A matter of attitude

June 10, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

A group of Sally Mann's photographs of her own children, some nude and some in poses or attitudes that reflect an at times disturbing maturity, are on view at Maryland Art Place in the context of a 20-year retrospective, "The Photographs of Sally Mann" (through July 13).

The photographs of children from the "Family Pictures" series (1985-1990), though they constitute less than a third of the show (14 of 45 images), are bound to jolt the viewer most by showing children who reflect attitudes and thoughts quite different from the innocence we like to project onto them.

It isn't the occasional nudity that packs the strongest punch here: It's what we see in these faces. "Jessie at 5," fitted out with earrings and a necklace, stares at the camera with a kind of come-hither defiance which makes her not just a sexual object but a conscious one. "Jessie Bites" is perhaps even more unnerving, not because of the bite marks on the adult's arm next to Jessie's face but because of the face itself -- the look of wary calculation in the glance.

Surely the most disturbing aspect of these photos is that they force us as adult viewers to face the fact that children are more like us than we like to think, and in a larger sense that innocence itself may be a myth. And to see this group in the context of a career that can be traced here from the early 1970s is to realize that they represent the latest step in a logical progression. For even when dealing with such a comparatively non-controversial subject as landscape, this Virginia photographer's work has been heavy with ambiguity and complexity of intimation.

The brooding series of "Landscapes" (1971-1975) are explorations of light and dark not just in the formalistic sense but in the sense of good and evil as well. An arm in a flowing sleeve against a wall, from the series "Platinum Abstracts" (1978-1980), can be seen as an essentially abstract study of light, texture and composition. But on another level a certain sexual innuendo presents itself. And the photos in "At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women" (1983-1985) display a range of nuance of expression that reveals these 12-year-olds as in some ways thoroughly adult.

Mann's photographs occupy the first floor at MAP. On the second floor is an ambitious hour-long audio-visual installation called "Connections: Gender in Relationships" (through July 13).

Curated by Katherine Kendall and Sherwin Mark, the presentation consists of a series of slide and audio shorts by individuals and teams of artists -- 22 in all. The space is darkened like a theater, the projections are made onto a large screen, and there are benches to sit on, so the experience is a little like going to the movies.

The quality of these works varies, but they're easy as a group to look at and the hour slips by quickly. On the other hand, they shed less light on gender and relationships than one might have hoped for. One goes away having been at times entertained, at times mildly mentally stimulated, but not deeply moved or challenged.

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