Beach Scenes_lowres

Ascension , photographer Richard Sexton's classic beach scene, captures the naturalistic contrasts of the familiar Gulf Coast landscape.

Less dramatic than the Pacific coast with its rocky promontories and frothy jade surf, and more intimate than the imposing shores of the Atlantic, the Gulf Coast has long been overlooked as one of America's defining regions. Consequently, it is this country's neglected Third Coast, or such is the premise on which an exhibition and a new book by New Orleans photographer Richard Sexton are based. While there is much that is colorfully scenic, historic and even romantic about the region that arcs northward from southern Texas along coastal Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to the southern tip of Florida, Sexton has chosen to ignore the easiest and most eye-catching subjects in favor of something deeper and more subtle. In so doing, he sets an intentionally high bar that is challenging in any number of ways. As the northern extension of the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico has for centuries seduced artists and writers from Martin Johnson Heade and Lafcadio Hearn to Paul Ninas and Walter Anderson with its pastel luminosity and opalescent hues, colors that are the visual equivalent of night-blooming jasmine. But you won't find them here, either in the book or in the show. Instead, Sexton, a Georgia native who grew up near the Okefenokee Swamp, focuses his lens on the vacant beaches and desiccated foliage of the Gulf Coast in winter, a time when its unbridled baroque opulence gives way to a sparseness of line and form, a silver-gray rectitude rendered in classic black-and-white photographs. It's almost as if, in a region known for its boisterous hedonism, he opted for the quiet beyond the bacchanal, the bleached bones that persevere long after the flesh has melted away. In that sense, it is a very Lenten vision, a meditation on transience and temporality.

In fact, Transience is the title of an emblematic image of the beach in winter, with footprints in the damp sand leading toward a lone wanderer in the distance. Here the waves seem cast in pewter, dimly reflecting a sun obscured by the sea fog that wafts over the horizon. As a landscape, this study in minimalism is about as far from Ansel Adams as you can get, but that's probably a good thing under the circumstances. Of course, drama is never really absent. Ascension is a classical Florida beachscape with cottony cumulus clouds in a darkly cosmic sky rising over a sand dune topped with a thatch of foliage and grasses and, for a moment, you can forget that this is really a state park and not one of Walter Anderson's uninhabited barrier islands. Echo is a view of a long dead, sun-bleached, storm-sundered tree, its remaining branches outstretched in a horizontal pantomime of anguish, and here we enter the world of surreal nature, the fabled preserve of Max Ernst, Clarence Laughlin and Frederick Sommer.

This view of nature as a tangled labyrinth appears in his swamp scenes as well, in his Medieval Dreams series of landscapes of massive live oaks rising from tangled vines in wilderness preserves. Similar sensibilities also surface in a series of still life studies of birds' nests in which the usual straw and reeds are interwoven with twist ties and other discarded artifacts of human consumer culture. Ultimately, the power of this series, in the show as in the book, rests with its subtleties and silences, the familiarity of the swampy jungle that miraculously reappears as soon as any parcel of land in these parts is neglected and in the all too familiar sight of dead trees in swamp forests decimated by storms or the clear-cutting by commercial interests that only seems to invite more, and potentially apocalyptic, storm damage. All in all, Terra Incognita makes for an interesting meditation on the more intimate and familiar side of nature and the arcane, sometimes surprising mysteries contained therein.