, we find ourselves not secure in the car. In several of his pictures, Hido places himself—and therefore us—by the side of a road. It may be muddy or it may be wet with old snow. It may be dusk or the dark of night. But in the distance, a vehicle with headlights is approaching. In “#2424-A” (1999), it feels like we are standing precariously between the roadway and the stacks of a several-day’s-old snowfall. A light—presumably a car—is coming towards us, though it’s impossible to tell exactly what it is through the fog. There are, once again, electronic wires woven through the night sky—19 of them!—but their freehand beauty doesn’t, in truth, do much to relieve the anxieties raised by the photo’s situation. This picture can be compared to “#7557” (2008)—throughout his career, Hido is drawn to the mode of theme and variations—where we are by the side of the road at a dusk that is both silvery and gloomy. A car is in the distance, but coming our way. We are in a car this time—the rain-spackled windshield—but only slightly less at risk. The road is unpaved or barely paved; we are parked on a muddy turnout. The print is richly thrilling, gothic to a degree (as are many of Hido’s photographs), and cinematic, a strong shaper of his interests in the theatrical.

I wondered if it might have been like his work with one of my female colleagues. I have my own sense of some of the gender issues they generally if obliquely raise. Being at the mercy of approaching vehicles by the side of a dark road is something that I think would be read asymmetrically by male and female viewers. Perhaps more fundamentally, the photographer’s sense of the physicality of the home raises its own set of gender issues. We are led, I would think, to feel interest and pleasure at the ways the outsides of these structures have come to be differentiated from their twins next door. But where are the insides, where are the thousands of decisions that personalize our living spaces? He has a very interesting portfolio called “Interiors”—another richly suggestive title—but those interiors are virtually all empty. I do not mean to suggest that these things are exclusively a woman’s realm or can be traced back to woman’s work, but one doesn’t get the sense of the aspects of domesticity where these things have been shared. 

In some ways, these questions have a chance to be addressed by Hido’s figurative work. (One excellent quality of the Bidwell loans is the range of work they place on view, both in terms of date and subject matter.) The name he has given the portfolio of his figurative works—“Portraits”—is a little misleading, however. They are virtually all of women, many of a model with whom he has worked for years. Some are lovely and show a woman more or less at ease—perhaps with her face averted—and some are intensely and purposefully theatrical. “#10967-2498” (2012), a rare black and white, could be a Cindy Sherman: a woman covers her mouth with her hand while staring out intently. Her eyes and nails are perfectly done and her hair is perfectly coiffed. She could, of course, merely be yawning, but she bears the look we know, or think we know, from horror film stills—though she could be the cinematic victim or a member of the audience. My favorite figurative picture on display is “#9549-A” (2011), where a young woman is sitting outdoors just after the sun has set. She is crying—her eye makeup is running—and she is rolling down her pantyhose to reveal a bleeding bruise on her knee. We have no way of knowing whether it is candid or artificial. There is an implied relationship between subject and artist. She needs to reveal the source of the pain, and in particular, to him. Hido never made any claims to being a street photographer. I felt in this one, the theatricality was devoted to an image of ordinary, if sexualized, intimacy and intensity.

Hido’s landscape photographs, the other genre of his in rich display, hit me as startling, allusive and contextualized in the traditions of America’s art that broods on its lands, skies, waters, and trees. I want to make an argument for their excellence. Landscapes are present in other of Hido’s series, and are even suggested in some of the Homes at Night, but they tend to be minimal and are given symbolic weight to carry. In “9497” (2010), for example, a fairly elegant house overlooks to raw expanse of Lake Erie, but there is a huge pile of gravel between the house and the water. People seem to crave landscape, but are at war with it. The photographs are more comfortable with landscape when the photographer is alone with it. In “10192” (2011), we see a large tree isolated in the foreground on a snowy day through a wet car window. A hawk has just catapulted itself downward into flight from a branch. The photograph is masterful in composition: the upper right is entirely empty but is balanced off against a row of trees leaning over in successively steeper angles. Aside from the whitish gray of the snow, the image is in monotone, a dark brownish black, except for a smear of reddish leaves in the background, livening things up. As for the hawk, we have to assume that Hido was the recipient of a happy accident. It suggests that as a landscape photographer, you sometimes take what you are given.

Todd Hido, “10101-6” (2011)

Hido’s landscape work is in conversation with the natural vision of America’s Hudson River painters of the mid- to late-nineteenth century. For the Hudson River artists, mankind is not necessarily entirely absent, but his presence has been minimalized. The natural world of the nineteenth century had largely be left to its own devices; it was lush, but showed life’s wild succession of new growth, mature growth, and death. You could see it close up, but in the distance there was always more and more, threatening to overwhelm you. The painter could be both the naturalist and the participant in the sublime. Almost by definition, the sublime is in short supply in the suburban world that makes up most of Hido’s photographs, though sometimes an expanse of open water suffices. And if a Great Lake is not handy, sometimes a pond in a park will have to do. In “10101-6” (2011), the picture is dominated by a craggy huge tree, one of its two main branches severed. It stands not far from a bank of weeds that line the shore of a smallish lake; the far side is thick with woods. The argument in such a picture is that there are things you can have access to and things you can’t. It’s interesting to think of the landscape as an extension of the issues Hido explores in his shots of the closed up house with a single light on.

Hido is also in conversation with a number of photographic traditions, not least of which is the battle over focus. In the early decades of the 20th century, the f/64 group took a stand against the aesthetic of the Pictorialists. The f/64 photographers (think Edward Weston and mid-career Ansel Adams) wanted pictures that were sharp all over, honoring the mechanical capabilities of their medium. The Pictorialists (think Gertrude Kasebier and early Stieglitz) were accused of not seeing how photography could liberate artists from the goals and means of paintings. But sometimes it simply came down to focus. The Pictorialists valued the rhythmic blur that came from distant or moving objects or longer exposure times; the f/64 didn’t. For many years, the f/64 photographers seemed to have won. But for several decades now, the aesthetic of the blur has been coming back, and Hido’s landscape work also deserves attention for his role in that. 

His argument is that the splattered and partly indistinct scene through a car window is important precisely for what might be considered its flaws. Not everything can be seen clearly, and there are barriers between the viewer and what they have an appetite to view. (The argument from the f/64 photographers that everything can be at focus at once is also a fiction.) Whether we would have chosen to or not, we see nature through a series of scrims. In #1022538” (2011) a path muddy from melting snow leads down to the shore of a lake. A large leafless tree dominates on the left; a bank of weeds is on the right. Not too far out from the shoreline is a small, submerged mudbank. The print is mostly in browns and whites, though there are hints of other colors—red in some of the weeds, an overcast sky that shows hints of an oncoming blue. The spots and blurs that become the lens through which we are looking may make things more painterly, but they also serve to remind us of the distance that divides us and the landscape. It may be as cozy and secure as a space shuttle, but we would not exit a space shuttle without extreme preparation.

I took #10132” (2011) to be Hido’s most epic landscape in the show, though the subject is hardly intimidating. In a snowy field, there are a couple of older—but not ancient— trees in the foreground and a line of younger trees behind them. Very few of them are purely vertical; they lean or have twists in their trunks. It is a little like reading the score for a musical theme and variations. We see a stern natural geometry being contrasted with a more yielding one. The ground is marked by patches of sienna-colored weeds, their random clumps giving us a sense of wildness. I see this as a daring photograph for all the things not in it. There is no body of water to anchor the scene, just a low horizon line beneath an overcast sky. He has used all his compositional skills the create visual drama where, by rights, there need not have been any. Crooked trees balance off against straight ones; the gray sky makes the brown weeds look very colorful. We can almost feel the care with which he has decided which patches of the image will be blurred and which will not. 

I think that Hido’s best landscapes do not invite us to find ourselves in a narrative, as do many of his best Homes at Night pictures or roadside images. That invitation to restraint on his part comes from considerable restraint on his. In the landscapes, sometimes even more than in the Homes at Night, we encounter a complexity of responses despite the simplicity of what we actually see. Would the photograph work as well without the drops of water on the windshield? Does it matter that, as Hido explained, the water drops are artificial, sometimes deliberately applied by him? It’s hard to say, but we should bear in mind that Hido knows well the photographer’s mantra, which, in an interview, he put as follows: “Photography is the best truth teller and the best liar at the same time.”

University of Kentucky Art Museum, “Todd Hido: The Poetry of Darkness” January 18-June 4, 2022

“Francisco de Goya: Los Disparates”April 12-July 30, 2022