-ART ARTICLE: Sally Mann at VMFA

Article written simply because it had to be written. The usual publisher, "The New York Art World", was not appropriate though since the exhibit was in Virginia.

- - -

Notable Shows: Sally Mann at VMFA.

Face down naked in the weeds, someone’s uncle putrefies.

Eyes gelatinize, liquefy, ooze away in the sun as flies and beetles scurry in the orbits. Documenting a morbid but interesting and perhaps potentially-beautiful scene, the artist’s lens is there. Art photographer Sally Mann’s series Body Farm watches dead bodies as they decay. Selected Body Farm photos as well as brooding self-portraits are among the 100 Mann images in Richmond at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts during a feature exhibit (tickets $10) called “Sally Mann: The Flesh And The Spirit” until January 23, 2011.

Some of the images are nightmares which the viewer can never un-see; seldom has “viewer discretion advised” been such an understatement. Thankfully, at a time of such hullabaloo over censored art, the major Mann show in her home state has stealthily flown under the radar of the usual art-squelchers.

The Body Farm subjects (portrait sitters isn’t quite the right phrase) had donated their remains for scientific study. They lay outdoors at the Forensic Anthropology Center ---laboratory acreage where law enforcement specialists can study specimen corpses in realistic “found body” settings. Mann the artist is a guardian angel of sorts: keeping vigil within the death-stench cloud as Individual who turned to carcass rots to slurry and bone.

In so doing, she gets a seat in the pantheon of Great photographers.

The few camera-users Art History smiles upon are almost always those who opened up new categories of artistic subject-matter : Steichen, Weston, Lange, Weegee, Bourke-White, Cartier-Bresson, Arbus, Kruger ---just to name a few. Robert Mapplethorpe earned his place by asserting the artistic beauty possibilities ---the gallery-worthiness--- of violent man-sex. It was not Mapplethorpe’s pretty tulips which made him historic; it was ---to be blunt--- putting a bullwhip “where the sun doesn’t shine.”

Mann’s pictures assert: the body, all of it, all phases ---even rotting away--- can be gallery-worthy.

Mann’s is not your funeral director’s view of death. This is not a clean, manicured, formally-dressed Dear Departed in a silk-lined casket ---nor a neatly sanitized featureless urn-powder. No.

This is death, the process; death, the ugly and smelly. It is the ghastly grin of skull-teeth bared as cheek-flesh shrivels back. It is rot-pus leaking out a fat man’s @nus. It is gut-strands ---now drying tubular raisins--- that were tugged out by crows. It is death, the gross; the nauseating; the real; the going-to-happen though we dare never imagine it.

It’s that death.

And it is worthy of artistic view and gallery exhibit, Sally Mann says ---rather, proves.

The antique equipment and “retro” processes Mann has favored lately strengthen the series’ effect. The occasional ragged edges, emulsion drips, scratches, and artful fogginess echo the bodily breakdown ---the smudging away of a person--- that Body Farm observes. Similar purposeful blemishes on Mann’s self-portraits in the show turn them into an aging beautiful woman’s aching melancholy over human mortality. The smooth surface is breaking down ---and, as in life, the final breakdown will come all too soon.

---Terry Ward
(Terry Ward is an artist and a writer for “The New York Art World.”)

More Sally Mann info:
Virginia Museum: http://www.VMFA.museum
Exhibit catalog: Sally Mann : The Flesh And The Spirit ISBN 978-1-59711-162-1
Wikipedia: http://EN.wikipedia.ORG/wiki/Sally_Mann

- - -
Photos provided by Sally Mann
(Warning: violent content ---sensitive viewers beware.)
(Images shrunken to reduce risk of blog being flagged.)

- - -


ARTicles page

- - -