Norton Unveils Bold, Dynamic Photography Exhibition

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Kristin-Lee Moolman's "Caleb Nkosi, Johannesburg"

Societies living off the grid, surrealist images from the Congo, a rainbow of LGBTQ portraits, and literally blood-drenched explorations of suicide bombers. These are a few of the subjects of the four photographers nominated for the Norton Museum’s Rudin Prize, in what is likely its most provocative offering yet.

The biennial competition and exhibition, which has been showcasing emerging photographers in their first museum solo shows since its inaugural year in 2012, is a vital tool for up-and-coming or under-appreciated photographers to build their resumes—as well as offering, to the public, a snapshot of the zeitgeist of photo-based art. This year’s selections, on display through June 21, run a gamut from the photojournalistic to the stylized to the experimental.

David Spero’s “Steward Community Woodland, Devon”

The most traditional of the bunch, the U.K.’s David Spero, brings a documentary eye to the collective dwellings of individuals living off the grid in the remotest areas of the nation. Tipis, log cabins and other makeshift, thatched-roof homes spring from the dirt and foliage of bucolic regions like Somerset and Devon, where residents grow their food in large, blooming gardens, horses cart bales of hay, and families share the bounty of communal kitchens.

This kind of agrarian socialism, which has disappeared in much of the developed world, suggests a utopia that is almost enviable given the noise and anxieties of the present industrialized moment, and Spero is an astute, dispassionate cataloguer of both its micro and macro details.

If Spero’s presence is one of objective observer, South Africa’s Kristin-Lee Moolman suggests a more prominent authorial voice. Whether it’s a striking piece of flora or a portrait of a vibrant-haired individual, each photograph is framed with painterly precision, and the best exude curious juxtapositions and supernatural juju.

In “Mani Wata,” in a darkly playful trick of staging, the head of its subject, a young woman, appears to be detached from its adjacent body. In a portrait of a Congolese mother and two children, fresh tears seem to appear on the youngest child’s cheeks, while the mother sports what looks like a primitive, incongruous VR contraption on her head—as if she was just beamed in from the Starship Enterprise. It’s all weird and compelling, and Moolman is certainly a kindred spirit to the artist who nominated her for this year’s Rudin Prize, Cindy Sherman.

Jess T. Dugan’s “Alix at Sunset”

American photographer Jess T. Dugan brings a sense of classical portraiture to figures largely unexplored in classical gender and sexual-identity paradigms. Immaculately staged and lit, her portraits span the LGBTQ spectrum, capturing her subjects in moments of unguarded intimacy. I was especially fond of “Jamie and Ann,” which shows the titular individuals, their genders inscrutable, embracing, shirtless, in a forested idyll. Though Dogan’s photographs often exhibit a lot of flesh, they appear not to titillate but to express beauty—the kind that transcends identity and label.

These three artists all deserve their spots competing for this year’s prize, though to my eyes, the hands-down winner is the artist I’m saving for last, Lina Hassim. A secularist born into a Kuwaiti Muslim family, she moved to Copenhagen in 1992, where she critiques and explores her native culture using the freedoms afforded by a Western European democracy.

Lina Hassim’s “Wafa”

Exhibiting “the eye of an artist and the sensibility of an anthropologist,” per the wall text, Hassim’s signature series, “Suicide Bombers,” meditates on the fates of news-making jihadis. Working from found photographs of the bombers, she colored each headshot in her own blood, obscuring each of them to near-invisibility, especially when viewed up close. Underneath these altered portraits, the artist placed a thumbnail of the original photo along with researched mini-bios on each of the individuals—where they are from, when and if they died, and special notes like “mother of 2” and “left a letter.”

She has essentially created rap sheets and mug shots to accompany the central works, which remind us that even deluded terrorists were people too. They haunt her exhibition like ghosts—residual reminders of a warped fanaticism, with literal blood on their hands, and everywhere else. “Suicide Bombers” is stirring, visionary and important, the jewel in another stellar “Rudin Prize” crown.

The Rudin Prize exhibition runs through June 21 at Norton Museum of Art, 1450 S. Dixie Highway, which as of this writing remains open. Admissions is free Fridays and Saturdays, and costs $5-$18 all other days. Call 561/832-5196 or visit norton.org.