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Center of the Universe

Sally Mann's Southern angst exerts gravitational pull at Reynolds Gallery.



Not that it's an authority on the art world, but Vanity Fair has put out its Art Issue. One of the stories, titled "The Art Universe," diagrams the international art scene. The red-hot center of this densely populated universe, according to the magazine's celestial map, is gallery owner Larry Gagosian, the man New York magazine has called the George Steinbrenner of dealers.

One of Gagosian's 10 "moons," according to the article, is Virginia's own Sally Mann, a Lexington-based photographer whose career rocketed long before Vanity Fair noticed, and who is showing in Reynolds Gallery's main exhibition space.

Since the time her unconventional photographs of her children appeared in the '80s, Mann has continually drawn attention for the unique mix of earthiness and transcendence that characterizes her imagery. After recording her children for at least a decade, she produced a series of epic landscapes, explaining that her focus has always been directed toward what is local to her — her family and the land. She has traded the technical perfection of her early shots for the unpredictable results of 19th-century photographic processes, but her eye has remained faithful to scenes of poignancy and earthly beauty bubbling in trouble.

Now Mann's children (who are grown) are her subjects again, in large portraits hanging at Reynolds Gallery. Drawn from her recent series, "What Remains," an eerie and lush meditation on mortality, these 40-by-50-inch photographs zoom in on the faces of son Emmett and daughters Jessie and Virginia as young adults. In them, Mann strips away contemporary context and figuratively drapes the images with a veil of the past.

The collodion photographic process she uses figures prominently in the antique look of "What Remains." Most obvious is the deep sepia tone of her prints usually associated with photographs of the late 1800s. But her handling of the medium adds yet more references to age.

The collodion process requires long exposure (roughly five minutes), which contributes to fluctuating degrees of focus within a single frame. The images frequently appear to recede in some areas while advancing in others. Also, shooting on plates of glass coated with wet chemicals subjects her images to drip marks and other accidents that Mann seems all too happy to encourage. The resulting imperfections act as a screen between the viewer and her models, confusing notions of time and place.

Like the imperfection that looks like a puncture wound on a cheek in "Virginia #9," the disfiguring results of Mann's messy process contrasts with a diffused light that washes over these faces as if first shining through milky glass. Sometimes ghostly, other times angelic, these are spirits that beg to be released from their frozen state.

As Mann has said herself, Southern artists can get away with "dosages of romance" that artists from other regions can't. But Mann doesn't just spoon romance here and there. She lives, breathes and frames Southern Gothic as well as Faulkner or McCullers — so much so that we're convinced this place we live in, this land of terrible beauty, must be the center of the universe. S

Sally Mann's photos are on display at Reynolds Gallery, 1514 W. Main St., through Dec. 23. Call 355-6553.

Don't Miss the Shows Upstairs

Internationally known American figurative artist Manual Neri has said his art took a U-turn when he saw the birth of his first child. Women's bodies, he concluded, have the magic. Men have the power.

Ever since, Neri has been representing the human form in archetypal terms, blending suggestions of antiquity with a postmodern irreverence. In Reynolds Gallery's upstairs rooms, Neri exhibits examples of his two-dimensional work. Here he shows elegant multimedia drawings in which he poses single, stoic figures surrounded by ambiguous and murky space.

Richmond artist Janet DeCover's vibrant paintings, in which organic elements twist and intersect, also hang upstairs. As if interpreting Paul Gauguin's Tahiti paintings in abstract form, DeCover's painterly imagery seems to smell of orchids and black earth. — P.R.P.

Manual Neri's works on paper and Janet DeCover's paintings, as well as paintings by Sally Mann's daughter Jessie Mann are showing in the upstairs Project Room spaces at Reynolds Gallery through Dec. 2.

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