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Grannan questions what constitutes sex appeal

The jones for fame seems to obsess Americans to a pathological degree.

Katy Grannan's photography documents that obsessive quest for attention while offering a highly stylized keyhole glimpse into the weird and wild contours of other people's sexual identity.

Grannan's two bodies of work - large-scale color and intimate black-and-white photography - at Jackson Fine Art resulted from ads the artist placed in newspapers in Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania soliciting photographer's models.

Grannan's anonymous appeal for models tapped into something desperate and truly odd in American life.

The majority of photographs are of nude, partially clad or provocatively posed people. But instead of seductive, her subjects appear bewildered, apathetic or sullen.

The combination of exhibitionism and ambivalence is one of the project's eeriest qualities.

A number of Grannan's subjects look either disinterested in the camera appraising their flesh, or Body Snatchers remote, as if guided by voices in their heads compelling them to disrobe without knowing why. There is something distinctly zombie-like in "Maribeth, Grandmother's House (brothel), Poughkeepsie, NY." Perched on her grandmother's plastic-covered bed, Maribeth's perfect crescent moon eyebrows and silent film star looks give her the creepy, not-quite-real demeanor of a porcelain doll or a corpse.

When Grannan's subjects do assume a seductive expression - like the heavily tattooed young woman in "Valerie, Valatie, NY" sprawled out on shag carpet in a living room ornamented by hotel art and a large aquarium - the effect is equally jarring, somewhere between homemade porn shoot and crime scene. There is the skin-crawling sensation that we really should not be witnesses to these scenarios.

For a culture that has grown accustomed to a packaged view of sex as the province of camera-ready porn stars and centerfolds, Grannan offers a shocking revelation of the true nature of sexuality as an incredibly individual, quirky animal.

Rather than arranging their bodies to look their best, several of Grannan's subjects defiantly, or unconsciously, play up their worst features, thrusting ample asses at the viewer like models in fetish photography. Only here the fetish is the eroticism of their mind's eye. Grannan's work provokes as much soul-searching and self-scrutiny as it does sociological musings about who "should" or should not be naked and how deeply our own erotic imaginations have been colonized by pornographic convention.

Several of the subjects are conventionally beautiful and young while the motivation of others to be seen is unclear and in some ways more touching, like the lanky, acne-flecked boy standing at a lake's edge in "Corey, Quabbin Reservoir, Barre, MA" who recalls the awkward teens at the beach captured in Rineke Dijkstra's photographs.

Where Grannan falters is in her obsession with controlling the trappings of her vignettes. Grannan seems as much an art director as she is a documentarian. She rivals the sleazy-chic style of Larry Clark devotee Calvin Klein in her love of cheap wood paneling as a backdrop in a number of her portraits. Busy, outdated wallpapers, tacky artwork, artificial flowers and Venetian blinds make it obvious Grannan is grooving on the background as much as the people. Her affinity for florid, garish wallpaper becomes a visual evocation of the overblown workings of her subjects' minds.

Grannan seems drawn to people and settings that give her work a historical ambiguity, which gives them a haunting, era-straddling quality. Many of the images manage to look both magazine-spread hip and oddly classical, reminiscent of pastoral oil paintings like Manet's "Dejeuner sur l'herbe" or "Olympia."

We live in an age when the drive to be known by an anonymous mass is more important than the respect of people we know. Grannan captures all of the scary, poignant, desperate permutations of that urge in a unique style whose ripples will be felt for a long time.


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