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“Otherworldly” Photographs: Reality Made Strange

Sally Mann, Untitled (Deep South #5)

By Lisa Wilbourne

I walked into the Greenville Museum of Art for their Holiday Sale one day in the middle of December. There were plenty of interesting and well-crafted things there, but what really caught my eye was the current show: Otherwordly, a selection from Allen G. Thomas, Jr.’s photography collection.

These are not just photographs. They are not even just beautiful photographs. Stunning and huge, they captivated me, diverting me from what was meant to be a shopping trip; they lured me in.

In addition to the photographs’ “otherwordly” theme — often strange and disconnected from ordinary experience — the sheer magnitude of these 20 pieces transforms the gallery itself into another world filled with doors (large enough to comfortably walk through in many cases) to far-away places — China (Sze Tsung Leong), Istanbul (Dan Gottlieb), the Arctic Circle (Sarah Anne Johnson); difficult-to-reach places, like Jeff Whetstone’s cave photographs; ordinary-enough places seen through an artist’s eyes, such as Burk Uzzle’s photograph of a cemetery somewhere between Greenville and Washington, N.C., or Ian F.G. Dunn’s flooded parking lot.

Anthony Goicolea’s 72-by-90 inch black-and-white apocalyptic photograph Burnt Houses, hanging opposite the entrance to the gallery, shows a dark and turbulent sky surrounding two burned houses and bare trees. Barrels, firewood, timber and bricks piled up in front of the houses are reflected in a muddy puddle. Only the remains of life are present. This piece is a digital creation, put together using many photographs, including a portrait “reverse drawing” — a trademark of Goicolea’s. (Can you spot it?)

Sze Tsung Leong’s 74-by-90 inch Beizhaunzi II, Siming District, Xiamen, depicts the transformation from run-down apartments to luxury high-rises. Though no actual people are visible, signs of life are plentiful: plants growing on porches, laundry hung out to dry, curtains, satellite dishes, lanterns, air conditioning units. This and Leong’s other piece in the show are part of the series History Images, which the artist in his statement says are photographs “of cities caught in the tenuous period after the end of one history and at the beginning of another history.”

Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison’s 40-by-40 inch Mourning Cloak shows a striking contrast between the gray room where a half-clad man sits, turned away from the viewer, and the rabble of colorful candy-like butterflies on the man, the walls and in between. Despite the fanciful element the butterflies bring, the image is undeniably bleak.

The show has three 30-by-30 inch head-on portraits by Francesca Romeo. “Romeo’s work,” reads the artist information sheet beside the portrait, “hints at something traumatic… indications of addictions and disorders ranging from depression to schizophrenia.” These works are beautiful and slightly unnerving as they capture deeply relatable troubledness.

Other photographers you’ll see: Brett Wilson, Burk Uzzle, Dan Gottlieb, Ian F.G. Dunn, Jeff Whetstone, Sally Mann, Sarah Anne Johnson and Taj Forer.

Thomas lives in Wilson, N.C., and holds one of the most impressive private art collections in the Southeast. Click here to listen to his 45 minute lecture at GMA in which he describes — with obvious and infectious passion — how he became a collector and talks about each of the photographs in the collection.

The 13 photographers presented in the exhibition cover a wide variety of subject matter and method. I encourage you to go check out these pieces — and soon — the show ends January 27. I’d love to hear what your favorites are.

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One Response

  1. John Collins says:

    Gret review, Lisa! Everyone should see this exhibit at GMA.

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