The hound's head is tilted toward the sky and, judging by the shaggy fur flying up and away from its snout, into the wind. In the photograph, something about its gaze appears fixed, as if the animal has the scent of something carried on that current of air, some mystery it must suss out. It may be the same current that blows the hot-air balloons through the night sky in the photograph that hangs in the direction the dog's nose is pointing. Are they moving toward that same mystery on the wind? And if so, what will their passengers see by the light of the brilliant moon that cuts through the thick darkness around them?
When entering an exhibit titled "Notes on the Universe," questions come naturally – big questions, about the nature of all things and the connections among them. And indeed, in the work showing here, Keith Carter seems to be conducting some grand inquiry, an investigation into whatever cosmic force animates us and our fellow creatures on this planet. The inquiry takes four forms. One is the kind of photography for which this Southeast Texan has earned a following: black-and-white images, often shot with antique lenses, that capture children, landscapes, and, most notably, animals in an atmospheric, mythic state; some part of the image or even all of it may be indistinct, and yet we see clearly the subject's essence. So it is with the hound in Bog Dog, a canine sniffing engine firing up all 300 million olfactory sensors to nail that smell, and with the two figures in Mother & Child, a dear summation of maternal care captured from behind, mama holding exhausted babe, one arm hanging limp as her head nestles in the crook of mama's neck and shoulder, their skin like polished ebony exquisitely set off by the white clothing and head coverings they wear. In this approach, Carter seems to be documenting fundamentals of life in all their wonder. But in another approach, his photographs focus on representations of life, paintings and statues of animals and what may be taxidermied creatures that once lived. These are largely in color – sometimes vibrant color, as in The Birth of Venus, a portrait of a kind of pheasant with iridescent feathers, some of which sprout like wildflowers from the top of its head – and yet the subjects lack the spark of life seen in the other images. The closeness with which Carter shoots them suggests that he might be scrutinizing the subjects for that missing quality of vitality. What makes a thing alive?
In the series that gives this exhibit its title, the photographer goes beneath the skin in search of answers. The nine studies on view here are in identical studded frames, inside of which are collages of stained handmade papers, calling cards from the 1850s, and small X-rays of animals – a beaver's tail, say, or a mole's claws. The age of the materials create the feel of an antique autopsy, with the minuscule dimensions of the X-rays – just an inch or two – making it seem as if we're examining the beasts through a microscope. But though these "notes" provide an interior view of the animals and the glow of their skeletons from the radiation suggests life, we still don't see it.
On the adjacent wall, however, is a group of animals who seem to see what we cannot: owls. In the eight images from his Nocturnes series, Carter offers commanding portraits of the nocturnal birds of prey, with deep, oily blacks enrobing them and making their pupils into midnight pits surrounded by white rings that blaze like the orb in the photo with the balloons. The owls, looking as wise as legend claims, stand like inscrutable sentinels, eternally guarding the universe and its secrets. Collectively, these are the most mesmerizing images in this fascinating show, if only for the impression they give of creatures seeing what the rest of us can only smell, feel, sense: the spirit moving through us, giving life.
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