Altered reality

Salavon reconstructs familiar images in Magnified Distortions

Magnified Distortions at the City Gallery at Chastain unites two artists, Nina Levy and Jason Salavon, who approach the notion of "reality" from two uniquely deceptive vantages in a show that deals with the optical trickery made possible by the camera, the computer and the artist's own perspective.
Though Levy sees her photographs as toying with the realism of the figure by scrambling the real and the fake, her work more often evokes the proverbial feminist hot-button topic of body image. Her photographs are of a fragile, real-life woman (Levy herself) who sports enormous, perfectly formed, corpse-colored prosthetic buttocks, legs and arms in Frankensteinian combinations of the real and the manufactured. In "Remedy" a pair of legs and arms cradle a man's oversized, demonically grinning head in its hands. Levy's mannequin faces have a ventriloquist dummy's creepiness with their evil, forced smiles and unnaturally bluer-than-blue eyes, though the effect is more thriller-movie cheesy than disturbing.
Levy's work seems most often about the contradiction between what we should be (happy, muscle-bound superhumans) and what we are (puny flesh and blood). At other times, as in "Full Size," where Levy's rosy upper torso has been plopped onto an oversized fake butt and legs, the work seems to address the gap between what we are and our own "magnified distortion" of our enormous, hulking, physical selves — all big asses and veiny, gargantuan feet.
Far more challenging, Jason Salavon's work uses computer imaging to explore the myriad possibilities of human variation and uniformity. In his two sets of black-and-white high school yearbook graduation photos, Salavon has crafted a digital composite of every single male and female member of, in one pair of images, "The Class of 1967," and in the other, "The Class of 1988." At first glance, the images look like portraits so out of focus they are virtually unreadable except for the distinguishing, instantly recognizable details of tuxedoes, the formal head-and-shoulders posture and the corny black shoulder drapes forced on girl seniors. But by overlapping every male and every female student into a composite whole, Salavon creates an archetypal notion of "graduate," a notion for which shifts are evident in the more formal and somehow archaic 1967 photos versus the more happenin', contemporary poses of 1988.
In the "Class of ..." series, the photographic agenda of capturing a unique individual clashes with the institutional requirement of documenting the class of '67 or '88 in work that slyly mocks the shifting, contradictory impulses of photography. "This ambivalent stance accurately reflects my own perception of end-of-millennium complexity," notes the artist of this schizophrenic societal desire for the unique and the uniform.
Some of the wittiest pieces in the show are Salavon's arrangements of tiny frames from three movies: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, It's A Wonderful Life and Star Wars. In each, Salavon has captured hundreds of frames from these movies and arranged them into his own pattern, tending to group the lighter frames and then the darker frames into a pleasing visual composition. As in his "Class of ..." series, Salavon takes the individual idea of a person, or a film, and transforms it into abstraction. But just as the idea of "graduate" is still evident in Salavon's abstract composites, the idea of Snow White the Disney movie still resides in each minute frame from the film Salavon has arranged and miniaturized.
Our brains operate like computers, Salavon's work suggests, arranging the unfamiliar into the familiar, making determinations about a thing from its constituent parts — a process that Salavon implies has larger social implications related to how we view race or class.
Magnified is not, for the most part, a cohesive show. Inconsistencies arise principally from the feeling that Levy and Salavon are fundamentally and philosophically mis-matched. Levy's work is stubbornly literal, a little stodgy and tends to suffer in comparison to Salavon's more cerebral, conceptual fare. But the show will be worthwhile to many for the sheer imagination and witty execution seen in Salavon's singular work.
Magnified Distortions runs through March 3 at The City Gallery at Chastain, 135 W. Wieuca Road. Mon.-Sat. 1-5 p.m. 404-257-1804.

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