Culture- ART FEATURE- Masculine nature: Whetstone's southern exposures

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, photographer Jeff Whetstone told a rapt audience about the time he nervously took his large-format camera to a creek near his Tennessee hometown. He knew he was trespassing on land that "belonged" to a rough clan. Suddenly, two teenage boys approached, and he became terrified. Why? They were maybe 14, and he was 30. It all had to do with Deliverance, he explained.

And Deliverance has everything to do with Whetstone's exhibition, "New Wilderness," currently on view at the University of Virginia's Off Grounds Gallery. In case you missed the 1970s Burt Reynolds classic, the film follows a group of city guys on a terrifying canoe trip through backwoods Georgia, where they become the prey of feral mountain men. 

"It's all about the battle of culture and nature," Whetstone says of the movie and his work, "the animal within and the human without."

Whetstone's photographs explore the way human masculinity is expressed in nature. Whether physically present or evident from their marks (ranging from muddy ATV tracks to discarded beer bottles), Southern good ol' boys figure prominently in his oversized silver gelatin prints.

One series of images focuses on hunters, who ally themselves with nature in their camouflage even as they prepare to assault it. Another set of photographs examines how humans physically impose themselves on the landscape, which Whetstone interprets as an instinct to demarcate territory. In the gorgeous yet disquieting "Fishing Chair Eno River," Whetstone foregrounds a romantic mist-enshrouded river view with a broken-down plastic chair amid trash on the bank.

Although the show's images offer an immediate beauty, the more time the viewer takes with each photograph, the more complexly faceted Whetstone's inquiry reveals itself to be– drawing on geometric configurations, areas of light and dark, and fortuitous timing (for example, in "Mingo Boys with Water Snake," the casually held snake appears to be wriggling out from the boy's floral-patterned trunks). No detail, however small, is either wasted or meaningless in Whetstone's compositions.

In a departure from the rest of the show, a mosaic-like grid of images at the northeast end of the gallery depicts animals captured in containers that isolate them from their natural environs. Here Whetstone shoots from above, giving equal weight to both possum and tadpole, with the implication that we humans are unknowingly in the same predicament. 

As Whetstone explained on Wednesday, "I think we think we're not animals anymore."

Jeff Whetstone's photography exhibition, "New Wilderness," hangs at the Off Grounds Gallery through November 25. 300 W. Main St. (entrance on Ridge St.). 924-6123.