Art Review Archives:
Catherine Edelman Gallery
It is a grownup game of dress-up, an exercise in self-transformation and the chameleon ease of changing one's identity. Len Prince: Jessie Mann 'Self-Possessed' presents the fruits of collaboration between a photographer and an unusual subject, Jessie Mann, who as daughter of twentieth-century photographer Sally Mann has been before the camera from her earliest days. From a fierce naked youngster in Sally Mann's 1980s photo series Immediate Family (pub. 1990), Jessie Mann may be seen to have become a cool, self-assured woman completely unselfconscious before the camera lens, capable of transformation into a seemingly unlimited series of roles. In these striking, superbly executed photographs, identity as as fluid as a change of clothes. At the same time the range of dramatic settings created by Mann and celebrity photographer Prince are an adroit homage to moods and images drawn from throughout the history of photography.
Key to these transformations is Mann's superly measured self-containment, the 'self-possession' of the exhibition's title manifest in the levelness of her gaze at the camera and hence, at the viewer. The cable release frequently visible in Mann's hand, mechanism by which a camera may be triggered remotely, signals the complete deliberateness of the act of self-representation before the camera lens. Adding to this is the cool provocation of her stare, leveled directly at the camera and hence at the viewer, drawing the viewer into complicity with the secrets of her role-changing. The louche blonde of Untitled (Plate 37) NYC (2003), and the elegant model of Untitled (Plate 46) NYC (2005) in her tall column of sheath dress, could hardly be farther from one another in implied character; both diverge equally from the Marilyn Monroe-style glamour of Untitled (Plate 57) NYC (2005) and the staidly-dressed housewife of Untitled (Plate 58) NYC (2004). Yet all are Mann, and despite the props and settings, all partake of the force of her character, which seems to press the observation back out of the picture frame. Far from being the observed, it is Mann who becomes the observer; it is the viewer she seems to be watching, for reactions to who she has just become, or pretended to become.
In its play with personal identity 'Self-Possessed' doubles its explorations by featuring not only the protean possibilities of self-created character in its subject, but the photographer's play with identities as an artist as well. 'Self-Possessed' romps with homage to past photographers and artists, one of the most easily recognizable being Prince's take on Man Ray's classic Kiki With African Mask (1926), recapitulated in the aloof Untitled (Plate 55) NYC (2005) with Mann exuding don't-touch-me glamour while posed next to the elongated face of an African sculptural bust. The odd whitewashed figure of Untitled (Plate 60) NYC (2006) with its spare upraised arm seems to reference some of Joel-Peter Witkin's milder work, adding rather than eliminating a limb; while Botticelli's The Birth of Venus (c. 1485) appears here in a rural Virginian setting in Untitled (Plate 76) Virginia (2005), in which Mann, far more buxom and blonde than her early-Renaissance counterpart, seems part platinum centerfold, part classical reference, part absurd addition to the faux clamshell of the front-lawn garden plot: Venus in a modern double-take.
At times, wigs and props are all discarded and Prince captures Mann as a nude study. This is a third theme found within the exhibition, variously exploring mood and physicality, and these studies in particular showcase the photographer's luscious range of tonal qualities and the adroit variety of composition and handling. A blonde Mann crouches, compact, lithe and naked, on a stairway in the seemingly informal self-portraitization of Untitled (Plate 29) NYC (2002), whose light tonal structure is seen, after a moment's scrutiny, to be the reflection in an angled mirror. It is a work of intimate, curiously personal content. In Untitled (Plate 28) NYC (2004), Mann stands boldly erect on a rising stair, the composition intensifying the sculptural qualities of her splendid nude physique by setting it, starkly lit, against the spartan geometry of the stair-rail and the more soft-focus striping of light and shade cast along the far wall. Shapes and pattern are the focus, Mann's full-volumed curves no less than the arrayed grays of diagonals, hard and soft, that form setting and background. Diverging from both of the above is the ultra-formal composition of Untitled (Plate 34) NYC (2004), where from out of depths of black, unrelieved darkness, two powerful studio lights cast the contours of Mann's arched-back body into sleek, silvery relief.
The collaboration between Len Prince and Jessie Mann explores the ease with which one can slip from one mood and appearance to another, blonde to brunette, ingenue to centerfold, the ease with which one can create and re-create oneself before -- or behind -- the camera. The wild daughter of Sally Mann's 1980s photographs has matured into a complex, untouchable woman, still, as always, at home before the lens. Formal or informal, vernacular or glamorous, these are images of unconscious, unselfconscious desires, crowned by the enviable coolness of their uncommon subject.
--Katherine R. Lieber
Editorial Note: Books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews may be purchased through this site's Amazon.com link or by clicking on the links below. Len Prince's celebrity photography was published in About Glamour (Simon & Schuster: November 1997). Sally Mann's Immediate Family (Aperture: April 1994 (reprint - 1st ed. 1990)) features photography of her three children Emmet, Jessie and Virginia during their youth in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia. Mann's other published works include Deep South (Bulfinch: 2005), What Remains (Bulfinch: 2003), and Still Time (Aperture: 1994 (reprint)).