A&E » Visual Arts

Deconstructing Dad

Angela West's 'My Father' series is the highlight of Fresh



Owners of dads everywhere will immediately respond to Angela West's oh-so-uncanny portraits of that wily paterfamilias who's easy to see but hard to understand. Like hazy images of the mysterious Big Foot, West's pictures of Papa track a creature at once recognizable and alien. He's the fella you recognize from across the breakfast table who can unfurl a thousand mysteries in the peculiar, fastidious way he goes about his chores or enforces his quixotic law.

West captures that surrealism of the fatherly in her loving photographic homage, "My Father," at Jackson Fine Art in Fresh, a show by three photographers whose tenuous connection is work that has been previously unseen in Atlanta.

Pictured in archetypally paternal postures -- hosing off the driveway, astride his riding mower -- this elder West occupies a world of his own invention. Like Columbus posed with globe and compass, West comes equipped with the tools of his own weed-whacked, split-rail domain -- leaf-blowers and cutting implements, walking sticks and a favorite hat -- that serve him in leisure and industry.

Weat, a recent Yale graduate, has heeded the command of fiction workshop teachers everywhere to "write what you know." Though in this case, West photographs matters close to her native habitat of Dahlonega, whether it's gorgeous suburban belles posed against magnolia wallpaper or the stunned expressions of kids gussied up in their grown-up prom finest.

West's documentation of her father is a definite high point in this dissection of place. In this case, the place is that often hard-to-understand but familiar landscape of family. As in her other work centered on Dahlonega, "My Father" seems an effort to understand its constituent parts by photographing it in a kind of homegrown anthropology. Though she speaks the native tongue and knows the players, things seem quite strange. The truth is elusive when seen through West's viewfinder, as elusive as the photograph of Mr. West peering out into the night from the glowing modern cave of a camper he makes his backyard retreat. Though his gaze is often direct, his facial expression is confoundingly hard to read. He pays his daughter the courtesy of posing for her photographs, but he is clearly not the sort of man to serve up his soul for public delectation a la Nan Goldin's narcissistic subjects.

West's project seems to be about the frustrating effort of capturing someone you know so well who nevertheless emerges a mystery in the developing fluid. Dressed in his cul-de-sac warrior's garb -- button-down shirts, whimsical golf hat, carved walking stick, an Army jacket -- Mr. West demonstrates a tension between tamed domesticity and the remnants of adventurous masculinity that still cling to him.

The artist's images sizzle with humor, in seeming recognition of her inability to ever truly "capture" this complex man. There may be no greater encapsulation of what a father is in all his variety and conundrums than West's image of a split watermelon laid out like a still life in the midst of a green lawn. Behind it, Daddy West turns away from the camera to talk on a portable phone, an enormous carving knife dangling at his side. Daddy giveth and Daddy taketh away, the image seems to smirk. Conceding to his role as a provider, charged with putting food on the table, Mr. West still offers a glimpse of something wild and undomesticated beneath the leisure wear and golf hat in that authoritative knife-grip.

Putting West's work in the first room of Fresh is a bit like serving dessert before dinner. The second room contains some conceptual fiddling from British photographer Richard Caldicott, whose large-scale Cibachromes dissect color and surface in a way that recalls still life by way of color field paintings. Caldicott's "hook" is the objects he uses to filter and arrange light in his intensely colored photographs -- the all-American "lens" of Tupperware.

There's a gimmicky, popish and design-oriented quality to Caldicott's use of such an emblem of '50s consumerdom that explains why his work is such a hit with high-end decorating magazines like Wallpaper and House & Garden. Though the work references a tradition of abstract expressionism and color field, the use of these debased consumer goods gives it a superficially ironic cast that never seems especially deep or meaningful.

In the last room of Fresh are David Hilliard's photographic triptychs, which play with the notion of frame, the seen and the unseen in the kind of theoretical approach you might expect of a Yale photography professor. Hilliard's images of color-mad consumer plenitude in an aisle of cereal boxes flirts with Andreas Gursky, while his pretty boys at petulant rest recall Jack Pierson or David Armstrong's work.

But there is also something more original brewing in some of Hilliard's other pieces, like the sublimely wacked-out image "Stella Searching." Like the toys that allow children to match heads to bodies by rotating a stack of blocks, Hilliard's vertical arrangement of three photographs plays with how meaning is created by configuration. In the bottom photograph, a grandmotherly type raking an immaculate lawn pauses to gaze upward. In the image just above her, one damnable leaf dangles from a branch like a raindrop about to piss on her tidy parade. Further up still, a fat storm cloud brews. The work suggests the concise, abbreviated jokes seen in a minimalist comic strip, where each panel furthers the storyline as Hilliard deftly packs a wealth of narrative suspense into a transfixing, funny image.

Humor in West and Hilliard's work proves a far more interesting device than the deadpan irony in Caldicott's Tupperware formalism, though Caldicott may have more to say about issues of "freshness" than either with his locked-in leftover boxes.

Fresh runs through Sept. 15 at Jackson Fine Art, 3115 Shadowlawn Ave. 404-233-3739. Summer hours: Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.


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