Intriguing artists off target


Stephen John Phillips and Charles Alexander McGill are tw very good artists not seen at their best in their current separate shows at Knight Gomez (through March 16).

Phillips, whose work occupies the main space, specializes in sepia-toned photographs of models in poses against artificial backdrops, recalling Victorian photography. If the Starn twins, whose work is being shown at the Baltimore Museum of Art, do not like to think of their photography as having an antique or romantic look, that's just what Phillips appears to be after. For in such settings and tones his male and female nudes take on the eroticism of the illicit, and benefit from the fact that the suggested is more seductive than the explicit.

In their own way, the current group of his works, called "Healing the Twisted," continues this trait. The works were "inspired by the artist's experience with physical therapy following an

automobile accident," according to a gallery statement. In most of these, Phillips' figures are posed with devices for helping the variously afflicted, or with religious objects; "twisted" apparently refers to the physical or the spiritual.

"Mending of the Limbs #3" and "Mending of the Limbs #1" show a man semi-prone on the floor, clutching a crutch as if it were his means to physical salvation. In "Hope" a woman poses with a leg brace on. In "The Incorruptible" a woman holds a picture of Christ in a garden-of-Gethsemane pose.

The problem with these beautifully produced images is that they're just a little bit ludicrous, and seeing a large group of them together only makes them more so. The gallery's statement says that they are "compassionate but somewhat humorous," but by presenting these figures in an aura of romantic sincerity Phillips invites something more like derision than sympathy. The young man with the crutch, for instance, closes his eyes in something akin to ecstasy. Phillips' photos gain tension by toeing a line between satire and seriousness, but in this case, whether intentionally or not, he slips into mockery and it doesn't work.

The strength of McGill's work lies in a combination of his overpowering (if sometimes a bit obvious) images and the sureness of his hand. The hand does not fail him in the five oils on paper here, but the imagery does.

The journey of life is the presumed theme behind these paintings with their railroads traversing landscapes populated with eggs, his locomotives sporting egg/halos as they head into the wind or the storm or the dark. McGill paints extremely well, but these works have a too-lighthearted look for their symbolism and subject matter. There's a certain incongruity between the message and the image; his earlier, more pessimistic works packed more punch.

But with both McGill and Phillips we know we're in the presence of serious artists who are always more than worth a visit.

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