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Gambit Weekly Photo Poems and Painted Music

By D. Eric Bookhardt

JUNE 1, 1998:  May 26, 1998 One of the coolest things about being an art writer is that you sometimes get to be surprised. I mean, good surprised -- not traffic ticket or tax penalty surprised, but something rather more serendipitous. Indeed, some noteworthy serendipities transpired recently as I was checking out all the photography shows about town, which are unusually numerous this time around.

Of course, I knew the Jerry Uelsmann show at A Gallery for Fine Photography would be fascinating and fun, even if I never could figure out how or where he fit into the big picture of art history. And I knew Keith Carter was an impressive photo-poet, as his new work at Bassetti so eloquently attests. Likewise, John Lawrence's prints at Still-Zinsel are as classically pristine as one would expect from such a dedicated purist. But Katy Stewart's photos at Positive Space came as a pleasant surprise from one so young. Nothing if not eclectic, Stewart's images range from mytho-poetic nudes to whimsical Mayan kids in the markets of Guatemala. And if her vision is still developing, her pictures are unusually well printed and finely produced. A quite promising first show.

Even so, Kimberly Gremillion's photos at Wyndy Morehead were the biggest surprise of all. A Chicagoan despite her Louisianian name, Gremillion works in a subjective documentary mode that is largely factual, yet simultaneously lyrical and poetic. And highly psychological as well, as we see in her Circus series, an incisive look at acrobats and trapeze acts, along with the usual monkeys, elephants and clowns. While this could have been photojournalistic in the sense of the old Life magazine photo spreads, Gremillion's circus is a metaphor for the trapeze acts that we all occasionally experience, those flying somersaults that can cause our lives to become so, um, colorful at times.

In Shadow #25, an acrobatic spider woman navigates a web of ropes in the upper reaches of the big top. Her metal-studded, leather-clad form straddles precariously as she prepares to hang suspended by her teeth, a scene replicated as shadows on the tent walls by the harsh brilliance of the klieg light. The net effect is graphic, as expressionistic and symbolic as an old Fritz Lang film set. This sets the stage for Hands #2, where another flying femme attired in leather, metal hardware and black crepe appears clasped about the midriff by a pair of muscular male arms. Framed as a closely cropped torso shot, this implies a mid-air embrace, a symbolic rescue with overtones of bondage enforced by the harnesses and hardware. While ostensibly a documentary photograph, it is somehow rife with convoluted psychological innuendo.

Gremillion's Ballroom Dancing shots are much like the Circus series in tone, and both are somehow "explained" by her Women. In Woman #1, for instance, a Latina-looking babe in a filmy negligee stands atop a stairway, eyes cast desultorily aside as a Hispanic Stanley Kowalski approaches in a sleeveless undershirt. Although it evokes a Spanish Harlem take on Tennessee Williams, we don't know what is going on here. Even so, it feels more real than staged, rewarding us with that consummately satisfying sense of being an unseen observer in some private melodrama about to unfold with unusually feral vivacity. Muy Picante, an improbably spicy and psychological take on "straight" photography.

As this merry month of May winds to a close, we also should note a couple of shows dealing with the ongoing theme of music as seen through the eyes of artists. Susan Millon's Delta and Beyond series of pastel portraits of blues musicians offers fresh insights into a genre that might seem overworked by now. Even so, Millon's visual reprise of the lives of the great blues masters, while slickly illustrational at first glance, crackles with presence and immediacy upon contemplation. Elmore James Under a Blackbird Sky is emblematic, a vision of a bow-tied blues prophet in a collard green wilderness. Rife with irony, James radiates an aura of juke joint illuminations and poke salad epiphanies under a sultry sky of ozone-soaked thunderheads.

Meanwhile at Arthur Roger, Francis Pavy continues his personal odyssey through the zydeco-haunted swamps of Louisiana music, the brackish malarial backwaters where the legend of Evangeline meets Boozoo Chavis and Deadeye Dick. Like Matisse on magic mushrooms, Pavy paints disjointed visions of iridescent swamp grass inhabited by ghostly rock stars, cars, guitars and apparitional bottles of booze. Mystic fires with all-seeing eyes survey blue-faced babes and the pirogues of the gods. As in his earlier work (on view at the Contemporary Arts Center), Haiti and voodoo also influence these painterly Bayou State ruminations on ecstasy and its aftermath -- Pavy's protracted zydeco cha-cha through the long, dark night of the soul.

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