One of the more distinctive things about the South is, well ... its Southernness, for want of a better word, a quality that seems to ooze to the surface like pine sap. Photographs often bear this out, yet Dixie means different things to different people, and just as there are many ways to look at it, there are also many ways to photograph it. That much is evident in the Ogden Museum's Recent Acquisitions show, actually a series of diverse mini-exhibitions of artists ranging from Lyle Bonge to William Greiner.
A scion of a well-established Biloxi family, Lyle Bonge is a product of Black Mountain College, the apogee of 1950s hipness with a staff that included John Cage and Merce Cunningham, among others. Unfazed by his bohemian pedigree, Bonge went on to become a banker, but his edgy side came out in his abstract photographs. Like a visual version of Cage's music, his black-and-white images were composed from random things, like weathered paint or spilled tar, and evoke Zen ink drawings as well as the abstract expressionism of Pollock, Motherwell and Kline. Their Southernness is seen in their subtle aura of heat and humidity.
No less graphic are William Greiner's color landscapes. A fan of William Eggleston's pop-cubist photographs of Graceland and Deep South highway culture, New Orleans native Greiner takes a related approach to contemporary banalities. His Jet Over Blue and Black House, Kenner is just that, a blank blue facade with a jetliner looming improbably large just above it. Likewise his Jesus Portrait in Garage Near Baton Rouge -- a radiant Jesus on a wall facing a washing machine -- epitomizes the surreal baroque blandness of the suburbanized South.
British-born New Yorker and current New Orleans resident David Rae Morris takes a documentary approach with photos that allude to the classic photojournalism of Look or Life magazine in the 1960s. But his Elvis Shrine at the Blue Cafe, Jackson, is anthropological, a color photo of a cluttered Elvis altar in a diner with a painted plaster bust, photos of the King in heart-shaped frames, memorial sunglasses and the like, in a display case bounded by placards advertising side orders of bacon or grilled onions.
More Southern vistas appear in the back gallery, where the focus is not on Elvis or Jesus but on Myrtle Booth, an elderly dowager. The understated color photos are by Booth's Iowa-born grandson, Jack Kotz, who says he wanted to convey the sense of place embodied in her home town of Mathiston, Miss.. They do that, quietly, in images that carefully record detail and evoke atmosphere. Making up in consistency what they lack in drama, Kotz conveys Myrtle's world in a kaleidoscope of prosaic vistas like Mr. Powers' Rose Bush, a view of an earnest, white-haired gent in cap and overalls ministering to the needs of a young shrub. It could almost be anywhere, but the look in his eyes says Dixie.
More mostly Southern photos, not to mention altars, appear in Lisa Conrad's Retrospective. And if the thirtysomething Conrad seems too young for a retrospective, the title somehow fits a show that is like a catalog of personal epiphanies. A sometime model familiar with life on both sides of the lens, Conrad mainlines miscellany as a kind of stream-of-consciousness visual diary. For instance, Fallen Angel reveals a lady fairy, replete with wings and lace, savoring a beer at the Hideout. Stan is the most elegant older black man on Tchoupitoulas Street, seen here in a silky black suit and sunglasses, sitting on a thick Bible. Frozen is a leaf twisted by a sudden freeze into a commentary on Edward Weston's contorted vegetable photos.
And then there is Conrad's mystical found-object sculpture, especially Jane, her altar to Jane Mansfield, who died on the Chef Highway and whom she feels is important for reasons not yet fully understood. If it seems rather random, it is Conrad's exploration of the cool and peculiar, as if the lyrics to "My Favorite Things" had been expanded into an investigation of existential mysteries. Her ambitious yet casual photos -- some in 3-D -- can be viewed as art or evidence, and the investigation, as they say, is ongoing.
- Photos like Fallen Angel seem like another ripple in the stream of consciousness of photographer and sometime model Lisa Conrad both ambitious and casual all at once.