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