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Book of the Week: Selected by Karen Jenkins

Book Of The Week Southbound Edited with introduction by Mark Sloan and Mark Long Reviewed by Karen Jenkins Southbound comprises fifty-six photographers’ visions of the South over the first decades of the twenty-first century. Accordingly, it offers a composite image of the region. The photographs echo stories told about the South through Americanization and globalization, and as a land full of surprising realities.
Southbound. By Mark Sloan & Mark Long.
Edited with introduction by Mark Sloan and Mark Long

Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, USA, 2018.
384 pp., 300 illustrations, 11x12".

Organizing “the largest exhibition of photographs of and about the American South in the 21st century” is no small objective. The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art’s sizeable ambition is nearly matched by the physical heft of the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Southbound. Fifty-six contemporary photographers are represented, each with five, full-page reproductions. Additional images are then shared on a companion website.

In their Introduction, curators Mark Sloan and Mark Long seek to delineate how their chosen artists challenge, reframe, and move beyond entrenched and often problematic ways of depicting the South. While emphasizing the necessarily incomplete, open-ended nature of their project, they do nonetheless provide some conceptual frameworks.

Shelby Lee Adams
A collection of maps, for example, refutes a fixed geography of the South, by instead representing the region through historical, economic, and religious lenses. Contributor Eleanor Heartney considers commonalities among the photographers’ approaches to their subject, offering a high-level list of resulting themes such as: “Engage, but also critique clichés” and “Mix personal history with the complicated political and social history of the South.”

True to the curators’ stated commitment, a broad re-visioning of the contemporary American South, I found within Southbound a commanding array of established photographers (Shelby Lee Adams, Alex Harris), those who have contributed significantly in the last decade (Lucas Foglia, Gilliam Laub), and emerging artists not yet known to me.

Tammy Mercure
The authority intrinsic to this powerful collection of imagery is, however, undermined by the one-page essays that accompany each photographer’s set of illustrations. The prominence given to facts of personal geography (place of birth and subsequent areas of residence) and CV credentials (education, important exhibitions, commercial clients, and major collections) begs a number of questions that largely go unanswered. What does it mean for her vision of the American South that photographer Magdalena Solé was born in Spain, raised in Switzerland, lived in New York City for 30 years, and now photographs the Mississippi Delta? How do these photographers’ depictions of the American South enter into their commercial work and potentially shape perceptions outside of a fine art context? Page after page, these rote accolades begin to (inadvertently) suggest curatorial insecurity; a need to validate their selections, rather than let the images and their critical commentary speak for themselves.

Sheila Pree Bright
The companion essays also over-explain concepts that a reasonably well-informed reader might be expected to understand, such as the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the context of Sheila Pree Bright’s work. They rely too heavily on superficial descriptions of the images’ component parts, and at times, an overly reductive analysis of the work’s meaning vis-à-vis “the South.” For example, contributor Mary Trent writes of the porch and exterior wall seen in Lucinda Bunnen’s image Pink Porch:

It depicts a rundown trailer home in the South, which is not an unusual subject in and of itself; however, the work captures something surprising about the style of the trailer. Its owner has painted it a shade of bubblegum pink, making it both delightful and somewhat absurd. A pink leopard-print beach towel is also draped across the porch, suggesting that the trailer’s owner favors the flashy feminine color. Two doormats decorated with coffee cups are hanging nearby, suggesting the owner’s appreciation of a leisurely cup of coffee. These indulgences contrast with the dilapidated trailer and the obvious financial struggles of its owner….

Lucinda Bunnen
Bunnen’s photographs offer so much more than this. In Pink Porch, the choice of these household objects may just as well reflect affordability or availability in the face of the owner’s “obvious financial struggles.” Her photograph Georgia Goats conjures the work of Kara Walker, in the black silhouette cutouts of a clichéd Southern guy and gal mounted to the side of the house depicted there. And in Dixie Dogs, a line-up of real and toy dogs, behind a retired Dixie sign, populate a fenced-in yard for tired tropes. Surface and artifice are at play in these images, and beg a deeper dive.

Tom Rankin
There are, however, also passages within Southbound that spark the kind of expansive thinking that the curators aspire to facilitate here. The statement by KH (presumably Katie Hirsch, not defined as a text contributor), “A person’s relationship with their dog is sacrosanct in the South…” offers a sweeping path through this collection, beginning with photographer Tammy Mercure, and on to Tom Rankin, Jerry Siegel, Mike Smith, and others. Dogs in cars, dogs on the hunt; the hunted as human chattel, taxidermy trophy or dusty décor. Images like these suggest myriad ways to explore relationships to the natural world, organic and artificial, in domination and stewardship. Written in response to several photographs, Nikki Finney’s commissioned poems perfectly embody the deeply subjective meanings that this excellent collection of photography can elicit.

It is a challenge to create a broad-based take on a massive subject, rooted in shifting sands with contentious roots. Despite the pitfalls of the Southbound project, it assembles bodies of work well-worth exploring, by artists committing to shuffling the deck of what the new South can mean.

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Daniel Beltrá

Karen Jenkins earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.