Dark Side

Local art turns morbid in the late summer months

There's no doubt that September's First Friday event will be noteworthy for several reasons. The summer schedule has been light, to say the least, but with Host Clothing noticeably absent from the Old City and Three Flights Up moving from its Gay Street post, First Fridays will certainly have a different feel. And several galleries have already taken down their August shows in preparation for September's event. But there are still a few shows around that illustrate summer's darker side.

Photographer Jonathan Bagby's August show at Old City Java is an intriguing mix of cinematic night lighting and surreal tableaux. I first spotted his work this spring at the annual University of Tennessee School of Art student competition, and here he expands on his themes of alienation and urban decay to build a menacing tension between his subjects and their environments.

"Keeping the Sharks at Bay" shows a solemn male subject lying shirtless on any empty wooden floor holding a shower nozzle. The subject is surrounded by light bulbs that lead inexplicably to another room. In "Exterior of a Shark Tank," another male subject peers through the vertical blinds of a window out into a seemingly ominous evening. The gloom and dread are palpable, and the subtle colors and rich, dramatic lighting seem to nod at Phillip Lorca DiCorcia's work, although Bagby's photos have a more casual staged effect. The shark theme seems to suggest a sense of impending fear or danger, which Bagby effectively uses much like a film director.

Fear also fuels some of his other photos, which rely heavily on abandoned buildings and parking lots for their ominous settings. His impressive lighting techniques are replicated here on a much larger scale, and the eerie quality of the unnatural light in already desolate settings provides some unsettling and provocative works. "Simple Abductions After Hours" shows its male subject emerging on foot from a creepy tunnel at dusk. "Hidden Potential Amongst Scribbles" is more playful in tone, but still frightening. Its female subject seems to search an abandoned lot for something, reaching her hand into a hole in a cement wall. These works show Bagby's imaginative skill and his sense of fantasy.

A few of his other works here seem to be trying a bit too hard. One beautifully lit photo of a ramshackle house would be scary enough, even without what looks like a dead body lying in the water. In another, a young woman hiding in the trees with a stick in her hand looks like an Urban Outfitters model, dressed as she is in an embroidered jacket and peasant skirt. Because of all the lighting tricks he employs, Bagby's photos can have a commercial sheen, but hopefully it's something he'll continue to work out.

Over at Fourth and Gill's Birdhouse, Ben Fox-McCord and Craig Branum's screen-printed T-shirts are still on display. WEARWOLF is a light-hearted show and marks the second time the two have held court at the experimental artspace.

The two position their figurative illustrations and prints into a study of folkloric characters and droll personalities, several of them bearded and one with antlers. Fox-McCord's expressive, graphic style always surprises me with its subtlety. His characters, mostly male, look as though they're in the middle of an existential crisis with their sunken eyes and expressionless faces. Although Branum normally renders his characters with a sinister twist, the shirts on display here soften his often aggressive and sexual tone. This is a light-hearted affair, but it's certain he'll continue to explore his darker side. The two hung their wares on clotheslines, but I prefer their more intricate installations to the makeshift salon style. I guess all is forgiven in August.

While at the Birdhouse, it was impossible not to indulge in the swap-meet/craft fair the collective was hosting. Thankfully, they are keeping the DIY spirit alive with Swap-O-Rama-Rama, especially now that Host Clothing is gone. And there were enough size 0 skinny jeans and ironic tees to outfit an entire legion of hipsters for First Friday. Look for other workshops and sartorial edicts to come.