What is it about the South that fires our imagination? It is fraught with a history of both pain and joy. Writers and artists alike are beguiled by its dripping kudzu vines, drifting muddy waters, crumbling clapboard buildings, white picket fences and Southern faces that form a collective Confederate consciousness.
"Southern Exposure," the current exhibition at the Hand Workshop, organized by the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia and curated by Carla Hanzal, displays 50 photographs that attempt to visually contribute to the Southern persona through the land alone. The 11 artists represented in the show are: well-known photographers Sally Mann, William Christenberry, Carrie Mae Weems and William Eggleston, as well as the lesser-known yet equally talented Maude Schuyler Clay, Huger Foote, Earlie Hudnall, Birney Imes, Tom Rankin, Mike Smith and Jeane Umbreit.
Picturing such places as Lowndes County, Miss., Appalachia and Houston, the theme here is the unpeopled Southern landscape. If one has to choose a subtheme, however, it would have to be that of decay. Decay connoting age, disuse, death and a timeworn past seems to be a fitting metaphor for all the South represents in this collection.
Imes captures in vibrant color the front porches and lawn ornaments of poor Mississippian homes. Peeling paint, weeds, dangling screens and tires used as planters serve to define a rural aesthetic. Rankin's wonderful study of moldering African-American country churches formally provides subtle surface texture and dramatic interplays of light and shadow.
Eggleston's works have a decidedly spontaneous snapshot quality. With an arm jutting in on the left, the blur of a sprinkler, or the tired stare of a stray dog, he achieves a sense of unframed, unmediated observation.
Both Mann and Clay manipulate their images to achieve an antiquated effect. Employing sepia tones, scratches and uneven gelatin coating only enhances the already-old wrought-iron fence, crumbling log, or well-trodden bridge.
Between Weems' views of brick slave houses and gnarled trees, and Berry's rundown, weed-covered signs and fading silk-floral grave arrangements, one is left to believe that there is no prosperity in the South. Is every church falling apart? Is every home an unsophisticated shack? Is all that defines the South simply poverty, detritus and tacky lawn decoration?
Hundall and Umbreit are the only two photographers to mine an urban setting. Umbreit's exquisite hand-colored prints of Memphis's classical architecture provide a welcome contrast to the Depression-era backdrop of the rural setting. Hundall's "Flipping Boy" is less subtle in its enactment of poverty verses prosperity. Poor, crude wooden houses and their occupants are overshadowed by the high-rises in the background a clear juxtaposition of the haves and the have-nots.
The South has always conjured up both truths and stereotypes of racism, bigotry, intolerance, poverty and ignorance in its long turbulent history. "Southern Exposure," despite its focus on the land itself, does not do much to reverse such concepts. This is not a criticism of the show the works included are exceedingly compelling but rather an observation. Hanzal touches on this in her exhibition statement: "Languid views, idyllic pastures, and timeworn buildings belie the more tumultuous aspects of this subject. Existing beneath a sometime placid veneer are the scars of a painful and divisive past."
In my opinion, photograph after photograph of decay, disuse and desuetude do not just hint of a tragic past, but boldly declare that the tragedy still exists. Of course, a single ethos cannot define the South any more than it can the United States, but in many ways, "Southern Exposure" seems to reaffirm a unique pathos that is as deep and as indelible as the land
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