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Don't Get Cute 

Around the World in Eighty Pictures: Alexandra Buxbaum and Francine Salerno

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Around the World in Eighty

Pictures: Alexandra Buxbaum and Francine Salerno

at Stolen Buick Studio, through March 30

By Fred Camper

Great art comes in an almost infinite variety, but artists' failures tend to fall into predictable patterns. The work may be hopelessly incoherent, not even attaining clear expression; or it may succeed very well at expressing something trivial, lapsing into the cliched, the easy, the cute. Cuteness is a particular danger for the street photographer, who often seems to feel the need to justify unposed images, to try to grab the attention of viewers already bombarded with pictures. But street photography at its best is characterized by a simultaneous openness and unity, held together by an inner organization based on the intersection of diverse sight lines and forms.

The overly cute works in Stolen Buick Studio's exhibit of black-and-white and color photographs--30 by Alexandra Buxbaum, 28 by Francine Salerno--help illuminate the better ones. Some of these photos look like amateur travel shots, some are reductive one-liners. But the strongest works, mostly Salerno's, accomplish something that many much greater street photographers, driven by their own visions, fail to achieve. A photo by Helen Levitt or Garry Winogrand looks like a Levitt or Winogrand: we see the world filtered through their eyes. Salerno--who has no photography training, doesn't make her own prints, and sometimes uses the camera's automatic settings--often creates compositions that lack aesthetic "perfection" but that connect her subjects with one another and with the background, leading the viewer to reflect on the diverse, often chaotic nature of reality. Her best images are less openings on an artist's mind than onto the magic of the street itself.

Yet Salerno is capable of irritatingly picturesque shots. Venice, Dusk shows the prows of two gondolas neatly framed under the arch of a bridge, and the three silhouetted pyramids of Sunrise at Giza made me feel I'd seen the picture before. These simple, instantly accessible images have the appeal of mass-manufactured kitsch objects. Somewhat better is Out of the Mist, an image of the much-photographed ruins of Machu Picchu: instead of the typical topographic view, we see only a fragment of this ancient city near the bottom. The upper reaches of the mountains are shrouded in mist, a blank that's a kind of metaphor for the mysteries of the Inca past.

Buxbaum, who writes that "street photography means to try to understand the world around you and then to explain those complexities to others," sometimes captures the vitality of public spaces, as in A Happening Place (an Austrian plaza) and Street Scene (in Acapulco). But her cute titles are often matched by cute images. At the center of The Lederhosen Express is a group of bicyclists neatly framed by hills and mountains riding toward us. Their attire may bring a smile, but it's a smile of ignorance, a chuckle at those who dress differently. The cyclists' leader looks back, and the others look forward smiling, but the distant camera tends to bunch them all together as if the group were some funny, furry animal rather than four individuals who've just labored up a steep hill. Buxbaum's McD's Drives Me Crazy also takes a cheap shot at its subjects. It shows a couple in Brussels embracing passionately, a McDonald's behind their heads as if it's inspired their kiss. Many street photographers with a taste for the cute look for serendipitous humor--the oddly dressed eccentric, the strange juxtaposition--but here the joke is entirely the result of Buxbaum's camera angle: the McDonald's was perhaps 50 feet away, and there's no evidence the couple had just eaten there.

Two photos hung side by side in this show help reveal the difference between the merely cute and a more complex kind of humor. In Buxbaum's Impish Youth two little girls sit on a Dumpster mugging at the camera. The street stretching off to the right offers an uninteresting, incoherently composed collection of doorways, windows, and air conditioners. This is just an occasion to display the girls, who are displaying themselves. Salerno's The Pet could easily have been yet another photo in the "dog resembles owner" genre: a fashionably dressed woman holds a dog whose hair resembles her own, while a smiling man on her right and a pensive man on her left look at her. If Salerno's picture included only these three figures, it would be as limited in its effects as Impish Youth. But other pedestrians, indifferent to the scene, walk by on the left, a group of men stands conversing on the right, and there are buildings and various activities in the background. Salerno doesn't reduce her photograph to a joke: her inclusiveness makes the woman with her pet part of the mundane world. Her best works always point to the possibility that each of us can find such little miracles in everyday life.

There's also humor in the Milan scene of Salerno's Vive la Difference (her titles too can be annoyingly cute): the men seated on a planter all face left while the lone woman faces right. But the work's composition takes the viewer beyond the superficial humor. The rectangle of the planter, which determines the formal arrangement of the sitters, leads the eye toward an empty space between two buildings in the background, connecting the human figures with the city's architecture: the sitters' arrangement seems to grow out of the life of the city.

A Chicagoan, Salerno rediscovered her childhood passion for making art when she brought a camera on a 1983 vacation to Italy and Greece. Soon after that she quit her job of 15 years as a court reporter, sold her two-flat, and returned to Italy for seven months of travel and photography. Since then she's made art in several different media. Salerno writes that she wishes "to bring you the art that is ever present around us, if we but look"; she told me that she hopes her work helps us see "that we're going through life so fast that we're missing all the wonderful beauty, the poignant moments." Again, her two photos of a woman and boy on a balcony in Peru focus on the surprises in the everyday world. Not very interesting compositionally, they highlight the difference between the sad boy standing apart from the woman in the first photo and the animated child reaching toward her hair in the second: what happened in the interim? Our attention is directed away from the photos and the photographer and toward the life they depict. This untitled diptych also reminds us that the show's other street photos capture mere instants in event-filled worlds.

Salerno's work approaches a kind of magic in striking but unpretentious images such as the untitled color photo of Venice at carnival time. A man wearing an elaborate, brightly colored headdress applies paint to another man's face; both of them lean against a wall on which a hanging mirror reflects a woman's face. Below the mirror a cross has been incised on the wall. The two men preparing for an event we don't see, the mirror's indication of a larger space we also don't see, the cross with its references to penitence and suffering--all these suggest a much broader life. The eye, following a line between the two men and then a line from the mirror toward the space in front of it, discovers an asymmetry that becomes an opening on the world.

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