It isn’t often you can describe a photography exhibit as laugh-out-loud funny.
But while looking at “Julie Blackmon: Undertow,” on show at G. Gibson Gallery, a chuckle or two is inevitable. It may be at the sight of an elegant 90-something lady strolling down the street in “Olive and Market,” carrying an Abercrombie & Fitch shopping bag with an incredibly chiseled male torso on it. Or it could be prompted by the unhappy young girl on a camp-out in “Airstream” who’s about to disappear under a cloud of bug spray administered by a grown-up just out of frame.
Visual jokes and puns are plentiful in Blackmon’s work. But so are family mysteries, childhood psychodramas and painterly richness.
Blackmon was born and raised in Springfield, Mo., where she still lives. As the oldest of nine children — and now as a mother of three — she’s a dab hand at portraying wayward sibling dynamics and periodic adult lapses in oversight.
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Her subtly manipulated digital photographs were instant standouts at the Henry Art Gallery’s group show “The Digital Eye” in 2011. In her latest work, she takes inspiration from Jan Steen and other 17th-century Dutch painters who specialized in rendering merrily chaotic households on canvas.
Her aim, she says, is to “move beyond the documentary to explore the fantastic elements of our everyday lives, both imagined and real.”
Certainly there’s an element of the surreal in her ordinary sights and a sense of the transcendent emanating from the mundane. Blackmon’s wizardry has partly to do with Photoshop touches. But it has just as much to do with staging, costuming, lighting and her use of models (friends and relatives) who have a vivid sense of the characters they’re portraying.
Again and again, she draws you into complex, unfolding dramas.
The kids in “Fire,” for instance, have all the cohesion of a tribe. Little girls are keeping half an eye on toddlers, while two boys are rapt at the sight of a towering tree branch, with a flaming hot dog at its top that one of them holds. The scene is beautifully, cannily lit, pulling you all the deeper into a secret, liberated childhood world with nary an adult in sight.
In other Blackmon shots, a studied disconnect between the people depicted lends the images an absurdist tension. In “Homegrown Food,” a little girl chasing after a ball, a workman carrying some lumber and a hipster in black leaning against a wall and smoking a cigarette are all so spatially alienated from one another that even their shadows fall in different directions. Clearly, there’s some sort of photographic trickery going on in this rendering of a scene outside an organic produce market. But Blackmon prefers to let the effect speak for itself rather than spelling out how she achieved it.
“Stock Tank” highlights her unusual way with color and point of view, as well as her prankish sense of humor. The “stock” consists of five kids splashing around in a plastic swimming pool, shot from overhead against a charred-looking backdrop (asphalt driveway) and a fringe of green (ratty lawn).
The color of the water — pale creamy blue — seems to have been tampered with, and the contrast between color fields ramped up to the point of artifice. Result: The frolicking ecstatic kids look oddly vulnerable in a pool that feels sharply provisional against its harsh lava-dark surroundings.
The plainer Blackmon’s titles are — “Garage Sale,” “Sharpie,” “Hair,” etc. — the more marvelous or eerie the worlds they depict. This is dandy, intricate work that amply repays careful study.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org