At first glance, Valeska Populoh's fancy formal ball gowns look like something lifted straight out of a John Singer Sargent portrait.
As upper-class bling, these ornate confections are artworks in their own right: The lines are perfect, the fabrics luxurious and the style impeccable. Each seems to reek of old money and manners.
But step closer and the illusion fades. The frilly ruffles, delicate pleats, form-enhancing bustles and other extravagant ornaments of the couturier's art actually are stitched together from bits of plastic garbage bag, black umbrella cloth, old coat linings, carpet scraps and other thrift-store detritus.
It's like coming upon a Ferrari sports car and discovering that the whole thing is crafted out of recycled tuna fish tins.
Populoh's gowns are among the surprises to be found in Femme Effect, an exhibition of eight women artists currently on view at Sub-Basement Artist Studios on Howard Street.
The show presents about 30 works in which women figure as subjects, though you'd be hard-pressed to identify a specific feminist agenda.
Instead, the show seems to be about, well, feelings: Women's feelings about themselves, their bodies, their families, friends and personal histories - and each other. Populoh, for instance, is the model for painter Amy Sherald's surreal conflation of the artist as swan and muse.
Populoh's art is the more overtly political. She's disgusted by our mass-production pop culture built on overconsumption and waste, but (perhaps) realizes that resistance is futile. Her dresses, part of her performance art, are rather resignedly titled Processional Gowns for the Lost Cause Cycle.
Arnetta Lee explores black women's experiences in diminutive oil paintings whose patterned surfaces mix Henri Matisse's playful decorative sense with Jacob Lawrence's social conscience and the rigidly conventionalized depictions of the body characteristic of Egyptian hieroglyphics.
By contrast, anything seems possible in the magical-realist world of Sherald's large oils, be the subject a recognizable portrait of an actual person like Populoh or the fugitive figures of a half-remembered dream.
Sherald, who recently returned from studying with the Norwegian realist painter Odd Nerdrum, excels in both abstract and realist styles. The show includes examples of both and suggests she is definitely a young painter worth watching.
Femme Effect, which runs through March 17, also presents works by Clayton Brant, Jordan Faye Block, Helen Elliott, Edna Kurtz Emmet and Lauren Sleat. The gallery is at 118 N. Howard St. Call 410-659-6950.
The two photo series that constitute Inspiration, at Baltimore Gallery, in theory ought to complement each other. Instead, they almost seem to work at cross-purposes, which is a pity because both contain at least a few truly memorable images.
David Lavine's pictures of black Baltimore churchgoers were taken in the mid-1980s while he was on assignment for a local magazine. Most are rather conventional reportage, which probably worked well enough when the initial magazine article came out, but don't seem particularly compelling today.
Still, there are a couple of standouts. One shows a white-robed choir proceeding down the center aisle toward the front of the church, where the singers turn either left or right before climbing the few steps and taking their seats behind the pulpit.
The black-and-white photograph catches the cross-like pattern formed by the singers as they split to walk to either side of the altar, a pattern echoed in the large white cross that hangs just above the pulpit.
The photograph suggests that it is the figures of the singers and their congregation themselves, rather than the abstract sign of the cross, that truly embody this enduring symbol of Christian redemption.
Oggi Ogburn's publicity shots of pop singers and jazz musicians, most taken while he was working for various record labels in the 1980s and '90s, focus on the entertainment world. There are nice shots of pop divas like Whitney Houston, Sade, Minnie Riperton, Anita Baker and Teena Marie.
The best picture, though, is of an unidentified performer who we see in a spotlight with his larger-than-life shadow projected behind him into the photograph's foreground. It's a metaphor for the transformation that occurs when a performer enters that magical place where his every action and feeling seem magnified.
The show runs through March 19. The gallery is at 4519 Eastern Ave. Call 410-276-7966.