The photographic images of injury, suffering and rehabilitation in Stephen John Phillips' exhibit "Healing the Twisted" at the Knight Gomez Gallery aren't directly graphic in a gross-out way, but they resonate in far more disturbing ways.
It's unsettling to see pictures of healthy nude models wearing or caressing the braces and bandages associated with battered bodies. When a seemingly picture-of-health model with his back to us holds a crutch upright, it is as if he is holding it up like a cross of suffering to be embraced. Likewise, there is a photograph called "Healing Hands" in which a woman lovingly holds a prosthetic arm in her own fully intact arms.
Previous exhibits by this Baltimore photographer have been hard-to-peg exercises in using post-punk-bred models for vaguely old-fashioned sepia-toned studio portraiture with a surreal tinge. The current show, however, turns all those bald, young heads, mysteriously contorted postures and oddly antiquated studio props to the more specific purpose of composing photographic meditations on the process of suffering and healing.
The exhibit opens with a mixed-media "Memorial Box" that incorporates images of women, angelic-connoting bird's feathers, and a picture of the Baltimore photographer Barry Holniker, who was killed in an auto accident last year. Phillips writes that this exhibit is dedicated to his late friend. Phillips also refers to the physical therapy he underwent following a car accident of his own.
Phillips' images possess a quiet intensity that is heightened by his characteristic studio set-up: single or paired nude models accompanied by no more than a few "loaded" props in a shallow studio setting in which the backdrop is mottled and dingy. If there is something fetishistic about all this, there is also something nettish-istic about some of the pictures, if you will, because Phillips likes to place netting on the floor and wall. For that matter, he sometimes places nets atop a figure's head as if to cover facial features or to act as a crown of thorns.
The exhibit is most unnerving in its use of religious images. It relates the rituals and medical paraphernalia associated with the healing profession to the cult of divine suffering in Christianity. Where religious suffering is concerned, there is even a photographic series in which figures carry religious statues as if these were their crosses to bear.
And there is a multiple-image photographic arrangement titled "Sacred Hearts" which includes shots of holy cards in which the sacred heart of Jesus is circled with a crown of thorns and has a sword plunged into it. "Sacred Hearts" also includes an image of a heart-shaped tattoo. When you think about the pain willingly undergone by somebody to have a tattoo etched into his (or her) body, and then think about the associations both pleasant and unpleasant associated with a heart, why then you're getting into the heart of Phillips' subject matter.
Stephen John Phillips exhibits at the Knight Gomez Gallery, at 836 Leadenhall St., through March 16. Also showing in the office gallery is Charles Alexander McGill, with a series of oil on paper paintings in which McGill's repertoire of roughly figured railroad tracks and engines, nocturnal skies and egglike forms aren't quite enough to make for an interesting fictive universe. Call 752-2080 for more information.