Culture- ART FEATURE- Strange fruit: Lydia Moyer's southern exposure

The first time I heard the song "Strange Fruit," it was UB40's reggae version, and, although I felt the melancholy of its minor key, I somehow missed the lyrics. Later I listened to Billy Holiday's more famous rendition and gasped when I realized this achingly beautiful song is about the gruesome lynching of African Americans in the South.

Mixed-media artist Lydia Moyer's exhibition, "Deep South," offers a parallel experience. Arranged on the walls of UVA's Off Grounds Gallery– rendered dark and atmospheric by blocked front windows and calculated lighting– Moyer's red-hued prints at first glimpse seem lovely and nostalgic. But the longer one looks, the more unsettling they become.

Moyer, who spent last year in Alabama, began the series after viewing documentary photographs of early 20th century lynchings. Seeking to blend her interest in women's experiences with reflections on the South and its history of racial violence, she excerpted stills of white female characters from D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (celebrated for its cinematography and reviled for its racism) and layered them with photographs of tree-filled Southern landscapes.

The resulting digital montages, imbued with ruddy palettes ranging from black to sepia to carmine, are rich with intellectual intention made visual. Moyer refers to blood and its dual connotations of purity and pollution by branching dazzling red inverted limbs across women's bodies like networks of veins. Elsewhere Moyer obscures women's faces and allies them with the landscape, pointing to their value not as individuals but as property that must be protected.

Perhaps Moyer's evocation of Southern racism is too subtle, given the absence of black figures or direct representation of violence. "I'm really sensitive to who has the right to work with what images," she says when asked why she decided not to include photographs of African Americans. But without her artist's statement to explain the origin of the women's images and how the trees refer to the sites of lynchings, the viewer is hard-pressed to identify any racially charged component in Moyer's prints.

Moyer also examines inner and outer landscapes in turmoil in her video installation, "Bloodrain." Inspired by Sylvia Plath's poetry and titled for the phenomenon in which tornadoes pick up red dirt and incorporate the particles into rain, this semi-abstract piece dynamically fuses the exterior natural world with internal realm of blood. 

Beautiful and disturbing, "Deep South" gives visual presence to the line from "Strange Fruit": "Blood on the leaves and blood at the root."

Lydia Moyer's exhibition, "Deep South," is on view at UVA's Off Grounds Gallery through February 17. 300 W. Main St. 924-6123. (Call for gallery hours.)