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Vee Speers contemplates child's play in The Birthday Party

Every film buff knows that children turned creepy in the 1970s and haven't looked the same since. Australian-born photographer Vee Speers continues in the long tradition of The Omen's Damien, those twins from The Shining, and all the other children of the corn in The Birthday Party, Speers' solo gambit at Jackson Fine Art.

Each of The Birthday Party's 21 large-format cibachrome prints depicts a single, unsmiling child centrally positioned against a stark, weathered, whitewashed wall. Each child is garbed in something either outlandish (massive, black wings) or antiquated (a '60s-style shift dress). Their tense poses and mostly blank faces undermine the idea that anything like a birthday party is going on. Instead, they enforce the sneaking suspicion that childhood itself might be a collective delusion of the adult mind. The models are less Shirley Temple and more JonBenet Ramsey — cynical ciphers of adult fantasy and mania.

Speers is a brilliant technician and a master composer. The photos,
originally shot on black-and-white film, have been colored with a
painstaking digital process that echoes the hand-coloring techniques used at the birth of photography. The final pastel effect offers a dreamlike quality that would've been impossible if shot in color.

As a group, however, The Birthday Party is indecisive. About half the
models project a mysterious and bizarre vision of childhood strangeness. The other half project an oddly adult quality: Speers shows a particular penchant for having the girls resemble Italian film stars of a previous era. That kids occupy an inscrutable space of transition and anarchy seems clear to Speers. What is less clear is whether she's more fascinated by children's absolute difference from adults or by their uncanny similarity to adults. In the end, Speers seems reluctant to deal the final blow. Punches are pulled and Speers missing out on resolving her core vision.

The Birthday Party inevitably invites comparison to German photographer Loretta Lux, the international reigning queen of the "creepy Photoshopped kids" genre. I suspect Speers might bristle at yet another comparison to Lux, but such are the hazards of working in a motif so decisively owned by another contemporary practitioner.

Speers' work is compelling in its own right. And although a punch or two may be pulled, the blows that connect leave us reeling, dazed and wanting more.



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