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Gambit Weekly Dreams, Symbols and Memories

By D. Eric Bookhardt

MARCH 2, 1998:  Maggie Taylor's Two Bad Days may not make much sense, but it is a glimpse at colliding realities.

The mystery of time, the magic of light, the enigma of reality -- and their relationship -- are my constant preoccupations. My central position is one of extreme romanticism ... a feeling that the world is far stranger than we think, that the reality we know is only a small part of the total reality and that the human imagination is the key to this hidden and more inclusive reality. This position is now completely out of fashion."

So said Clarence Laughlin in his introductory remarks to his Philadelphia Museum exhibition and splendid Aperture monograph 25 years ago. Now, on the occasion of another show and another book, his words still resonate -- but the art world has changed a bit since then. Despite his "extreme romantic" approach, Laughlin is remembered as the greatest photographic son of the South and a bit of a wild card in the art historical annals of America.

Laughlin, who was 80 when he died in 1985, was a lifelong Louisianian. A born storyteller (and non-stop talker), his dreamy, elegiac and sometimes creepy photos recall Baudelaire and Max Ernst while foreshadowing Anne Rice and those pierced and tattooed gothic rockers of the 1990s. And if this suggests a wild man whose "completely out of fashion" photo-frenzies presaged postmodernism with an approach so radically retro it was almost futuristic, such appraisals are not too far off base.

It might even be said that Laughlin's surreal photos of cemeteries and old houses (often furnished with his crazy lady friends, weirdly comported and draped in black lace like Morticia Adams) did for Louisiana's architecture what Robert Mapplethorpe or Joel Peter Witkin did for the human body. Yes, he was really out there: a Louisiana French-Irish art rebel so alienated from modern America that he described his work as "the Third World of photography." Dear old Clarence -- a one-man banana republic. His printing methods alone suggest the voodoo aesthetics of a regular Dr. John of the darkroom.

Curiously, this Haunter of Ruins show is rather staid, its main appeal being that it reveals for the first time a parallel body of work, a group of some 67 images largely unknown to the public. And while a pure vein of Laughlin's visionary eloquence occasionally surfaces here and there, it is also true that much of this will appeal primarily to the initiates, to those who have already followed the maestro's determined, Bermuda shorts-clad shuffle through those moldering doors of perception, into that "hidden, and more inclusive reality" that his best work portrays.

Indeed, Laughlin's 1973 monograph The Personal Eye is still the definitive statement of his most inward, or esoteric, vision. Likewise, his classic Ghosts Along the Mississippi (circa 1948) defines his outer, exoteric view of Louisiana architecture as a metaphor for the subconscious reveries of a departed, if bizarre, elite, an aristocratic lost Atlantis of the cane fields.

Haunter of Ruins reminds us that Clarence always insisted that we look twice. And if the spirits of this show seem a bit more reticent than some of their predecessors -- if no ghostly bejeweled hand reaches out to embrace us quite so deftly as before -- it is all there nonetheless: the garrulous imagistic incantations that define Clarence Laughlin's vision and set him apart from all the rest. And for that we are indeed grateful.

If Laughlin is a flashback to the lost dream poetry of the surreal Creole past, Maggie Taylor is a fast-forward take on the digitally deconstructed space-time of the present. Postmodern to the max, Taylor's images utilize clever combinations of symbolic objects as props. And so we see a lot of fish, fruit and boats, biological and electronic oddities, flowers and doll furniture, toys and butterfly wings, all arranged provocatively, if sometimes self-consciously, against brightly painted backdrops like the distressed sets of an itinerant flea circus.

And what are we to make of all this? Like most postmodernism, it might all be a little too self-conscious were it not for the latent surrealist mojo that arises like the ghost of Magritte or Man Ray, transforming the surrounding space. Pears in a Boat is fairly typical. Here, two luminously realized pears sit upright in a miniature skiff as it navigates a dark backdrop strewn with wildflowers. Behind it, a tiny toy ladder climbs to nowhere.

In Two Bad Days, a crumpled picture of a lady royal with an Elizabethan collar shares space with three dead fish, a small red flower and a bit of paper inscribed "two bad days." None of this makes any real sense, but it alludes to poetic realities -- or a clash of realities, a fender-bender at the intersection of two worlds. Clarence Laughlin would have had a lot to say about this.

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