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Elegant Necrophilia 

Photographer Deborah Riley does darkness

Missouri photographer Deborah Riley, whose solar photogravures will be on display at Phototroph until April 27, is yet another superb technician, the latest in a long string of brilliant artists to exhibit at Elaine Bean's sweet little space.

Riley creates her images (strictly speaking, they're prints, not photographs) by taking photographic negatives, making positives onto ortho film in the darkroom, and using the positives to expose solar polymer plates. The plates are inked, and a dozen prints are hand-pulled from an etching press.

The results are strikingly beautiful -- gauzy, feathery whites and grays, velvety blacks. And some of the photographs are amazing. And some, while technically wonderful, are a little strange -- unless, of course, you're into avian necrophilia.

Let's talk about amazing. Take a look at Riley's image of a woman's lap. Somehow, the photographer has managed to imbue the folds of the model's skirt with a sculptural solidity, even though the fabric appears to be as light, loosely woven and translucent as a butterfly net. Cradled lovingly in her hands is a round object -- a coconut? A smooth, whitish stone? You squint, trying to make sense of the image. Oh. It's a skull.

Or consider a series of prints of a nude woman who is partially draped. She's posed in a variety of settings, all of which seem ruined, decayed, insubstantial. The living flesh seems hardly vital, posed against a ruined wall, a darkened doorway. The boundaries between the animate and inanimate are blurred and indefinite, life merging seamlessly with death.

And what about the strange? Riley has taken the corpses of birds -- some a few breaths away from life, and some in the final stages of decay, and posed them in ways that she finds ... I don't know, piquant, revealing, aesthetically pleasing? It's quirky, obsessive stuff. Put it this way: If you found your 7-year-old posing dead birds, you probably wouldn't think that he/she was on track to becoming an artist of note. Nope, you'd probably drag the poor kid off to a kindly shrink, or maybe suggest some new My Little Ponies (Debbie, leave those nasty birds alone and come to the mall and Mommy will buy you Minty!).

It's interesting to contrast Andrea Modica's photographs with Riley's. Modica, whose work was the subject of a one-woman show at the Fine Arts Center just a few months back, has photographed death -- horses, birds, even a slaughtered piglet. Unlike Riley, she finds, observes, frames and records. Riley finds, arranges, poses and photographs. Modica seeks to illuminate a part of the world that we seldom allow ourselves to look at; Riley illuminates her own obsessions. That said, the work is extraordinarily beautiful and strangely resonant. It has some of the quality of Diane Arbus' best work; you don't really want to see it, you're almost sorry that you looked at it, you can't get the image out of your mind.

As always at Phototroph, don't miss the show. And if you're squeamish, don't linger too long over the birds on the far wall.

--John Hazlehurst

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