Bring out your dead

A Yankee photographer moves south and brings the bodies with him

Ah, youth. Jeffrey Silverthorne was only 27 when he first entered a morgue to take pictures of the bodies. Just the sort of thing a struggling, energetic artist might attempt: "What hasn't been done? What can people not ignore?" Well, they sure as hell can't ignore a bevy of large, crisp black-and-white photographs of corpses. They might look away, but they won't forget. Some of the naked bodies are splayed open in autopsy position; some are sutured shut with crude staples; some lie with eyes open and mouths agape.

But that was back in the early 1970s, long before photographers took to archly beautiful presentations of men fisting men (Robert Mapplethorpe), nightmarish theatrics (Joel Peter Witkin), and further explorations of the morgue (Andres Serrano). Back then, the New York scenester zeitgeist demanded an artist go to some extreme to get the spotlight. In that era, David Bowie summed it up using his bizarre image makeover from hippie-folkie to drag-queen space alien, circa Ziggy Stardust. "First do what you have to do to get their attention, then once you've got it, you can do what you want," Bowie deadpanned in his platforms and mascara.

Today, everything seems extreme, or tries to be. Extreme rock stars, extreme drugs, "Extreme Snowboarding!" Anything as obviously unsettling as a photo of a post-mortem, vivisected child might be interpreted as manipulative, derivative, trying too hard to shake up this desensitized world. So it helps that we can date Silverthorne's extreme photos to an earlier time, a time when that sort of thing was novel. He's moved on since then, freed by the momentum of earlier notoriety.

Only a few pieces from this early series are on display in a one-man show of Silverthorne's works at Photographs Do Not Bend. Despite the critical acclaim he's received and big museums' tendencies to buy his work, this is his first show in these parts. And to local credit, no one in the crowd on opening night seemed to take more notice of Silverthorne's quarter-century-old photos of dead bodies than they did of his newer works of undead people. What the crowd did notice was the artist's inarguable technical prowess, his ability to disturb with far more subtlety these days, the maturation of his methods and abstractions. Initial morgue fame aside, Silverthorne knows his camera, his mood, and his messages. In a show that culls pieces from more than three decades of his work, the jury has registered a verdict: Silverthorne has grown up and joined the ranks of the country's great modern photographers. Technically, anyway.

No one could accuse him of visual narrowness. The two series that figure most heavily in the Photographs show are from the early '80s and the mid-'90s, and the aesthetic difference between these two is remarkable. Save for a few iconographic similarities--references to racism and religion--you'd believe that the dusty black-and-white portraits and the jewel-colored toy dioramas sprang from the minds of two vastly different artists.

The creepy nostalgia toys that star in his Christ's Entry Into South Bend series are tiny stand-ins for Silverthorne's usual people. Donkeys, rabbits, dismembered dolls, and bleeding Jesuses traipse about in hand-painted idyllic Southern settings, and their grinning innocence promises to give way to moral disaster. Silverthorne recently gave up a lifetime of Northeastern living to take up academic residence near Lafayette, Louisiana, and though most of these pictures were taken before his actual move, you can sense the ambivalence leading up to it: his repulsion at Deep South backwardness, his attraction to Southern Gothic. All saturated with symbolism, all scathing, yet the soft-to-hard-focus photos aren't just trite cartoons of prejudice and piety. If you study them long enough, you can make out several stories in each, stories of dark things happening between little girls and boys, stories of misguided prayer, stories of a place locked in an era that the North--Silverthorne's Rhode Island School of Design background--never really touched. The feudalism and slavery, gentility and poverty and lushness still put so many Yankees on edge because traces of it hang in the humid Gulf Coast air. You rarely see these tricky emotions captured so well.

Like a lot of photographers, Silverthorne sure likes naked bodies. His Silent Fires series of some 15 years ago carries the flatly dramatic visual signatures of Diane Arbus and Witkin: gritty, strikingly posed bodies over dark backgrounds, with all kinds of theatrical narratives opening up. A grizzled, suited man sits before a prone nude woman, her body glowing in the closing shadows and her face obscured by his position--this called "The Rape of Eurydice in the Attorney's Office." In "The Offer," a nude woman crouching on a pedestal holds a pear just above the mouth of a white man in blackface. You can see his jagged white teeth, feel the strain of his body as he threatens to lurch upward.

Silverthorne never quite got over the morgue, or, perhaps, the attention his Morgue Work photos brought him. He's revisited the dead house for two series since then. But as with so many inspirations, it's the originals that pack the punch, and a few are on display here. His most lauded work ever, "The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep," is among them, and while many fans cite the powerful juxtaposition of her sexuality and her inarguably dead state, a few won't ever get past the violent autopsy gashes through her exposed torso. If anything, death (or the look of it) democratizes beauty. Same with "Boy Hit by a Car," an exquisite child about six years old--loads of dark hair and eyelashes, perfect skin, narrow shoulders--well, he's not asleep, is he? That changes everything, and whether you view these as poetic or exploitative (and I wonder who would give Silverthorne permission to take an art photo of a just-dead loved one), the subjects' death serves as a kind of glass ceiling--you can only get so far with the beauty of them before you have to move on to much bigger questions about mortality, and much smaller questions about the grisly details. Where did they die? Who found them first? Who cried in the wake of it? Silverthorne sort of answers the first question; his photos are descriptively titled. But far more is left hanging than answered, and if that's part of the art, and if it shakes us up the way he intended, so be it. I suggest you don't stare too long.

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