Hide and seek

Bunnen traverses memory lane in Dalton Gallery show

Edges, Exposures & Mayhem is an exhibition that often feels more like a personal scrapbook writ large than the usual fine art survey. Like a collection of mementos, it offers evidence of Atlanta photographer and arts patron Lucinda Bunnen’s experiences, as do the tchotchkes, books and other personal objects housed in two display cases for this exhibit organized by Richard Eagan at the Dalton Gallery at Agnes Scott College.

The four-decade retrospective samples from Bunnen’s wide range of styles and subject matter, from the 1970s to the present, from the artist’s portraits of Atlanta’s monied elite to her images of the Alaskan frontier. But it is hard to leave the exhibition with any real feel for a consistent or unifying personal artistic vision beyond Bunnen’s desire to document her world.

The strange tone is set immediately upon entering the space in a room given over to thousands of ordinary color snapshots installed from floor to ceiling of movers and shakers on the Atlanta art scene, a sideways acknowledgment of Bunnen’s own essential presence as both an artist and a generous arts benefactor. The assembled 4-by-6-inch mug shots, like the candid snapshots found in the back pages of society magazines, were taken at social events and art openings. They document the variously smiling, mugging High Museum curators, gallery owners, critics, local artists, curators and alternative space directors who populate Atlanta’s art world.

In ways that are not always favorable, this “Rogues’ Gallery” sets the mood for an exhibition that can often feel like a personal stroll down memory lane for arts insiders. The snapshot installation attests to Bunnen’s centrality on the Atlanta arts scene but establishes a clubhousey Who’s Who mood that will be of little aesthetic interest to people who are outside the esoteric circles Bunnen travels in.

There are other subtle assertions of an “Us” and “Them” divide in the exhibition, which make it difficult to penetrate the worlds Bunnen documents, whether those worlds are divided by class or by experience, as in the artist’s nicely composed but emotionally distant portraits of Bosnian women.

Bunnen has often charted the extremes of American society: Atlanta’s fox hunting, cocktail sipping, lapdog holding high society and, at the other end, the poor anonymous nobodies envisioned in Bunnen’s and Virginia Warren Smith’s book Scoring in Heaven: Gravestones and Cemetery Art in the American Sunbelt States.

These black-and-white images on display in Edges use color tinting to play up the kitschy relics that ornament small-town cemeteries: cowboy boots filled with flowers, Easter bunnies flanking grave sites, a photograph of a grinning man holding a prize fish. But that colorization lends an unpleasantly ironic element to work that would be suitably interesting without that flourish. In these images the pervasive mood is the strange gulf between the unknown mysteries of the afterlife and the often poignant, absurd earthly expressions of human sentiment.

The best work in Edges are the large black-and-white ink jet prints that dominate a large room in the gallery. Instead of simply documenting, the works give some impression of the photographer’s particular vision and offer an engagingly subtle play on male and female power arrangements. This sensual work has ties to a strain of Southern romanticism with a hard-boiled edge also seen in Sally Mann’s work. In “Jose,” a man swimming in the buff addresses the camera with an expression wavering between challenge and come-hither. In “Untitled,” a little girl, seen only from the waist down, peels off her bathing suit, and in “Molly with Veil,” a young girl in a fancy dress offers an assertive, idiosyncratic pose whose cockiness is in stark contrast to “Jose’s” more vulnerable mien.

It is those works, along with an eerie portrait of a bucking white horse titled “Ghost Horse/Florida,” which convey complex moods and a texture and attitude it would be nice to see more of in Bunnen’s work. Bunnen has proven her significance to the Atlanta arts community, but it would be interesting to see what she could reveal of herself, or what she might coax her subjects to reveal.