Visual Arts - Force of nature

Angela West continues her love affair with all things hometown

In the global, cosmopolitan, fast-paced scheme of things, Dahlonega is about as small potatoes as small towns go.

Nevertheless, its role in shaping artistic temperament is as important to photographer Angela West as Faulkner's Mississippi, Woody Allen's New York or Frida Kahlo's Mexico. In West's photographs, her Lumpkin County hometown pulsates with mystery and is illuminated by adoration. It's where West was born and where she first fell in love, where her grandfather died and where her childhood friends married and had children.

And it still bewitches her.

In her current show, Familiar Landscapes at Jackson Fine Art, the 33-year-old artist has translated memories of her Dahlonega girlhood into photographs of some of the same secret paths and piney woods that enchanted her as a child.

Sporting a wife-beater shirt, tousled hair and low-slung pants that reveal a hint of midriff, West's hip exterior gives little evidence of her romantic attachment to home and family. But looks can be deceiving.

In West's Dahlonega-centric photographs — of high school prom-goers, teenage belles, her father astride his riding lawnmower, the lush countryside surrounding her parents' home — a consuming emotional investment in place comes rushing through.

That attachment to her hometown has not always been a good thing, West notes. During graduate school at Yale, her professors were slightly put-off by her devotion to the South, which went against the grain of the aloof, conceptual approach young photographers were supposed to adopt.

"I've been told, 'You don't want to be a Southern photographer,'" says West. "You can be classified as that in the art world and that's not necessarily good."

But West has a rebellious streak and doesn't seem like the kind of woman to tow the party line.

"I decided I didn't care," she says.

For Familiar Landscapes, West has made her most explicit work about Dahlonega and its impact on her psyche. The nine images in the show capture a prettiness and peacefulness that can at first glance appear almost banal. Wisteria, lilies and dogwood are the immediate focal points of the photographs. But flowers, which can often serve as stand-ins for the feminine, indicate something more complex in West's images.

In "My 33rd Spring (Chaos)" a blast of hot pink wild roses wrap around a tree like a tightening garrote. In "My 33rd Spring #5 (Wisteria)" the pale violet flowers swallow the nearby shrubbery.

West's perspective is as laden with dark, consuming romance as Sophia Coppola's ode to the strange mysteries of love and loss in The Virgin Suicides. Her flowers suggest a consuming, unmanageable female sexuality and a surprisingly personal approach to traditional landscape photography.

Landscape has traditionally been a male domain — a symbolic ownership of the view in the photographs of Timothy O'Sullivan or Ansel Adams. In West's work, the landscape enters into a kind of symbiotic partnership with the artist. She honors her Southern birthplace with lush, beautiful portraits of its graces. And in turn, the landscape rewards her with a powerful metaphor for time's passage. In West's hands, Dahlonega's lush seasons marking each new year are a reminder of one's inescapable place in the great scheme of life and death.

In Familiar Landscapes, nature becomes a reminder of all the things beyond our control.

"I wanted a feeling of landscape and flowers as overpowering the image ... almost too much ... because I was so sensitive to that this summer," says West, who spent her days photographing the wild places of her childhood while she nursed the wounds of an unpleasant breakup with her longtime boyfriend. Another boy haunts the show, too: West's high school sweetheart John, whose fervent, jocular letters penned on composition paper are included in the exhibit.

All-consuming love — for a boy, for her parents, for Dahlonega — and the pain such intense feeling can bring, defines the photographs.

And though she lives in Atlanta, Dahlonega continues to cast a long shadow not only on West's work but on her daily life as well.

"Me and some of my friends used to joke that there was this magnet underneath the town that wouldn't let people leave. When you got out, it would pull you back," she says. "I still bank in Dahlonega. I still go to the dentist there. I still go to the doctor there. I get the town paper every week, the Dahlonega Nugget," she laughs, "and The New York Times."

In these and other ways, West fights to hold onto the sense of self formed in Dahlonega.

"I still like going out and exploring," says West of her girlhood love of roaming and exploring Dahlonega's paths. Only now she does her exploring with a camera, which allows West to plumb mysteries of place and deeper mysteries, too, of being human.