A sense of place depends as heavily on our imaginations as it does on reality, while the definition of "reality" can be as fluid as it is ambivalent. What, then, is the reality of Memphis? Cinematically, the gamut runs from "Mystery Train" to "The Firm," from "21 Grams" to "Forty Shades of Blue" to "The Blind Side."
And what about photographically?
Searching for the reality of Memphis are seven artists whose work is featured in "This Must Be the Place: Contemporary Photography in Memphis" at Dixon Gallery and Gardens through March 4.
The phrase -- "this must be the place" -- typically used jocularly or satirically, apparently originated in, or received a boost from, the Three Stooges short "Uncivil Warriors" of 1935, in which Curly says, " ... being as there's no other place around the place, I reckon this must be the place."
This must be the place. In terms of Memphis, can such an assertion even be made without fragmenting into a thousand impressionistic shards?
The photographers in "This Must Be the Place" tend to work the dark side of the Bluff City, which is, frankly, its best side, or at least the odd, the eccentric and the fantastic, though they do so in laconic terms; there's plenty of visual content but little direct commentary. As we expect now, all the images by the seven photographers are in color, and beautifully printed (Yijun Liao's are stunning); most are labeled either as archival inkjet print or, simply, digital print -- no wonder Kodak filed for bankruptcy recently.
How personal can the reality or vision of Memphis be?
Jordan Hood, for example, in her "Covered" series, poses herself, sheltered or hidden by what we are told are the gowns she wore as a Mississippi Delta debutante, in the parking lots of local malls and strip shopping centers or in front of nondescript business buildings. Anna Hollis, in the "Hybrid" series, takes us deeper into a potentially disturbing dreamland -- shot in Overton Park -- in which adolescent fantasies (or nightmares) of a figure wearing a horse's head loom as a symbol of the conflict between power and different versions of femininity.
The exhibition's most provocative image is Ian Lemmonds' "Eschatology: Blue Baby," in which a bathroom sink holds a contorted creature that is at first unidentifiable -- I thought it was a fish -- but turns out to be a duck from a Chinese market. This "study of last things," the literal meaning of "eschatology," is a terrifying vision of isolation and grief as the summation of existence.
Does the photograph have anything to do with "the place" that is Memphis? I don't think that's the point, except that it emphasizes the extent to which any place is or can be a product of or a home for the creative imagination.
In fact, "This Must Be the Place" is in large measure a visionary group of images, from Michael Darough's gorgeous and mystical "Belvedere," shot through fully-leaved trees into the sun from a viaduct or trestle, to Tommy Kha's strangely evocative and perturbing "Wishing Tree" (flood detritus from last year), to Yijun "Pixy" Liao's brilliantly detailed and colored "China Doll," a portrait of the Pepto-Bismol-colored fast food emporium on Lamar that goes beyond the mere depiction of reality to a sort of Platonic ideal.
Even Frances Berry's more straight-forward pieces, like her oblique portrait "Caster Garner" -- which focuses on her subject's gaudy belt-buckle -- testifies to the fact that photography has never been about reality but about manipulation and interpretation.
Selected by Dixon's assistant curator Julie Pierotti and filling the museum's Mallory Wurzburger Galleries, "This Must Be the Place" offers diverse and often intriguing works by a varied group of artists whose ties to one another might be expressed as "This is the place, because this is the place where we work, the place that in some fashion influenced, dismayed or inspired us." In that sense, it's our place too.
"This Must Be the Place: Contemporary Photography in Memphis"
At Dixon Gallery and Gardens, 4339 Park, through March 4. Call (901) 761-5250 or visit dixon.org.