Tommy Nease conjures spirits in Phantasm

Ghostly photos blur the lines between this world and the next

There is a witchy tone to Tommy Nease’s grainy photographs. The words death, demon, mystic, and flesh kept coming to mind during a visit to Phantasm, Nease’s current show at Get This! Gallery. The exhibit contains three series — “Phantasm,” “Pneuma,” and “Explor//ations” — that all deal in otherworldly investigations. As his artist statement explains, “Nease ... uses his obsessions with imagery to unearth deep secrets within his subconscious. Nease’s work lies in a no man’s land between the spiritual polars of light and dark.”

A primitive motif runs through some images, expressing a connection with an unearthly realm summoned by death alone. Like flashes of a dream, figures symbolic of death and dying are cast into black shadows surrounded by a haze of gray. In “Untitled — Phantasm series,” (all of the show’s images are untitled) a hooded black figure carrying a child in a white bodysuit emerges from a gray background. The white form glows against the shadows, articulating a stark contrast between light and dark.

Animal imagery also conveys notions of ritual sacrifice and pagan spirituality. One image shows a man’s arm extended, a dismembered deer hoof balancing on his forearm. Other works visualize a peaceful spirituality associated with the afterlife, where a monument or person seems to be lifted into the sky: In one, a woman levitates above the tree line. In another, a rudimentary ladder leans against an empty bed, suggesting an ascent from a deathbed into heaven.

Many of the photographs are rendered fuzzy or unfocused, their snowy textures lending them an authenticity, as though lucky snapshots of rare, otherworldly occurrences. The show’s largest work, a 12-foot-by-12-foot wheatpaste print, depicts a grainy black void with a blurry set of vampire-like teeth floating in the expanse. Other times, Nease sharpens part of an image to focus on an object. One image depicts a pair of socks against an oriental rug. Each sock has a clearly defined woolen texture. The image’s realism is unhinged by the appearance of the empty socks standing on tiptoe, as is if there were feet arched inside of them. The commingling of the mundane and the supernatural here suggests that the earthly and spiritual realms are accessible and interconnected.

In some cases, the symbolism is too obvious, such as one work depitcing a dome encircled with astrological signs. Nease’s photographs are like scary camp stories everyone’s heard, but retold by a good storyteller. And when his pictures capture only a moment of an otherworldly atmosphere, the supernatural feels thrillingly intimate.