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Creep show

Roger Ballen: Shadow Chamber at Atlanta College of Art Gallery

Like flash cards from hell, South African artist Roger Ballen's black-and-white photographs capture impoverished South Africans posed in ambiguous but profoundly creepy theatrical tableaux.

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Many subjects are mentally or physically disabled, and the work includes small, fragile animals, too (kittens, goldfish, rabbits). Ballen uses these as furry props to further wig out viewers. For instance, a man looks like he's about to eat a squirming goldfish; a newborn puppy sits wedged between two giant, filthy, gnarled feet. His use of vulnerable animals in situations suggesting cruelty or pain set our mind's panic button to "On."

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These and other vignettes tend to take place in bare, cell-like rooms with grimy walls. The childlike graffiti scrawled on surfaces suggests Dubuffet artwork of the insane or institutionalized.

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Both his animal and human subjects seem like putty in the artist's hands to be molded and manipulated for maximum skin-crawling vision.

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Inanimate objects also loom large in Ballen's staged photographs and play equally disturbing roles. Exposed wires, duct tape, cardboard boxes and filthy mattresses suggest that Ballen has mastered the lexicon of generating unnerving discomfort from the most innocuous materials.

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The work implies that it has documentary origins, like evidence of some sort of crime. In reality, Ballen's images are carefully and consciously crafted. Using a combination of monstrous people placed in scary situations, Ballen evokes entrapment and sadism. But most of all, Ballen may provoke audiences' fear of poverty, rural life and other bugaboos of lowbrow horror films.

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Sharing an economy of effect with filmmaker David Lynch, Ballen seems aware of how a minimum of details and a maximum of ambiguity can intensify our distress. His work recalls not so much the Surrealists, but filmmakers like Lynch and photographer Joel-Peter Witkin, both of whom create elaborate tableaux meant to provoke a subconscious shudder.

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Ballen seems interested in articulating the human capacity for both despair and cruelty. Like some kind of philosophical activism, there is no prisoner to free or political cause to benefit, only an abstract sense that something is very, very wrong with the world.

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Roger Ballen: Shadow Chamber. Through April 23. Atlanta College of Art Gallery, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. Tues., Wed. and Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Sun., noon-5 p.m. 404-733-5050. www.aca.edu.



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