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A makeshift downtown gallery houses—briefly—one of the year’s most striking photography shows



Hit-and-run art shows in makeshift gallery spaces are nothing new. But how many plant themselves on Fifth Avenue at the mouth of the Arcade—as a temporary exhibit space called the Brief Gallery has—to sport the works of such noteworthy photographers as Alec Soth and William Eggleston?

According to Phillip Carpenter, the Brief Gallery's curator, his original impetus for putting a show together was to present a series of his own photographs that reflect a personal experience of Tennessee. As the project snowballed, however, it grew to include the works of many accomplished contemporary artists whose photographs capture the expressive features of the Volunteer State. With the help of a few dedicated friends, Carpenter swiftly renovated 238 Fifth Ave. N. into a tasteful, spacious gallery, and the current exhibit was up and running, titled Mockingbird. The state bird of Tennessee is known for its ability to echo the sounds of the world around it—a living metaphor for the artist.

Not all the photographers in the exhibit hail from Tennessee, but they represent their subjects with native clarity. Tammy Mercure of Sioux City, Iowa, shows us a barren canopy after a winter storm from her series "Big Rock Candy Mountain." The brutalized remains of a defeated tree limb hang from a tendon of vegetation. Another photograph from the same series reflects the humor of the region as a little girl begrudgingly feeds a swarm of colorful parakeets while they crawl over her scrawny arms. The one on her shoulder sports a tiger print chest of feathers and seems to deliver the punch line of a joke as the girl's face contorts with equal parts dismay and laughter.

Baldwin Lee of Brooklyn gives us a candid moment with a group of well-muscled youths in "Untitled (Basketball)." The subjects are so at ease posing on the court that their confident postures betray an almost effeminate attitude beneath their macho physiques. The abundance of powerful portraits is one of the exhibit's main strengths—as in the photos of Alec Soth, whose work has long been regarded as world-class.

In "Josh, Joelton, TN," photographer Soth captures a soldier in repose at a picnic. It's always been my natural inclination to see anyone dressed in the camouflage fatigues of a military man as just that—a grown-ass man—but Josh is a boy. Two peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches lie open on his lap with the peanut-butter jar between his legs. He is a one-man PB&J assembly line, wiping his sticky fingers on his pants and gazing into the camera with a warrior's eyes, either recollecting or preparing for combat.

The exhibition delves further into the pathos of well-timed portraits with a striking set by Mark Steinmetz. One of his "Untitled, Knoxville, TN" prints is an image straight out of Greek mythology. A man down on his luck pulls himself from a polluted riverbed. His back arches and his head is thrown back to howl at the moon. His wild grey curls seem majestic and ancient—as if the man were Neptune in exile, crawling up from an ocean defiled by the mundane rust of mortal men.

It is this very sensation of ancient magic that still lives in the waters, woods and people of the South—perhaps an unexpected benefit of lingering xenophobia and persistent ingrown cultural isolation. Whatever the source, Mockingbird's collection captures and exalts these strange tributaries at every opportunity. Shawne Brown's mysterious East Tennessee roadside landscape presents a cropped hint of concrete bridge-railing that comes out from behind an eerie tree line, where ivy-gnarled branches flared in the form of a portal appear to lead to a distant time before the bridge itself existed. It's not trick photography—just the bizarre magic of natural illusion.

Phillip Carpenter's own unorthodox cityscape shows an unfinished rune-like graffiti scrawl on a rooftop wall. If not for the Nashville skyline in the background, one might think he was seeing a character from an exotic alphabet painted on the wall of a foreign ghetto. The surreal elements of the exhibit reach a climax in the collages of Wardell Milan II. In "Mount Calvary, Go Tell It on the Mountain" we bear witness to a fever-dream depiction of the modern Christian church, ever striving to achieve holiness but anchored to the world by the very altar upon which it worships.

It's a lot to take in for such a modestly sized show, and it's only up until Dec. 15—so get it while it's mocking. I like to think of the gallery's concept as a kind of aesthetic Zorro, or even Tom Joad. Wherever there's a neglected storefront in a community hungry for art, the Brief Gallery will be there. Would that it were so.

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