The Home Stage

Jessica Todd Harper’s children, in her second monograph, The Home Stage (2014), don’t have the memorably stark expressions of Sally Mann’s—“those poor, art-abused kids,” as Mann put it, paraphrasing the indignant letters she received after a 1992 New York Times hit piece. Like Mann’s, though, they’re clearly their mother’s collaborators, posing for constructed, painterly scenes. Harper spent hours of her own childhood copying Sargents and Vermeers, influences quite apparent in these light-filled images, which often, as in Christopher with Nicholas and Catherine (Descent from the Cross), 2009, hold the sense of an artful composition in tension with that of intruding on a passing family moment. Indoor shots (in which few objects or furnishings disturb the faintly old-fashioned mood), particularly the self-portraits of Harper pregnant, conjure Vermeer’s scenes of women sewing, reading, or writing letters in the way they juxtapose interiors with interiority, suggesting an inner life through effects of light and texture. There’s a creeping wholesomeness here (O, The Oprah Magazine has championed Harper’s work), yet domestic serenity doesn’t preclude depth, or mystery: As in a Vermeer, you can’t tell what the subjects are thinking, but you don’t doubt that they are.

Jessica Todd Harper, Christopher with Nicholas and Catherine (Descent from the Cross) (detail), 2009, ink-jet print, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist