Caleb Stein’s Watering Hole: The Baptism of Identity in the Pool of Perpetuity | Introduction for Down by the Hudson at ROSEGALLERY, Santa Monica

Return to old watering holes for more than water; friends and dreams are there to meet you.

— African proverb

Tucked away in the Hudson River Valley is the small town of Poughkeepsie. It is located in a landscape so stunning that it inspired an entire school of American painters. Artists such as Thomas Cole or Albert Bierstadt were all eager to evince some of the romance and rebus of the American experience; celebrating those modern dynamics of discovery and establishment through an articulation of the timeless grandeur of geography. For the Hudson River School artists, the architecture of contemporary America – its pillars of belief; its structures of meaning - was, ironically, to be found in the ancient valley’s rolling hills, winding river and lush woodlands. It was there one could truly understand what it meant to be American. What it meant just to be.

Space or, more particularly, place has always been employed by those artists seeking to unravel the intricacies and delicacies of identity. Cole and Bierstadt both used the generic vocabulary of the Pastoral – land, water, sky, setting and rising suns and their majesty of light - to enunciate a quite specific vernacular of Americana. 170 years later, the British artist, Caleb Stein, is writing similar love letters to this region and, specifically, the town of Poughkeepsie to understand the mythos, pathos and bathos of America and Americanness. It is a subject he has explored since 2013, having lived in Poughkeepsie for over five years, and it remains his overarching quest, informing this new body of his work, Down by the Hudson.

As a book, Stein’s images flow as a series of binary antagonisms. Community versus individuality; innocence versus experience; exposure versus shelter; earth versus water; the silence of stasis versus the buzz of being. The unveiling and juxtaposition of such dissonance is key to Stein’s practice and conceptual thrust, with each of his images filling a lack generated by the other in contradistinction. The result is a lively, deeply personal jigsaw of a town and its inhabitants that, in turn, becomes a leitmotif for a larger conversation about the turbulence yet pulchritude of contemporary America. An America many believe to be at war with itself. An America of awe and wonder.

Before we head for the water, let’s first explore the town. Stein’s Poughkeepsie is captured in a stark, unforgiving light. A geometry of quiet emptiness pervades these images. The three wooden crosses standing outside the Salvation Army on a snowy Pershing Avenue voice the same oxymoronic clangorous quietude that his image of scattered slices of bread on Main Street does. The violence of a prior act; the narrative of myth or history indexically disturbing the pacific simplicity of his image. Stein’s presentation of the IBM building in Poughkeepsie or the town’s Community Center or Overlook Drive-In are images that also connect to the recent past. One of wealth and industry that has, alas, been whittled away over time. These somewhat antiseptic descriptions zoom in on buildings once busy, but now empty, with a phenomenological exactitude. Concerns for composition usurp those of composure; exposure is now privileged over exposition. That’s what happens to the present when it is corroded by the winds of time. Meaning begins to reside in the residue of what once was, much as the beauty and pain of these images lie in their sterilised silence.

When Stein confronts Poughkeepsie’s residents, he does so with equal elasticity, creating often confrontational, forthright images that speak volumes in spite of the immediacy of their capture and which can be wildly different in tone and mood. Compare a car mechanic and an adolescent off to his Prom. The mechanic is enveloped in clouds of evanescent mist whilst cleaning a car at Big Belly’s Car Wash on Main Street. It’s as poetic and perceptive an image as any in this book. The man’s registration is challenged by the anaemic plumes of his labour, with that mist (and its capacity for discombobulation) percolating into the politics of race. If this pregnant image belongs in the arena of the ode or elegy, then Prom Boy, shot on Raymond Avenue, comes straight out of New Hollywood and any number of great American films from the 1970’s. Here the narrative is – literally – punchy and in your face. Dressed to the nines, a boy is heading off to his Prom. A moment that often marks the transition of boyhood to adulthood (which is further suggested in the juxtaposition between Police at Christmas Parade, Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie and Knot-Tying Competition, Troop 25 Boy Scouts, Poughkeepsie), but which this young fellow seems, with his broken nose and swollen eye, to have already managed.

These portraits and cityscapes all function like Still Life images. Careful composition chimes with the quiet drama of moment and memory. I suppose one sees this most evidently in Stein’s two images of reindeers. One only recently killed on the road in Poughkeepsie; the other, ravaged by time and now but a skeleton, photographed on Vassar Farm. Both images are portraits and landscapes, of life and death. Both capture the stillness of the moment yet the waves of time that have washed over it. Stein’s intimate and devastatingly candid photographs seem to hold on to the notion that the present never really escapes the past. Life remains so inextricably linked to death, even if we spend most of our time running away from it.

Poughkeepsie gets its rather unusual name from the Eastern Algonquian-speaking tribe from New York and Connecticut called the Wappinger. It means “the reed-covered lodge by the little-water place” and refers to a stream or spring that feeds into the Hudson River. Water has fascinated Stein since he was a young boy. He is drawn to its healing properties. It is an ‘environment’ in which humans function differently. Quite literally, we feel less pressure when we’re in water. Less gravity. Less stress. So it is that most of the images from this body of work are taken at a place called The Watering Hole. A little oasis on the outskirts of Poughkeepsie with cool, soothing waters that lead down to the Hudson and which have provided sanctuary for numerous Poughkeepsians from hot summers, stressful elections and pandemics. It’s time for us to take a dip.

Stein’s attraction to water, and his desire to capture others’ delight in and for it, is not new. Any number of comparisons can be made, but one would struggle to find a better one than Thomas Eakins’ The Swimming Hole (1884-85, Fort Worth, Amon Carter Museum). Both artists present their respective natural pools as places of escape or refuge. Eakins amplifies and classicizes that perspective by depicting his protagonists naked. Whilst Stein does not capture any skinny dippers, he, like Eakins, does secure a sense that the pool is a somehow sacred space; one that invites togetherness yet allows for otherness. A communal space where everyone is the same yet allowed to be different. An oasis that is gloriously ordinary, offering safe haven from this most extraordinary world of ours, right now. Stein’s photographs serve to gently push our heads under the water of The Watering Hole, momentarily pausing the endless vicissitudes of life caused by this virus, sharing the calm and quiescence that is etched over the faces of many of The Watering Hole’s visitors.

There is another reason to employ such a juxtaposition and that is both Stein and Eakins’ focus on masculinity. Unlike Eakins, Stein’s contemplation of masculinity is not libidinally or erotically charged. He is interested in capturing moments that problematize the language or codes of masculinity (and, by extension, heterosexuality) and illuminate the innate vulnerability that all men experience. We see it in casual embraces; long gazes into the distance; the baptismal propensities of the water covering these bodies. That examination of masculinity is seen in the journey from adolescence to adulthood; it is visible on Poughkeepsie’s streets with boys off to their Prom or playing basketball with Ice on the Market Street Basketball Courts. It is also played out in various watery vignettes here in The Watering Hole. Solitary figures such as Braily and TaeShawn present one kind of visual trope of masculinity: a certain confidence or truculence that cannot help but elicit the tremulous vulnerability of these young men. That perfume of flux contrasts with the pairings of Skyler & Malikai or Fred & His Twin; one confrontational, the other cooperative; one youthful, the other experienced. Boys buck like deer as two muscular brothers help one another look for something lost. In turn, these duets differ from Stein’s depictions of groups of boys or men. Masculinity here feels charged, animated; sometimes frivolous, other times adversarial. Even though they’re just teenagers, Erin & His Friends do not look like people you would mess with. They try hard to look like people you wouldn’t want to mess with. Identity is but a triangulation of inflection, introspection and projection, after all. In a sense, Stein unpicks at the various coats of masculinity worn by his protagonists, observing the difference between a winsome, unburdened Michael, owning his pictorial space, and the two Trump supporters, Brendan & Sean, more guarded and distant, overwhelmed by their environment. The most important point is that, here in The Watering Hole, such differences are openly expressed and embraced; masculinity now as fluid as the waters in which these men and women bathe.

Most people in this little oasis live in Poughkeepsie, but they can be found across the annals of myth and time. They are men and women whose stories – Classical and Biblical - are inextricably tied to the jeopardy and justice water provides, colouring several tropes of identity as a result. So it is that Sanjay is Narcissus. Kaleb becomes Tantalus. Yulanda’s husband could be Charon; the girl with her chihuahua is now Leander, desperate to save her tiny Hero. These tales of yore provide parables for us all today. Fables of right over wrong; good over bad; life fending off the jaws of death. I can’t help but spy the restoration of Susannah’s virtue in Summer; see the attack on Actaeon by Diana in those young men with their angry huskie. In all these moments Stein keeps his focus very much on the figure in landscape yet - wittingly or unwittingly - that landscape shifts from geology to politics; from geography to identity. From moment to myth to memory. One cannot help but see Stein’s figures through this kaleidoscopic lens of his. One that deliberately fuses paragons of the past with paradigms of the present. Therein lies the timeless beauty; the delectable déjà vu of these images and Stein’s process.

We have all visited The Watering Hole in Poughkeepsie before. Many times, over many visits, crossing many millennia. It’s down by the Hudson, by the Styx, by the Jordan and the Euphrates. Whilst Stein’s images are contemporary portraits of a time, place and people, they are also those little snippets excavated from the ether of time, sharing and communicating the fears and hopes; loves, lives and dreams of time immemorial. Stein takes us down by the Hudson, at a time when life is full of irresolution. There we seek absolution in solution; hope in history; peace and harmony that only The Watering Hole can provide. Stein’s powerful, achingly beautiful Down by the Hudson is a dip in the waters of serenity, community and solidarity. A dip we all so desperately need today.