ArtsATL > Art+Design > Review: William Christenberry and Mona Kuhn give us old buildings, young bodies at Jackson Fine Art

Review: William Christenberry and Mona Kuhn give us old buildings, young bodies at Jackson Fine Art

Mona Kuhn’s “Portrait #12, 2011”

Jackson Fine Art offers a contrast of artistic sensibilities in its current dual exhibition. William Christenberry explores time and place through the lens of memory, sentiment and attachment in photographs of his native Alabama, while Mona Kuhn revels in nubile physical beauty in the portraits of her Bordeaux Series. Both shows will run through June 8.

Early in his career, Christenberry drew inspiration from the photography of Walker Evans, who famously documented the impoverished residents and locations of Hale County, Alabama, in James Agee’s 1941 book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” Christenberry too is drawn to record the rural environs of the same county, where he spent many summers in his childhood. 

Christenberry’s personal identification with the architecture and landscape of the area is evidenced in serial images taken over the course of several decades. He has returned to the rural haunts of his childhood since 1964, like a thief to the scene of a crime. It’s as if he were in search of something lost or forgotten there, something as mysterious and irretrievable as his own youth and the era in which it took place.

William Christenberry's "5 Cents, Demopolis, Alabama, 1978"

Christenberry’s recurrent visits offer fresh evidence of time’s effects on the landscape. He captures details of erosion and decay on the landmarks of his past: the fading milk paint and leaning walls of clapboard buildings and shacks, the rust-pitted metal signage of old Coca-Cola ad campaigns, the voracious and verdant kudzu vines that engulf all things stationary. He strongly identifies with this world; his work carries the weight of his sentimental attachment and his dogged preservation of its memory.

In “Red Building in Forest, Hale County, Alabama, 1974-2004,” 20 separate photos depict a lone clapboard barn. This and the similar series “Green Warehouse, Newbern, Alabama, 1973-2004” are meditations on the passage of time. Through his revisitation of the same subject, sometimes from different vantage points, Christenberry compresses time for the viewer, allowing us to see the changes through the years wrought by weather and the work of various invisible hands.

Similarly, “Wall of Building With 5 Cents Sign, Demopolis, Alabama” is a series of six images of the same painted sign on the exterior brick wall of an old warehouse. As Christenberry has noted, the images draw comparisons to American painter Charles Demuth’s “I Saw the Figure Five in Gold” and Jasper Johns’ print “0 Through 9.” One senses that he addresses these signposts of his youth as one might meet an old friend, lovingly capturing their time-worn visages.

Christenberry's "Door of House at Christmastime, Greensboro, Alabama, 1971"

Single images such as “Door of House at Christmastime” and “Grave With Egg Carton Cross, Hale County, Alabama, 1975” are equally poignant. The heartbreaking simplicity and beauty of these handmade decorations speak volumes about the sociocultural undercurrents of these rural towns. Christenberry’s lens has captured the implicit humanity of these objects and recorded them for posterity.

Because photos like these have become ubiquitous, it is easy to forget Christenberry’s importance in defining Southern imagery. His mastery of his medium does more than create a sentimental postcard of the rural South; it produces meaningful reminders of a vanishing American landscape through symbols of evanescence and decay that speak to our sense of self and our own mortality.

Kuhn often ties her work to a particular place, using locales such as Brazil, Venice and France to bind a photographic series thematically. A native Brazilian now living in the United States, she has returned to a place outside Bordeaux, France, for her most recent work. The Bordeaux Series, which represents three consecutive summers of portraiture, captures a small slice of the community of naturalistes, or nudists, who inhabit Lalande de Pomerol.

Her primary focus is the figure. The only signifiers of place in this series are a few black-and-white landscapes of the French countryside dispersed among the portraits, which add a layer of context and dimension. The setting of the portraits is minimal — a bare floor, a wooden antique chair and a wine-colored brocade tapestry — to give the figures center stage.

Gone are the imperfect, older bodies of some of Kuhn’s previous Bordeaux shoots. Her subjects, primarily friends and family members, are all young, fresh and clearly at ease in their own (naked) skins. This allows Kuhn to capture their natural, tranquil expressions. They embody cool languidness, even in their bare sensuality, and evoke a sense of timeless detachment.

Kuhn's "Portrait #1, 2011"

While Kuhn’s approach allows the viewer to appreciate the beauty of the bodies, these photographs offer neither the atmosphere of her “Evidence” series nor the emotional gravitas of her early black-and-white portraiture. There is a commercial gloss to these portraits, as if the lithe bodies were posing in a high-end fashion ad campaign.

But there are standouts. “Portrait #1” and “Portrait #2” both have subjects whose faces evoke a more nuanced depth of expression. Perhaps Kuhn’s next visit to Bordeaux will give us a better sense of the range of characters and emotions of the people in this provincial city.

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