The first photographer presented in Gomez Gallery's new photography space, Dave McKean, gladly defies definition.
"I don't use the word 'artist' for myself, because it can box you in," the bearded, balding and bulky 33-year-old says while seated at the gallery, surrounded by his photographs. "I'm really into everything. I've been trying hard not to draw distinctions between what I do."
Although the multi-talented McKean has exhibited his drawings, paintings, graphic designs and photographs widely in Europe, he has not had much gallery exposure in the United States.
But he has collaborated on a number of alternative comic books, including the graphic novel "Mr. Punch." He's designed CD covers, including the Rolling Stones' "Voodoo Lounge." He does magazine illustrations for the likes of the New Yorker.
"I've been fortunate to be able to do my own work and funnel it into the appropriate media," McKean says. "I like being part of the real world. I like seeing my work go up the record charts and going into bookstores."
The current Gomez exhibit is his first photographs-only exhibit anywhere.
A recent expansion at Gomez's Federal Hill location enables the gallery to devote one room entirely to photography, while leaving the rest of the gallery space for painting, sculpture, works on paper and more.
"We've shown a great deal of photography through the years. It's a passion of mine and I felt it was time to make a commitment to it," says gallery owner Walter Gomez. "It won't just be figurative photography, though we specialize in it. I'm also interested in photographers who have a layering of images in their work."
McKean's work certainly fits the bill: His layered images result in surreal juxtapositions between human bodies and objects. Technically sophisticated and thematically, well, pretty weird, the work of this English photographer does not readily disclose its secrets.
Most of the black-and-white photographs in the Gomez show come from McKean's 1995 book "A Small Book of Black & White Lies." Lining these images up on a gallery wall brings us face to face with people whose identities and actions remain disturbingly enigmatic.
If we're troubled by his pictures, McKean says it's at least partly because people look to photography for documentary truth and are unsettled by images that have been extensively altered in their composition and processing.
"People automatically feel if it's a photograph, it's the truth. Photographs have the great luster of reality. But photography is subject to manipulation. Photography can lie in various ways."
Consider his photograph titled "Queen," in which both the composition and the processing are anything but "natural." Shot on a sand dune near the photographer's home in Kent, "Queen" depicts a woman whose dark clothing is strategically parted to reveal her breasts. A crown covers the top half of her head, denying us any psychological insights into her personality. She's standing behind a fence whose strands of wire seem to keep her in sandy confinement.
It's a highly stage-managed, ominous scene that makes you imagine her reign of suffering.
"Photographic images like this one start as drawings, as lines on paper. Images then take shape. I have a rough idea of what I want to see. For this one, I then went out in the dunes and walked around a bit and found the place I wanted. I took three or four different shots, and I liked that wire between two poles. A friend of mine served as the model," he says.
"These photos of a person in the landscape are a way of capturing information, just getting it down. I just play around and overexpose and underexpose at will. Some shots are very indistinct and others are crisp. This information-gathering phase gives me images so that I can then [in the darkroom or occasionally on computer] go for emotions and use anything it takes to get them."
McKean manipulates his images in so many ways that "Queen" and other photos typically come out looking gray and grainy. He even uses sandpaper to make harsh scratches across the images.
"My hope is that viewers will superimpose themselves onto these pictures," McKean says. "They can see these images as almost a state of mind and have a personal emotional response to them."
With that in mind, here are some of the folks you'll be meeting in this show. Next to "Queen" is "King." No more than a skull with big vacant eyes, "King" is nearly obliterated by the surrounding haze. Just as creepy is "Stare," an extensively abraded, grayish human figure whose eyes have been reduced to large black dots.
A bit more heartwarming is "Listen and Learn," a relatively sharp-focused side view of a nude pregnant woman who has a large seashell affixed to her distended stomach.
On a formal level, you can appreciate how her curving form and the seashell complement each other. On a thematic level, it's easy to imagine the sounds of the sea communing with the new life forming within her.