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Review: Southern Work 

Photography by Debbie Fleming Caffery at Octavia Art Gallery

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Growing up in south Louisiana's sugar cane country, Debbie Fleming Caffery was immersed in the area's annual harvest rituals. Although increasingly mechanized, sugar cane farming still features dramatic events like the pre-harvest burning of the fields to remove leaves from the stalks prior to processing. When seen from above, swaths of Acadiana resemble a fiery apocalypse. Up close, plumes of ash and smoke obscure the sun. Like a Burning Man ritual on a vast scale, this is a fact of life for the region's traditional Cajun and Afro-Creole communities, so it may come as no surprise that much of Caffery's work is imbued with a heightened sense of mystery and drama.

  Over the course of decades, her mythopoetic vision has encompassed not only those eerie cane country rituals, but also the lyrical and mysterious qualities of life as it is lived in places such as rural Mexico and, more recently, the stark expanses of the rural Mississippi countryside. If the title Southern Work suggests particular places, the dreamy and otherworldly nature of Caffery's images evokes a more psychological realm where the ordinary boundaries between the heart, the psyche and the land seem to have dissolved.

  In Gerald's Truck, 1999, a white pickup roaring down a road reflects rays of sun breaking through a black sky as smoke belching from distant mills and burning cane fields turns day into night. In Church Steeple and Cornfield, 2011, thunderheads gather over a horizontal landscape as a dislocated church steeple sits like an exclamation point on a road flanked by cornfields.

  Far from the bustle of the city, things inexplicable and incidental can assume a portentous aura. Caffery's human subjects are no less mysterious. In Junior, 2014, a black man sits stoically in the shadows like a carved ebony saint fringed with snow-white hair. But her most symbolic figure may be Ventriloquist, 2013 (pictured). Like a mythic underworld trickster in a mirror, he reminds us that the world of appearances isn't always what it seems.


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