Flesh trade

Growth explores the topography of the human body

For the past decade, local artist Jill Larson has been diligently showing her work at venues around Atlanta. In a town especially mad for photography, it's a shame that in none of those 10 years has a local gallery chosen to represent her work. Perhaps it is because her work is often more conceptual than photographic or maybe it's because there is the presence of something disturbing and powerfully strange (aspects that would likely be considered advantages in other cities) in Larson's almost single-minded obsession with flesh. While the nude enjoys a long and noble history in painting, sculpture and photography, Larson's work addresses nakedness of another sort: the inescapably naked truth of our own mortality. In her signature topography of the human body, Larson hones her camera in on the most minute details of the flesh's surface: wrinkles, pores, black hairs embedded in the skin, fragile white down, age spots and strawberry birthmarks.

The work is disturbing for asserting the presence of damage and past traumas — scars and stretch marks — and the flesh's vulnerability. But it is uplifting, too, bridging the distance between youth and age, black and white, damaged and pristine to find a universality in our fleshy selves. Zero in close enough, the work suggests, and everything becomes equal: Red and pink spots, birthmarks and dimples, the drooping hangdog flesh of old age and the milky alabaster of infancy blur into one human constellation.

A society that so often takes growth as a positive intellectual and spiritual endeavor becomes distinctly uncomfortable with the idea of physical growth, whether it be obvious aging or weight gain or the growth of fleshy parasites — tumors, lumps, moles, on its surface. Larson's most recent show offers an alternative to that vision of our own flesh as suffocating and tomb-like, trapping us in the inevitable fade to oblivion.

Growth, Larson's new installation currently on exhibit at eyedrum is as appropriately spare and quiet as the work itself. Larson's photographs are arranged on two walls in the gallery's railroad-flat layout in a narrow horizontal band. These groupings tend to equalize the skin on display, blurring it into one common skin rather than finding distinctions between obviously unique bodies.

As a complement to her photographs, Larson has made a four-minute video, "Hungry," which is projected on a third wall in the gallery. The video intersperses Larson's usual close-up vantage of a large, fleshy body and two hands caressing and rubbing lotion into its surface. These soothing images are slowly intercut with the obnoxious, caterwauling voices of TV men and women bleating commands about fat and diet and weight and exercise. Accompanied by garish color clips from talk shows, the Food Channel and commercials, this increasingly assaultive montage of frying eggs and creamy things, sizzling meats and rivers of candy provides the culture's call-and-response to the acceptance and elevation of the flesh in Larson's photographs. While our society tends to make a disgusted correlation between these ingested "fats" and the corporeal "fat" of the overweight body, Larson turns this media barrage back on itself — revealing it as a kind of cultural obsession and sickness of its own.

In "Hungry" this bullying attention to lean bodies and fatty foods is rendered obscene as it's rudely cut into the solitary, calm black-and-white images of a man or woman caressing his or her flesh. Larson shows how such indications of a cared for, beloved, nourished body are anathema to our culture of self-hate. More commonly, flesh is a disease, a handicap, an obstacle to be overcome by a culture determined to slice and melt it away. The video is a powerful reminder of how little respect we have for the body and for the exterior of a person as the imprint of an individual soul. Instead, we strive for conformity in uniformly thin, neat, shaved and blemish-free male and female archetypes.

Larson's work has always had a subtly feminist edge, informed by the artist's personal perspective as a mother. There is an implicit commentary running through the work, that it's women's bodies that bear the physical brunt of pregnancy and giving birth and which are most often punished for showing evidence of that toil.

In some ways, Larson's culturally resonant video is a disturbing break from the usual ethereal, meditative quality of her photographs. Larson's gift has always been quiet understatement. But these photographs, with their respect for individuality rooted in the universals of human experience, take on a new weight and dignity next to the video, which asserts the blaring noise of the culture that resists such subtle, detailed, quiet visions. Our bodies, our culture asserts again and again, are our enemies.

In her photographs Larson argues for a different perspective. In Growth, flesh is a warrior's vessel where the imprint of time registers profoundly, and marks us for the better, as human.

Growth runs through Oct. 7 at eyedrum, 253 Trinity Ave. 404-522-0655. Wed.-Sat. noon-5 p.m., Thurs. and Fri. 2-5 p.m.

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