Dead souls 

Sally Mann ponders life's end in What Remains

You could say Sally Mann has always been about death.

Her sensual, notorious portraits of her blossoming children in Immediate Family came with a hint of mortality in its images of bloody noses, broken bones and children so at one with nature, they threatened to be absorbed back into it. They were images of a mother appraising the beauty -- but also the vulnerability -- of what she had made.

Later, Mann's landscapes in Deep South and Motherland seemed more like portraits of a graveyard than anything that belonged to the living. They were so beautiful they beckoned viewers to lay down for an eternity in the earth's gorgeous, moist maw. "It was Flannery O'Connor who said it's Christ haunted. But I think it's death-haunted," says Mann of her beloved South in a telephone conversation from her 425-acre farm in Lexington, Va.

Her newest work, What Remains, debuts at Jackson Fine Art and is undeniably Mann's clearest expression of her reckoning with mortality. A poetic coda to her previous work, it investigates the cyclical process by which our bodies will one day enrich the earth.

What Remains is a five-pronged investigation of mortality, from breathtaking close-up portraits of her children, which Mann says will probably be the direction she takes her work in next, to her documentation of the marks left on her Lexington property after an escaped fugitive committed suicide within view of her house.

But perhaps most shocking in the series are photographs Mann took of the corpses left to decay in bucolic settings as part of forensic research at the University of Tennessee's "body farm." In one nightmarish image, a crow surveys a glowing white corpse like the grim reaper itself.

What Remains also features images of Civil War battlefields and abstract portraits of the remains of Mann's beloved dog, Eva, who she allowed to decay and then photographed. Unfortunately, only the last three phases of the project are on display at Jackson, an omission that leaves the profound connections that unite the work fluttering rootless in the wind.

There is the presumption in modern life, disconnected from nature's rhythms, that we have somehow bested death -- or can forget the undertow the earth will one day exert. Part of the impulse for What Remains, Mann says, is to remind viewers of the gravity of death so that they can better appreciate the living. Mann follows that creed: She is not only able to find satisfaction in the epiphanies of her art-making, she savors the diurnal rhythms and simple pleasures of her life in Lexington.

"I have a perfect life. I am a very lucky, lucky person," she says. "What's that great quote? They asked Flaubert what he wanted on his tombstone and he said, 'I stayed home and worked.'"

That separation from the world has allowed Mann to deal with material that she says makes her an "outcast" in the contemporary art world. It is sentiment, she believes, that damns her.

"Look at what's hanging on the museum walls," she says. "You've got these cold, modernist, post-modernist Gurskys, Struths ... really precise, really unpopulated, really unsentiment-laden pictures."

Sentiment is Mann's strength, but also her Achilles' heel. Despite her willingness to confront the taboo, there are still some things Mann's empathy will not allow her to do. Proximity to death does not make it any easier, even for Mann. When her father, a respected Lexington physician, lay dying, the artist admits there were limits to her inquisitiveness.

"I photographed him after he died, but I couldn't do it while he was alive. It involved such a loss of dignity, dying. I think I draw the line when it involves a real exploitation of someone's vulnerability."
Mann will discuss her work and sign books at the Jackson Fine Art on Oct. 27 from 6-8 p.m.



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