Southerly gaze

Two different studies of the South at Jackson Fine Art


When Tennessee photographer Mike Smith is good, he is very, very good, displaying a uniquely Southern perspective that recalls William Christenberry, Birney Imes and Shelby Lee Adams, while remaining true to his own vision. Finding a peculiar grace in the strange, borderless melt of the human into the natural world that defines the South, Smith fugues on the lack of division between a rusted outbuilding constructed of scrap metal panels and the landscape's encroaching, enveloping brambles, ivies and swampy morass.

There is an intimacy between the human and the land in Smith's work - so much so that the dwellings seem an extension of the soil as a barn sprouts from the Earth like moss or some knobby growth. The human element is here, but it's so subtle you could easily miss it on a drive through the country. Smith approaches such signs of life as if they were unearthed Indian arrowheads or a trailmarker of stones left in the forest, suggesting that with eyes wide open, all sorts of mysteries will be revealed.

Smith's photograph "Unicoi County, TN," of a pair of dogs ensconced in an overgrown yard, could be a Natural History Museum diorama of a lost world. Smith endows the most marginal sights with an element of nobility and rarity. The image has the stage-crafted brilliance and otherworldly aura of Jeff Wall's theatrical tableaux, though in Smith's images, all is real. The juxtaposition of rich colors - the lush greens of deep South foliage and the auburn fur of a hound dog captured in noble profile - makes the image glisten. In the almost holographic depth of the image stands a trailer, and like almost all things human-made in Smith's photographs, the building has begun its process of decay, the metal husk of the structure peeled away to reveal the guts of the rooms inside. Smith is entranced by what time and neglect and weather can do and measures the progress of seasons in wood and metal, which mellow and change. There is something forlorn about these places left standing in a landscape so wild and encroaching. Time has left them behind, but they remain resilient.

What Smith seems anxious to record in all his work is a past that stubbornly lingers. Buildings that fade and weather but will not decompose or a single towel hung out to dry on a clothesline signify some human hold-out still occupying his/her abandoned fraction of the South. In "Bristol, VA," a glade of windowless 1950s automobiles weathered down to their husks are hidden in a gray forest of winter trees like some Mason-Dixon Pompeii transformed from a civilization of speed and movement into a graveyard.

The best of Smith's works inspire questions about the lives and people implied in these settings: the impulse to construct an outbuilding out of scraps or to hang a telephone pole with an array of broken plastic baby dolls, cow skulls and discarded scraps. And while the spirit of Smith's work comes through in this Jackson Fine Art exhibition of Recent Color, this particular sampling of photographs does not give the best representation of Smith's wonderful photographic breadth and depth, leaning too heavily on the artist's depopulated landscapes with their trope of the sturdy, lonely barn.

While Smith is clearly enraptured by the circumstance of the South, the photographer who shares the gallery, Atlanta resident Frank Hunter, approaches landscape and human-made structures with an almost entirely formal, surface vision in his series Still Points. Far more concerned with the interplay of light and shadow, which has often beguiled photographic forefathers like Edward Weston or Edward Steichen, Hunter hones in on the delicate detail: the lacework on the edge of a curtain, the curve of a wooden banister, the shadow cast by a windowpane on the floor.

The exquisite craftsmanship and intricacy of antiquated buildings reoccurs in Hunter's photographs, which themselves emphasize vintage technique in their making. While Smith seems eager to find the past as an element in the present South, for Hunter the past is more a stylistic flourish seen in his use of a platinum palladium printing technique associated with the early days of photography. The technique invests his photographs with an ethereality in which edges often bleed into the creamy paper they are printed on. The works not only resemble the stark compositions in photography's early formalist experiments, they intentionally mimic an even earlier phase in the medium's development and the fragile, aged images taken a century ago.

Although they often recall Sally Mann's photos of the South made to resemble daguerreotypes, Hunter trades Mann's romanticism for a more mannered, studious control. You can see his labor in almost every image hung on the gallery's walls, each one speaking to time spent crafting the perfect shot. Often the work that really sings seems to partly give up control, to surpass the ordered frame of the photographer's organizing vision. One of the most striking images in Hunter's body of work astounds because it seems to resist the control so evident in other work. A nighttime shot of Queen Anne's lace, whose frothy white heads glow like phosphorescent sea creatures in the nighttime surf, allows the magic of the subject to shine above the intrusion of the artist as nature turns itself, for an instant, into a picture postcard of itself. Much of the work seems to strive for some comparable enchantment and comes up short.

Frank Hunter's Still Points and Mike Smith's Recent Color run through July 29 at Jackson Fine Art. 3115 E. Shadowlawn Ave. Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. 404-233-3739.??

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