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Authentic artifice

Chris Scarborough delights in really fake imagery

Bewitching and creepy, Nashville photographer Chris Scarborough's subjects resemble the bug-eyed waifs painted by exemplar of '60s sad-sack kitsch, Margaret Keane.

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In Scarborough's computer-manipulated photographs, beautiful blondes are wrapped in skin scrubbed to a uniform pearly white, with impossibly long, lean bodies and eyes the size of ping-pong balls. In gestures of eerie serenity, they stand on an empty beach, hands clasped ladylike in front of them, or they lay in pop-eyed rapture on a blanket of fluffy, synthetic snow.

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The men are equally ethereal, with bright, moon-white faces marred only by a light dusting of razor stubble, as if to signify their butch pedigree despite an air of androgyny. More than anything, the images (much like the work of Cindy Sherman) suggest film stills in which actors relate to a fake, movie-set world masquerading as the real one. Something is off, though it's not always entirely clear what.

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Just as Keane's images spoke for the aesthetics of their time, Scarborough's surely speak for the aesthetics of our own manipulation-crazed, digitized 21st century. Along with Photoshop-nutty photographers like Loretta Lux, Anthony Goicolea and Inez van Lamsweerde, Scarborough is exploring the potential of technology to speak for issues of the day.

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His photographs brim over with provocative content.

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For a culture obsessed with images of physical perfection, Scarborough's hybrid portraits of the real colliding with the fake evoke the freakish potential of plastic surgery and the fraudulent glossiness of advertising images airbrushed to the point of surreality.

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Scarborough's work also has a lot to do with the stereotype of whiteness, especially white womanhood as a surface-obsessed, denial-based, perpetually golly-gee state of being. This delirious, white-bread perkiness especially is evident in an image of a gorgeously blank, ice-cream blonde who wears a lovely, doll-like smile despite her crime-victim posture. She is splayed out on a dirty basement floor — one shoe kicked off — in a tableaux worthy of True Detective.

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His photographs are also about cuteness, specifically the terminal waifdom of alternative culture with its pretty boys in ironic knit caps, lithe girls in vintage dresses and a whole generation of Peter Pan slackers who resist adulthood at any cost.

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Scarborough's work is clearly interesting for the wealth of ideas it inspires, though its multiplicity can also make it feel scattershot. Layers are effective in most artists' works, unless there is a sense that an artist is still trying to find his way.

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And so, while the potential readings of Scarborough's work are legion, the actual crux of Scarborough's project is quite specific. His photographs of people have been Photoshoped to maximize their resemblance to characters from Japanese anime. But that specificity of intent often can get lost in translation, resulting in some incredibly vague photographs. Whereas some images are obviously manipulated, the subject's eyes blown up to an eerie "jeepers!" size, just what Scarborough has tampered with in others is difficult to decipher. The anime idea is not always the most interesting dimension of the work. But if it is in Scarborough's mind, it begs for more precise and articulate treatment.

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There are some confusing discrepancies between the works. While many of the images of a white-blond subject "Shannon" have been manipulated to appear even more plastic and perfect, other photos, like a slightly blurry one of an Asian girl, "Sara," have retained the imperfect realism of blotchy skin and seem far from anime-idealized.

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Another image, of "Joe," features a potbellied bald man (Scarborough's dad, digitally altered) looking perky but a little lost as he stands in the ocean wearing palm tree-decorated trunks. Joe's eyeballs appear normal-sized for a change, though his face has a plastic-looking sheen, and the ocean he stands in has the resemblance of candle wax. It takes the Marcia Wood Gallery assistant to alert viewers that Joe has been manipulated into the apparently jolly, perhaps slightly dense "uncle" anime archetype.

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But Scarborough's technique varies enormously from work to work, which gives the show some frustratingly amorphous visual parameters.

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Like plastic surgery, Photoshop has allowed photographers to dramatically expand their possibilities, but in the process it can be easy to lose sight of the need to keep things conceptually tight and focused.



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