Generally, a portraitist is only as good as his subjects. Up until now, this has worked in Jock Sturges' favor, as he's photographed nudist families in Northern California and the South of France, making a name for himself as a poet of the pubescent pastorale, his nymphets shimmering with down and dew. For all the notoriety of his subject matter, Sturges has never trivialized his models' T&A; their nudity is a vehicle toward simplicity, drawing our eyes not to naughty bits, but to faces, eyes and what presumably lies behind them. Sturges has always had a knack for capturing the implacable gaze: an open expression that suggests an old soul reawakening inside a young mind. Whether such precocious wisdom actually exists behind these tawny, freckle-faced facades is immaterial; the appearance of wisdom within the frame is sufficient. Which brings us to Sturges' latest outing at Butters, in which the contemporary zeitgeist seems finally to have caught up with the artist and turned his romantic visions from honeyed to hackneyed.
The photographer tries, oh how he tries, to plumb his subjects' depths, only to run aground in shallows; searching for a Mona Lisa smile, he finds only a Barbie doll's empty stare. The tweener and Gen Y girls populating these pictures harbor no secrets in their eyes, only boredom. They are here on this nude beach because their parents made them come; they would rather be texting their friends or downloading ringtones. From their vacant semblances Sturges wants to coax the same Bertolucci burnish in 2006 that he captured in 1976. Alas, XBox and wi-fi have leeched the enigma out of young eyes, leaving vapidity in the void where possibility used to reside. In the absence of the pregnant gaze of old, Sturges forces his models to turn away (as in Fanny, D106) or to feign depth where none is present. In Fanny, D107, the eponymous model flexes her forearm with Popeye machismo, but her sparkless eyes keep the image from being the feminist, genderqueer statement it desperately wants to be. And so Sturges retreats into the forest, photographing Vanessa et Miranda in backlit wide shot, two would-be sprites frolicking among the trees, reduced to silhouettes. Pity poor Sturges: Only distance and lighting tricks can turn his displaced mall rats into myths and metaphors.
Butters Gallery, 520 NW Davis St., 2nd floor, 248-9378. Closes May 27.