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Ghosts, Inmates and Others 

"La lune s'attristait ..." ("The moon becomes sad ...") -- Mallarme

The above line is from Stephane Mallarme's poem, Apparition. That it serves as a starting point for photographer Josephine Sacabo's new series, Nocturnes, comes as no surprise, for no Louisiana photographer since Clarence Laughlin has been more involved with spectral figures and fragments of the past. But unlike Laughlin, whose spooks always seemed to pine for lost glories, Sacabo's figures are sexier and more engaging, haunting a zone where time, nature and the imagination intermingle in the nocturnal recesses of the psyche.

This approach, a sub-current in her earlier work, appears full blown in her Pedro Paramo series based on Juan Rulfo's classic Mexican novel of the same name, and more ethereally in this new Nocturnes series, which is more reliant on subjective interpretations rather than reflecting a particular story line. Divided into subgroups with titles such as Desire and the Eye and The Unsubdued Forest, the diffuse, blue-black and ivory images allude to the floating world of dreams as a kind of ritualistic theater in which elusive faces and figures appear in flux as they seemingly materialize out of moonlit vapors. Rorschach-like in their ambiguity, they appear in a process of endlessly becoming or dissolving even as they extend the otherworldly metaphors found in Sacabo's earlier Pedro Paramo series.

Begun several years ago, these Paramo images appear in a new edition of the book, which was released simultaneously with this show and a parallel exhibition in Texas. A sequence of figure and landscape studies set in various Latin American venues, these photographs are dreamy sepia visions centering on the erotically charged specter of Susana San Juan, the beautiful but long-dead daughter of a brutal padron in rural Mexico. Images such as the sepulchral scene in which Susana clutches a human skull as the earth seems to open up behind her -- a reference to the time her father lowered her into a cave filled with skeletons when she was barely pubescent -- allude to the text, yet formally stand on their own. Beyond their literal content, these dusky, kaleidoscopic visions weave diverse sequences of time, stone and flesh into a smoky nether realm, a chorus of dark visual whispers that is simultaneously chilling and seductive. All of which is true to the surreality of a novel that relies on fragments and whispers suspended in time even as they hark to Susana's deep sensuality, eventual madness and premature death. Or, as critic Jon Newlin so aptly put it in his book review for B & W magazine, "Josephine Sacabo's pictures do not illustrate the novel so much as illuminate it."

Very different are Deborah Luster's tintype portraits of prisoners at Louisiana correctional facilities, which are sharply explicit and brightly lit for the most part. Yet, for all their apparent realism, they are still surreal, for this is Louisiana, after all, and Luster somehow elicits an underlying whimsy even from venues as grim as Angola State Prison. This is partly, but only partly, a result of her use of tintypes, a 19th century medium employed in the service of her very modern vision.

Here the stiff metal plates coated in photo emulsion possess the same haunting formal presence as their antique predecessors, yet images such as Zelphia Adams, whose face and oversized Dr. Seuss hat are painted to match her prison stripes, are startling in their postmodern blurring of boundaries. Actually, the outfit was created for a Mardi Gras parade at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel. Luster photographed many of her subjects in various prison roles. The tintype figures working in the fields might almost have been from the 19th century; only the boldness of their facial expressions offers any clear link to the present. Others in chefs' hats or rodeo outfits are interspersed with more freakish figures showing off extravagant tattoos and other anomalies. The results are as taxonomic as they are anachronistic, a tintype catalog of incarcerated outsiders of the sort for which this state is so justly renowned. The bottom line is that Luster is an incisive portraitist who maximizes depth of expression by skillfully exploiting the limits of her subject matter and media. It's a brilliant show.

click to enlarge Images in works like Moon Over Time, from Josephine Sacabo's Nocturne series, allude to the floating world of dreams as a kind of ritualistic theater. -
  • Images in works like Moon Over Time, from Josephine Sacabo's Nocturne series, allude to the floating world of dreams as a kind of ritualistic theater.

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