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Picturing the South: Alec Soth at the High

"F.P. Resaca, Georgia, 2006" by Alec Soth

ART REVIEW

“Alec Soth: Black Line of Woods”
High Museum of Art
Through Jan. 3, 2010. 1280 Peachtree St. 404-733-4444. www.high.org

By Catherine Fox

For the AJC

A man dressed in army camouflage stands in a little clearing in the woods, the detritus of his campground at his feet. The trees are no more than a scrim separating him from the bustle of the Waffle House and gas station visible through the branches, but he lives in another world.
This is the world Alec Soth explores in “Black Line of Woods,” a haunting and beautiful exhibition at the High Museum.
Soth traveled the South to find, befriend and make these pictures of loners -— monks, hermits, survivalists — and their backwoods habitats. They are less individual character studies than stanzas in a poem about living on the fringe.
These photographs have a monumental bearing that owes not to their size (they’re not that big, as contemporary photos go), but to their careful compositions. Each radiates from a central object, artfully elaborated through asymmetrical details, color as punctuation and details so crisp you can, say, feel the crunch of leaves underfoot.
Although the photos maintain a calm, respectful mood, they are not entirely benign. A picture of a homemade rifle range in which the targets are hand-drawn human faces is a chilling reminder of the extremism that festers in such isolation.
Flannery O’Connor was Soth’s muse for this project. In truth, they are soul-mates. Soth had already demonstrated an affinity for people on society’s fringes in his 2004 book, “Sleeping by the Mississippi,” as he followed the river from his native Minnesota through Louisiana.
The exhibition title is a phrase from O’Connor’s story, “A View of the Woods.” Like the author, who used the woods as a recurring symbolic device throughout her fiction, Soth made the river a metaphor and leitmotif in “Mississippi.” The waterfall is a similar device in his book “Niagara.”
Both artist and author tap into archetypal, contradictory meanings of the forest in myth and fairy tale as a place beyond the bounds of civilization.
On one hand, it might be a haven and a balm for the spirit. A silver disco ball suspended from a tree in the aptly-named Enchanted Forest, Texas, suggests the woods as a magical realm. The stand of tall, silvery, pencil-thin trees that dwarf a monk in Resaca becomes the church of the great outdoors.
On the other hand, the forest is a savage, lawless territory. In “Bardstown, Kentucky,” a clapboard house, monitored by a single exterior light, looks small and helpless, swallowed up by the night and the woods on the ridge above it, a literal “black line of trees.”
What’s beyond the black line of woods is as fraught and mysterious as the minds of those who choose to live there.
This exhibit is the latest installment of “Picturing the South,” a project begun in 1996 in which the museum commissions photographers to create a body of work on some aspect of the region. It’s the first curated by Julian Cox.
“Picturing the South,” which includes commissions from Dawoud Bey, Sally Mann, Richard Misrach, Emmet Gowin and Alex Webb, is a creative way to grow the permanent collection. I’ve long wondered why the museum hadn’t celebrated these acquisitions with an exhibition. In fact, Cox says the possibility is currently under discussion.

Catherine Fox writes about art and architecture at www.ArtscriticATL.com

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