Over the past five years or thereabouts, Jody Fausett has become known for his unique version of Southern surrealism, based on the real-life objects and attitudes of his North Georgia relatives. His new exhibition at Whitespace, “Unfinished Business,” tries to convey the attitudes through the objects themselves, with mixed results.
The first three photographs in the exhibition are stunningly visionary. “Curtain Interiors” features a blast of white light flowing through the curtains that frame it, like some mix of Tibetan Buddhism’s Clear Light of enlightenment and Baroque painting’s rendition of the imageless Godhead. The same spectacular light streams through the trees of “Landscape,” and so dominates the composition that it takes considerable time to notice the watermelon rinds and garden hoses in the foreground, and the lawn furniture at the margin of the tree line.
Thematically and compositionally, “Baroque” is probably the piece closest to Fausett’s earlier style of seeing, yet it represents as real a part of his relatives’ daily environment as the tropical species in the garden. Given Fausett’s brilliant placement of the reflection of an elaborate chandelier, it’s hard to believe the figurines of Christ, the disciples and the Holy Family that are clustered below the mirror weren’t put there by the artist. But except for the camera angle, this is straight documentary.
That new attempt to focus more literally on his family’s “exotic treasures” is where the difficulty lies. “Champagne Blonde” (above), a memorably surreal glamour shot of his grandmother in her underwear, and the figure study of his sister wearing an improvised acid-yellow funeral veil, reclining on a bed beside a dead blue jay, may represent aspects of their present situation (the death of Fausett’s grandfather has created new personal dynamics), but they are also photographs that no one else could have taken. The same goes for the slightly off-balance formal garden portrait, “Marquis With Solanum Quitoense.”
Much of the rest of the show could be mistaken for the excellent work of other formally inclined photographers — except perhaps for such small details as the visionary light on the shining spider web stretching from a bush to an air conditioning unit in “Lace” (above). As Fausett notes in his artist’s statement, “Tropical plants, found birds, clippings, roses, grasshoppers and snakes replace the taxidermy animals from my earlier series.” Others have found this subject matter before, and if “what is missing is more important than what is visible,” as he maintains, this is a problem in a body of work so dependent on the visible for its emotional impact. The artist knows these people and the significance of their environment, but we don’t, and some of the anomalies are as subtle and easily missed as the hoses and watermelon rinds in the prevailing radiance of “Landscape.”
“Red” (below), the photo that is the presumptive star of the show, best illustrates the dilemma. Theatrically arranged and lit, a bowl of fruit sits on a red tablecloth. Fausett writes that the table “appears like this only on Christmas day,” being much more cluttered and unassuming the rest of the year. But without this information, it’s hard to tell the difference between this photograph and any other glossy set-up image. The social context is invisible, and we have only the mute documentation of the family’s Christmas aesthetic, without any visual cues to tell us that that is what it is.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t wonderful moments in the remainder of the exhibition. Even though “Back Bedroom” is like many other pictures of old-school Southern bedrooms, the visionary light creeps in just enough to remind us that this is a photograph by Jody Fausett. And “Side Road’s” mistily romantic image of an isolated tree, in a vintage frame with antique convex glass, is hung in a gallery alcove that reminds us of the distinctly contemporary space’s origins as a carriage house. Here, the choice of framing and the space itself provide all the context that is necessary.