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Jack Spencer: Beyond the Surface

A renowned Southern photographer’s works are on display in his first major museum exhibit in Nashville.

Jack Spencer Gussie's Magnolia

Through October 13, the work of Nashville-based photographer Jack Spencer will be on exhibit at the Frist Center For The Visual Arts. The most comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s work, “Jack Spencer: Beyond the Surface” is composed of 70 photographs that reveal the artist’s interest in the ephemerality of life, the subjectivity of perception and the overriding value of beauty.

Spencer is renowned for his toned photographs and Southern subjects. Born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, Spencer’s first love was music. (He has photographed album covers for several musicians, such as Emmy Lou Harris, Sonny Landreth and John Hiatt.) His photography has been exhibited around the world, and his work is included in collections from New Orleans to California. He is probably best known for his Native Soil series, which was published as a book by LSU Press in 1999 with an introduction by Ellen Douglas. The above photo, “Gussie’s Magnolia,” comes from that series.

His inspirations range from painters Edward Hopper to Mark Rothko and literary giants from William Faulkner to magical realists Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez. “Spencer’s photographs are distinguished by a painter’s sensibility,” says Mark Scala, chief curator at the Frist. “His use of richly textured, softly-focused forms and toned surfaces add to the ambiguity and mystery of his photography, a medium often associated with realism and authenticity.”

“Beyond the Surface” is presented in six sections: Portraits and Figures reveal Spencer’s capacity to define the psychological complexity of his subjects, who often occupy the periphery of society. Conversely, each person portrayed in Apparitions is disguised by a mask or face paint, subordinating individuality to an expression of cultural identity. To create his most recent body of work, Mythologies, Spencer photographed and often digitally altered painted figures and their surroundings to impute a mysterious fictional narrative or primal context. Day into Night includes images of human presence made visible by ephemeral evidence — cast shadows, veiled bodies and blurred movement, often at dusk or dawn — symbolizing the transitional nature of life. In This Land, richly hued scenes of the American west, Midwest and South were inspired by Spencer‟s desire to explore the theme of national identity through the image of an open and unpopulated land. Blurring the distinction between figure and ground, proximity and distance, Color as Light includes coastal views in which the luminous, almost aqueous density of atmosphere merges land, trees, animals and sky.

Want to learn more? Attend the museum’s ARTini event on September 17 at noon, when a conversation about Jack Spencer’s works will take place in the exhibition.

Photo Credit: Jack Spencer. Gussie’s Magnolia, 1995. Gelatin silver print, 20 x 24 in. Courtesy of the artist. © Jack Spencer

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