Visual Arts - The party's over

Photograpy show examines the aftermath at Jackson Fine Art

Perhaps more than any other nation, Americans love a climax. We love the fireworks, the party, the rollicking highs.

Artists, being persnickety critics of national tendencies and wont to peel back the skin of the beast to get at the musculature beneath, tend to prefer things at the margins, the overlooked, the balloons left on the floor after the celebration is over.

The smartly envisioned show Epilogue at Jackson Fine Art investigates the idea of hangover, after-burn and comedown. The concept naturally suits the show's curator, Erik Schneider, a photography collector with an interest in contemporary, conceptually minded photography.

Conveying the show's essence is David Hilliard's euphemistically titled "The Winter Months," which combines humor and sadness in equal measure.

In Hilliard's four-paneled image, a man with a suggestively fluid-glossed chest has fallen back into an eyes-closed heap and is surrounded by a bounty of Playboy centerfolds, leaving no mystery about what has transpired. Evoking oil paintings of battle-spent warriors or reclining odalisques, the image implies sexual ecstasy, but also its crepe-hanging attendants — exhaustion and melancholy. The crocheted afghan the man reclines against and a sports trophy in the background suggest a boyhood room or home complicated by this spasm of grown-up lust. There is something both illicit and tragic in the image, of desire as a combination of hoped-for transportive ecstasies rubbing up against one's own humble reality.

To decode many of the images, audiences may have to guess at the after effect. In several cases, it is best to have some knowledge of the artist's body of work to appreciate their larger meaning, something of a downside to the show.

Mitch Epstein's "Apartment 201, 398 Main Street I," for instance, creates a mood of abandonment and loss on its surface.

The image of an empty room cleared of objects save a pair of discarded dolls becomes richer and more depressing knowing its origin in Epstein's Family Business series, which chronicles how an entire Massachusetts town has been devastated by economic hard times.

Other works are easy to appreciate without a backstory, such as Chris Verene's photograph of a lonely house in the midst of winter, which comes with the caption, "This year vandals stole all the ornaments and the star fell." It is easy to glean from that terse image how hard times have become a habit for the residents of that house. And Edward Burtynsky's image of an abandoned Vermont rock quarry is a self-explanatory image of the way the landscape is cleaved and discarded after it has relinquished all of its bounty.

Together Epilogue and the solo show Fiction, featuring Laura Noel's photography, examine story and the virtually innate human desire to corral reality into a classical three-act structure with a beginning, middle and end. Epilogue is centered on the end, but Noel's purposefully ambiguous, paired photographs leave the narrative up to her audience.

Sometimes the story is grand, as in the diptych of a toddler crawling through the doorway of some institutional building paired with one of leaves changing to fall colors. The impression is of life's renewal — birth and death. In a more open-ended set of images, a woman in a striking emerald green coat stands on a crowded city street corner. The portrait is reminiscent of one of Philip-Lorca diCorcia's studies of the theatricality of the metropolis. The accompanying image of a chromatically linked bright green length of plastic, which has been ripped in one part, gives an aura of damage or trauma to the photograph of the woman.

Noels' work smartly critiques photography's ability to lie, lead, deceive, but also elucidate the poetry of our visual world. Like a detective or short story writer, Noel (and Epilogue too) suggest that, if you look close enough, you will find untold marvels on city streets and vacant lots.

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