An idiosyncratic mix of loveliness and grit, photographer Jill Frank’s portraits in “Nothing Ventured Nothing Gained” on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia are nothing short of memorable.
Frank often features teenagers and young adults who hover on a precipice in their attitude, clothes and mien, between child and adult. Frank seems most attracted to people who are in-between: between fragility and power, beauty and ungainliness, child and adult, lucid and out-of-control like the man in “Shotgun Portrait (Air Force),” his wrist ringed with plastic bracelets for taxi services and bars, who lifts his head back in ecstasy as he shotguns a beer, some unseen person’s hand cradling his elbow as he drinks.
Frank captures her subjects in large format images as they engage in gestures of escape. It is a literal escape: the refuge and camaraderie found in friends and inebriated fun but also an emotional escape expressed in a faraway gaze that hints at states of mind unknown to us.
Bathed in Frank’s honeyed, adoring light that rains down on subjects like sunshine, Frank’s portrait of a zaftig blonde in “Beach Pose (Green Bathing Suit)” whose body defies a cultural standard of “beach ready” captures her bathing beauty in lush, sensual terms, demonstrating enormous empathy and respect for her subject.
Frank appears at MOCA GA as one of three winners of MOCA GA’s 2015-16 Working Artist Project, designed to support visual artists in the Atlanta metro area with a $15,000 grant, an exhibition and a studio assistant.
Frank’s work bears a resemblance to other photographers who lend a cinematic touch to their work, artists like Gregory Crewdson or Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Her images buzz with visual excitement and feel like just one frozen moment in a story sizzling with drama and possibility, lending significance to rites of passage we might not ordinarily notice.
Her images of a solitary boy with masses of dark hair and pale skin in “Selfie in Bathroom” and “Selfie in Chair” capture both the narcissism and unabashed sexuality of the subject posed nearly naked on a chair looking somewhere between an oil painting and a cheesecake magazine spread.
In “Selfie With Rat,” a young black man with bleached hair and eyebrows stands shirtless in a lush Southern yard. Like some medieval saint, he looks off into the distance, caught in contemplation of some truth beyond our perception. Her subjects seem to levitate out of their often tawdry surroundings, beatified through Frank’s lens.
Frank’s subjects feel lost to us even as they display themselves for her camera. Frank captures the paradox of photography: of seemingly arresting the world for our delectation, but always denying us complete access. There is a respect and consideration in Frank’s point of view, for the separate, compelling but ultimately unknown lives these boys and girls, men and women lead.
A certain percentage of Frank’s talent lies in choosing fascinating subjects. Like Nan Goldin or Diane Arbus, she has an eye for a peculiar and arresting kind of beauty and for capturing people in ambiguous settings that hint at nascent delinquency, or the formative process of becoming someone else, or who are arrested in the process of experiencing a transcendent state.
A small series of works capture teenagers in parking lots and on the stoops of wood frame houses, drinking from a keg, fighting, smoking, engaged in time-wasting fun. You can’t help but feel the excitement, and the simple pleasure in a night spent drinking or joshing with friends and the magic in another perspective, both the photographer’s and her subjects’.