Photographer Vee Speers is a master of contradiction.
Her 2007 portrait series “The Birthday Party,” inspired by one of her children’s fetes, suggested that she might be the Sally Mann for the digital age. Like Mann’s children in her notorious photos, the demeanor and costumes of these young guests contradict assumptions of innocent minds and asexuality among the elementary school set.
The Paris-based Aussie artist’s digital manipulations add a layer of creepiness and unreality, not unlike Loretta Lux’s portraits, accentuated with a dash of magic realism. A girl whose shoulders sprout what look to be huge vulture wings, for instance, looks less like a kid in a costume than a dark angel.
Speers’ children have grown up, and so have the subjects of her latest portrait series, “Immortal,” at Jackson Fine Art. Friends of her children, they are impossibly beautiful teenagers, whose lithe bodies, shiny hair and flawless skin would garner membership in any high school in-crowd.
Yet, as in “The Birthday Party,” something is amiss. Their gazes are troubled, their postures sometimes hunched. Each figure is nude and alone, and many occupy desolate outdoor environments: a barren rocky shore, a landscape aflame. The disjunctive relationship between figure and landscape mirrors the mood. No carefree youth, this: The men and women here seem to bear the apocalyptic anxieties of our age.
Speers plays with conventions of fashion photography in “Birthday Party,” and “Immortal” can be considered in that light. If her subjects were happier, they could be models in an Abercrombie & Fitch ad. But she appears to be more interested in the traditions of portrait painting. A young woman with an enigmatic smile, set against a blue-gray background, harks back to the “Mona Lisa.” The young man with the windswept hair could be a brooding 19th-century Romantic poet. One might also cite the nude in the landscape of Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe,” though the world that Speers’ subjects find themselves in is no picnic.
Speers aims for discomfiture, and she succeeds. If it’s not always quite clear whether ambivalence is a means to a larger comment or an end in itself, “Immortal” represents a carefully conceived body of work, both formally and conceptually.
I can’t say the same for the adjacent exhibition of Carolyn Carr’s photographs. The Atlanta artist, who has made abstract paintings for much of her career, returns to her beginnings as a photography major at the Atlanta College of Art, with a group of images, both found and ones she’s taken, which she alters by the application of paint, diamond dust, folded cloth or cropping.
It takes courage for an artist to get out of her comfort zone, but this line of inquiry is not quite ready for prime time. Its undigested ideas and borrowed tropes made me think of a person trying on someone else’s clothes. Carr’s compositional nods to John Baldessari, for example, are just references, conceptual heft-by-association rather than ideas absorbed and reimagined. (Above: Carr’s “A Defining Moment in the Hawks Alley.”)
According to the press release, Carr’s work is situated in the ”heritage-steeped innovation native in the South where identity has been erected in between the columns of constructed memory and urban evolution.” My translation: Carr intends to evoke the dynamic and tension among history, myth and contemporary culture that animates places like Atlanta. Hence, Old South/New South images: ripe peaches, cars tricked out in current hip-hop style and old photos such as the one depicting Shermanesque destruction. It takes guts to use clichéd images like these, but unless they are transformed in a visually interesting or meaningful way, they remain clichés.
Through June 18.