Tim Caldwell is an encyclopedia of cultural references. With all that material mashed in his head, he has developed an uncanny, nearly hysterical ability to leap big from high to low, leveling the playing field between classical painting and pulp fiction.
In his latest photo exhibit at Hamtramck's Café 1923, Caldwell collaborates with good buddy "Brick Wall," a painter from the Willis Gallery-era of the '80s who's protecting his anonymity for professional reasons. The pair presents musky, macabre studio shots with an intentional artifice, suggesting everything from haughty baroque portraiture to B-movie Dario Argento-style horror flicks. Employing beautiful female friends with timeless faces as their languorous chaise-loungers and femme fatales (including former Terror at the Opera bandmates Gretchen Gonzales and Faith Gazic), the guys turn out images that are at once Lover's Lane gaudy and psychologically provocative. Becoming enamored by this harem of deceitful cutie-pies and flimsy, shiftless beauties, what with their pale ennui and dangerously naive sense of self-importance, means trouble.
"Samurai Moon" deals in the sort of epic moral crises common with main characters of that cinematic genre, an individual at odds in a fast-changing society. "Brick" and Caldwell fashion a warrior princess who alternately shields herself from her prey while aggressively confronting the blade head on. Blinded by her own fear, she's afraid to face what's in front of her, so she masquerades with false pride that could be the death of her.
The exhibit showcases the breadth of Brick and Caldwell's experience with traditional, infared and digital photography. Although Caldwell insists this art isn't about asking "How did they do that?" you can't help but enjoy the unusual results. Without any hint of shadow or sheen, "Samurai Moon" is shot to appear so flat as to make the warrior's silver dagger look white and paper-thin, leading you to wonder about the power that weapon wields — can it do some damage or not? A line of thick cherry-red paint, matching the princess' lipstick and kimono, oozes from under her mask. It's not meant to look like real blood but to intimate the suffering associated with the act of bleeding. The scene recalls old movies that use exquisite theatrical backdrops rather than real locations as an environment, and also reads much like an opium-enhanced wood block print or an artfully executed movie poster.
Another work, "Parallel Dimensions," runs a couple of story lines, offering open-ended narratives for you to dissect and reconstitute. A troubled woman stares at what could either be her reflection in a mirror or a doppelgänger in a window. Off to the right, through a thin veil of milky plastic, her naked body displays evidence of a tragic event. Is she thinking of jumping or has she already? The amusement is figuring out what's happened, who's real and what "real" even means. Maybe one figure represents the spirit and the other flesh, but nothing quite makes sense. The gray "ghost" is transparent, but displays evidence of an arterial system. "Parallel Dimensions" exercises the intuition. Our perception of what transpires in this world is a result of sensing rather than knowing.
For two men with so many ideas of their own, it's a wonder they collaborate so well, Brick supplying his painterly eye and Caldwell bringing props (Civil War bayonet, fur pelt, etc.). At the café, an installation to attract passers-by sits in the front window. The fur-covered baby's casket chained to a stroller might just be weird shit someone threw out and these guys salvaged, but it will also be your first signal that interpreting objects as symbols and searching for visual puns (i.e., "from the cradle to the grave") can pay off here, and be loads of fun. You have very few days left to check out what other wonders can be pulled out of their hats (One caveat: You may have to stand on a table to see the magic; the art's hung way too high).
The closing reception is 4-7 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 10, at Café 1923, 2287 Holbrook St., Hamtramck; 313-319-8766.Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts and culture editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org