ARTIST SALLY MANN would like for people to come out of her exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art feeling, as she says, "revitalized." That's not, however, likely to be the immediate reaction for many visitors. Rather, as you make your way through "Sally Mann: What Remains," a five-part photographic meditation on death, and "Sally Mann: Last Measure," a thematically related show running concurrently at Hemphill Fine Arts, you may find yourself musing on such topics as abortion, fatal car accidents, last week's crosstown -- not to mention cross-country -- conveyance of Ronald Reagan's body and the evanescent appearance of the Brood X cicadas.
The revitalization part, such as it is, comes later.
Mann's art addresses questions of life and death head on: in photographs of her dead dog Eva's disinterred bones and tanned hide; in pictures of corpses rotting in the open air at the University of Tennessee's Forensic Anthropology Center (aka the Body Farm); in shots taken after an escaped convict committed suicide not far from the front door of her family's Virginia farmhouse; in moody, murky landscapes of the Civil War battleground at Antietam; and in eerie portraits of her own three children, who, especially with their eyes closed, look just as often dead as sleeping.
Wall text muses on such subjects as the precise moment when life leaves the body; on the extraordinary lengths we sometimes go to in order to preserve and pickle our corpses; and on the fact that, whether we realize it or not, mortality is all around us, under our feet, dark and invisible. By the same token, so is its opposite, the life force.
This is the ultimate message of this particular body of Mann's work, which is as conceptual as anything gets these days. If these images don't force you to confront your own flesh and its impermanence, not to mention the ghosts that are standing beside you right now (especially the ones that haven't yet died), you're probably in some kind of state of denial.
Yes, the pictures are that powerful and disturbing. And that theoretical.
One Body Farm image, for instance, shows what appears to be the desiccated crotch of a male corpse -- its juxtapositioning of decay and generative power unavoidable, and unavoidably dispassionate.
Which is strange when you consider how much real feeling there is in these all-too-often clinical-sounding pictures, which move beyond the superficial evocation of crime scene photographs and laboratory documentation to burn with the paradoxical if ghoulish heat of Victorian memento mori. "What Remains" is, in effect, a question, the answer to which, Mann would have us conclude, is love.
"What thou lovest well remains," wrote the poet Ezra Pound, as quoted on the Corcoran's gallery walls, "the rest is dross. / What thou lovest well shall not be / Reft from thee."
With a deliberately antiquarian look -- the result of both a tricky, 153-year-old technique known as the wet-collodion process, in which glass plates are exposed to light while still sticky with a silver nitrate solution, and Mann's own intentional sloppiness -- these photos force our attention as often toward the bubbles, coronas, scratches, streaks and blank spots of the printing process as toward their ostensible subjects. Although Mann plays with this tension throughout these two shows, it is nowhere so apparent as in the landscapes of Antietam at the Corcoran and those of Manassas, Appomattox and other battlefields on view at Hemphill.
Here, the lump of a barely discernable black tree is silhouetted by a brooding gray sky. There, a tangle of bushy undergrowth disappears into a twilit forest, even as Mann's strange, yet strangely happy, accidents of printing pull our attention away from the scenes to the dead flatness of the picture plane itself.
What remains, indeed? As evidenced once again by the great Sally Mann, whose work of the past decade or so has bequeathed to the art world some of its most indelible and unsettling images, the answer, in this case, is not just love but art.
SALLY MANN: WHAT REMAINS -- Through Sept. 6 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW (Metro: Farragut West). 202-639-1700. www.corcoran.org. Open daily (except Tuesdays) 10 to 5; Thursdays to 9. $6.75, seniors $4.75, students and guests of members $3, family groups $12. Children under 12 free. Admission all day Mondays and Thursdays after 5 is "pay as you wish."
SALLY MANN: LAST MEASURE -- Through July 31 at Hemphill Fine Arts, 1027 33rd St. NW. 202-342-5610. www.hemphillfinearts.com. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10 to 5. Free.