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Present as Past

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It can be a little disorienting at first. Filled with almost 80 of David Halliday's sepia photographs, the Contemporary Art Center's main gallery seems more vault-like than ever, recalling the burial chambers of the pharaohs, or maybe the ancient Roman catacombs. Not that anyone's bones are moldering in a corner, but there is still an odd sense of being displaced in time and space, or at least of being disconnected from the present, even though the images themselves mostly date from the past few years.

All this is evident in the portraits, even small portraits like Top Hat, a head-and-shoulders view of the fellow known as Amzie, perhaps the last remaining unadulterated hippie of the wave that cascaded into the Quarter in the late '60s. With his top hat and flowing hair and beard, he's perfect for Halliday's vintage perspective. After all, the '60s was the first decade in which things Victorian were considered fascinating, and here Halliday uses his lens to evoke 1968 and 1868, simultaneously.

But similar effects appear even with less flamboyant subjects. Young Woman With Curly Hair is just that, a modern young lady with a 19th century primness about her, like an ingenue Emily Dickinson, despite her tangled medusa tresses. Not all of the figures are so virginal. Some, such as Hemi, resemble the guys you see hanging out on corners in the Quarter or Faubourg Marigny. With his elaborately tattooed arms, sleeveless undershirt and gaunt, central European features, Hemi recalls those photographic documentaries of social conditions in the early 20th century. Like the others in this series, the eyes are cool and emotionless.

That all changes, however, in the smattering of street photos, in images like Demonstration, Moscow, 1993, in which a crowd of morose Russians stare sullenly at something just beyond the frame. Up front, a longhaired young Muscovite stares with slack-jawed wonder, as if in the grip of some cathartic epiphany. It may just be low blood sugar, but it's an arresting image that lends a note of spontaneity to an impeccably manicured if sometimes static show. Also lively is Three Women in Dresses, a portrait of three black ladies beaming big white grins as their long white gowns envelop them like sea foam.

Halliday's landscapes range from Tonga, in the Pacific, to more familiar views of the wilds of North Carolina and Louisiana. All, regardless of locale, are noteworthy for their utter absence of any telltale traces of modernity -- a tendency that reaches its apex in his still lifes, in which his penchant for anachronistic effects and fussy arrangements is fully realized. Uva/Uova (Grapes/Eggs) recalls a baroque still life, as bunches of grapes in an old bowl on a weathered table seem to recline in a state of indolent repose. The cool light of the window illuminates the opulent ripeness of the grapes as well as the elegant ovoid opacity of the eggs scattered among them, and it all looks so natural at first that it takes a moment to wonder what those eggs are doing there, anyway. Their pale round forms interact with the grapes and the cool, soft light in a celebration of roundness that's as beautiful as it is peculiar.

More naturalistic contrivances appear in a series of edibles photographed in a light box -- a dark square box with a diffuse round window that Halliday includes in the final images. Here chestnuts, radishes or squash blossoms receive the full baroque treatment in 9-inch square prints that hint at antique scientific experiments. Especially Polpo, a bunch of octopus tentacles looking very much like sci-fi props in their soft halo of daylight.

Halliday's flair for contrivance reaches a crescendo, however, in Still Life With Durian Fruit, a composition of bananas posed with some weird species of squash, all arranged at odd angles atop packing crates. The bananas and veggies, like the crates, are positioned to make the most of the diagonal slant of light, and it's all very striking, gorgeous yet perverse, reflecting no attempt to look natural at all. On the contrary, it's a doggedly unnatural composition that uses natural forms in the service of artifice in much the way that hedges are sculpted into poodle-like topiaries. It's yet another aspect of an oddly romantic yet fussy show that's really quite impressive on its own improbable terms.

Seemingly out of time and space yet thoroughly recent, David Halliday photographs such as Top Hat convey Halliday's vintage perspective.
  • Seemingly out of time and space yet thoroughly recent, David Halliday photographs such as Top Hat convey Halliday's vintage perspective.

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