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Looking at tragic beauty

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Vital Signs: Focus on Young Photographers, on view at the George Eastman House, is a thoughtful selection of photographs by 12 emerging artists from five different countries.

Seen collectively, there is in these photographs beauty and terror --- as well as a level of theatricality. Something seems just a little off. It's a familiar notion in the art world, and one that should seem familiar to us today. That sensation was the epitome of the 19th-century Romantics' notion of the sublime --- feelings of awe mixed with terror. And in light of recent years' events, the dawn of the 21st century would seem to fit that description.

While each image is reflective of the artist's individual visual vocabulary, all are examining aspects of the contemporary world --- a world that is not what it seems or is changing right before our eyes. There is something almost melancholic about these photographs.

Chris McCaw's Old Tree Split from Heavy Chop is one of several haunting platinum prints depicting aspects of his grandfather's almond orchard in the central valley of California. The fate of the orchard is in question: It's no longer a working farm and the area around it is increasing encroached upon by suburban sprawl. Today, all that yet remains is his frail widowed grandmother --- all, that is, except for the grandeur of the tough, old trees, standing proud in the eerie pervasiveness of the valley fog.

The images are reminiscent of P.B. Shelley's poem, "Ozymandias," where he writes of the shattered "King of Kings," about whom "Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away."

The eerie quotient is also present in Lori Nix's tabletop tableau photographs. On the one hand, they're kind of fun and funny --- in one image, you have little houses swimming in (presumably) chocolate pudding while in another vividly colored toy trains are piled in a wonderfully messy heap --- but on the other hand, they're really uncomfortably familiar and therefore ominous subjects: floods, train wrecks, disasters. They're appealingly pop but upon further consideration, they're also shocking. It's that Warholian crash thing. We're horrified, maybe even offended, but we keeping looking.

For many viewers, art as an intimate medium for conveying emotion remains the order of the day. Certainly, a number of artists have endeavored to dispel that, to turn the tables on what art is or should be. Yet, the power to emote --- whether consciously or not --- is always there.

Consider, for example, Bogota (February 7, 2003) from The Day After series. Johannes Hepp presents us with a technically seamless, seemingly benign panorama of everyday street life. But here again there is this edgy, if not horrific, undercurrent: The composite images are of actual sites of various acts of terrorism around the world. The photographs were made days or sometimes even years after a car bombing, gas attack, or plane crash-as-suicide bomb literally ripped through a community.

It's not so much the immediate aftermath that viewers are asked to contend with but rather how life does go on: how everyday acts, like riding the subway or just crossing the street, become fraught with risk-taking.

You should go if you'd like to see a solid collection of photographs that reach beyond beauty to the eerie undercurrent --- maybe even the "sublime."


Vital Signs: Focus on Young Photographers through October 9 at the George Eastman House, 900 East Avenue. | A roundtable talk and gallery tour with the artists is on Saturday, September 17, at 2 p.m. in the Curtis Theatre, followed by a book signing and meet-and-greet. | Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday nights until 8 p.m., and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. $3-$8. 271-3361, www.eastmanhouse.org

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