Style and Story

Tracey Moffatt is possibly the hippest artist ever to come out of Australia. She leapt from there to a residency at ArtPace in San Antonio in 1995, and from San Antonio to an international career and a solo show at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York City. She's even done a music video, "The Messenger," for INXS.

At Lawing Gallery, the main work on display is photography: intensely stylish photos, displayed in staccato groups of blue-black or sepia tones. Looking around the room feels like looking at an oversized strip of Italian film with some rectangles teasingly blanked out. Within the photos there are recurring characters, but the narrative stops and starts. Each thread of the story flirts with and then ultimately jilts the viewer, like an impossibly beautiful model in a New York bar.

We see 15 of the 25 photos that make up a series called "Up in the Sky," shot on the edge of a desolate town in the Australian outback. In these pictures, skinny men wrestle in the dirt or crawl across a highway; muscle-bound women salvage car wrecks, and two white nuns spirit away an aboriginal baby. Moffatt doesn't care whether all 25 photos are displayed together, and she's not a stickler for any certain order. As in her earlier series, the story is ambiguous, which leads most critics who write about it to assert all manner of love triangles, kidnappings and racial commentary, though part of Moffatt's point is the impossibility of divining anything about what's really going on.

Ex-porn star Annie Sprinkle has a long, long list of things sex is good for: pleasure, healing and even barter are included. As a human function, storytelling is only marginally less essential or useful. Stories can be prophylactic or addictive, life-saving or entertaining. Yet visual art that tells stories has come to seem pedantic or naive; what chance does plot, character or passion have in the face of an icy white Agnes Martin abstraction? With only 33 dramatic situations to choose from, stories can seem predictable, which to the art fan is the same as death, while, in contrast, the opera fan is put out by neither predictability nor death. In opera, stories are alive and intact.

Visual artists who would tell stories dress them up in postmodern frippery: perforated storylines, narrative jitterbugging, flashbacks and flashforwards, multiple narrators or open-ended constructions that leave much of the work to the viewer. Moffatt avails herself of each of these techniques and frankly admits that her baseline narratives are cliches. One can sense her trying to bring the cliches back to life as she designs images of people who live with the detritus of technology but not its benefits. In the Mad Max world of "Up in the Sky," there is a touch of sadism, pathos and the desperation of a mother threatened by vultures of all kinds. The central character seems to be a white woman whose nonwhite baby is coveted by scary nuns. The plot is similar to an old practice in Australia in which aboriginal children were taken from their parents and placed with white foster families. But the implied racial conflict serves only to deepen the sense of foreboding. It doesn't politicize the work outright.

Moffatt's coy stylishness is not what I like about her work; it's just what makes me feel I'm supposed to like it. What I do like are the arresting individual images that, seen close up, have a narrative force beyond the stories' cumulative drive. In one, the white mother of the aboriginal child sits in a plastic kiddie pool in a weedy yard behind a tin building, looking up as a man with tattoos all over his chest walks away, smiling to himself. It's a pale, trashy evocation of a goddess at her bath, but it's suffused with a sense of loss. In another haunting shot, taken in a dirt road flanked by more tin sheds, the townspeople, all in pajamas or robes, have gathered in the street and stare as if the photographer were a poltergeist. In the middle of the frame, a tough young girl with a flapping nightgown and boyish bangs strides toward the camera, sleeves swallowing up her hands. Both photos contain a narrative moment that fires, rather than frustrates, the imagination.

In still another evocative shot, the young mother and a man of barely determinate gender pose near a tatty bungalow; in the foreground another man holds a white chicken under one arm. The mother puts a defensive hand on her pregnant tummy and frowns, while the man in the foreground cocks his head as if he's listening to the chicken sing a drinking song. They look like characters from Gummo, a 1997 movie about the twister-ravaged town of Xenia, Ohio, which was shot using a mix of actors and "real" people. Gummo was remarkable in part because one never knew quite what was staged and what unfolded spontaneously in front of the camera.

The same uncertainty lies in Moffatt's photographs, which often use people off the street as models, and she jealously guards information about which shots were staged and which were happened upon. By doing this, Moffatt is courting the mystery of abstract painting, where the viewer can never quite discern intention from accident or, better yet, divine intervention. Yet it's not quite believable that any of Moffatt's photographs are completely unstaged, nor is it all that important. What's important is that the situations they present are believable at the core; there is an emotional heft to them. Whether the heft is found or painstakingly created doesn't say anything about the photographer's talent.

Divine accident is not what we admire in photographers, anyway. We admire unstinting voyeurism. Besides Moffatt's photos, Lawing also displays her Heaven, a half-hour video of Australian surfers standing near their cars, taking off their swim trunks. Obviously, she grasps the voyeuristic power of a camera. As she spies on or chases down Australian beefcake, her subjects' strutting confidence disintegrates. Some flash their members, others try to hide in the car, and still others just sort of turn in circles, tucking towels around their waists and grinning uncertainly. "Up in the Sky" is a stark drama with racial undertones, while Heaven is a light, effective, on-the-street send-up of gender roles and masculinity. In one, we have the artist as dreamer and director, a guardian of the image-poetry that bubbles up from the unconscious. In the other, we have the inquisitive ethnographer studying human behavior.

Moffatt runs the risk of sentimentalizing or sneering at the bleak outback poverty and her models' decided lack of conventional beauty, or of leering at the the surfer boys, who have an abundance of conventional beauty. But her unflinching, even loving, approach transforms the work from contemptuous to honest. Moffatt sanctifies her subjects; even the surfer footage is "lovingly compiled," according to the credits, and her leer can be understood as a tool rather than an attitude.

If anything, "Up in the Sky" overaestheticizes, committing the sin of paying too much respect rather than not enough. The two stringy guys wrestling in the dirt could be models in a jeans ad; the salvagers parade around in supersturdy, sexy gear. Although Moffatt's work contains more fantasy than that of photographers such as Nan Goldin and Jack Pierson, she walks the same uncomfortable line between looking good and getting real.

Using flash lighting techniques, Moffatt gives her rural subjects the glare and halos of the city at night. Instead of adhering to classic printing standards where every shot includes pure, high whites and blacks pregnant with the promise of ever-greater levels of detail, Moffatt's scrapbook prints are tinged the color of dirty dishwater. But it's important to examine the shadows in her pictures. With toughness rather than virtuosity, they dare you to look closer.

For all our high-tech, jump-cut speed and MTV sensibilities, it still takes a minute to drive a mile, and the same is true of telling a satisfying story. Stories told with images can be powerful without being explicit, and engaging with Moffatt's images beyond their arty, filmic evenness pays off. In the end, her determination to be oblique is both good and bad. It makes some of her photographs into springboards and others into nothing more than pretty pictures.

"Up in the Sky" by Tracey Moffatt is on view at Lawing Gallery, 214 Travis, (713)222-2025, through March 20.

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