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It looks like art, but is it?

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Recently opened at the George Eastman House are two new exhibitions that, although not intended to be viewed together, offer interesting insights into thequagmire of contemporary art. Law & Order: Crime Scenes is a cross-examination of crime-scene photography from TV; it investigates perceptions of illusion and reality (see next week's review of that exhibit). The other, Photography on the Edge: Create and Be Recognized, is an exploration of outsider photography. The exhibition has the work of 15 individuals who --- either by originally generating or by appropriating and manipulating images --- ultimately attest to an innate "compulsion to create."

And therein lies the rub: Are these images works of art because, for the most part, they were never intended for public consumption and therefore comply with the loftiest of modern art-making notions, art for art's sake?

Take, for example, the photographs by Lee Godie, who called herself a "French Impressionist." Supposedly homeless for most of her artistic career, she kept her personal effects in rented lockers at department stores and bus stations, and used the photo booth at a Greyhound bus station to photograph herself with various props --- a box of paints, a chalice --- or wearing different outfits --- a brown and white sweater, a "fur" coat --- to create a changing cast of characters. At times, Godie later added color to select photos --- a red background here, a little eyeliner and mascara there --- or text.

These crumpled and crinkled black-and-white photographs document her temporal transformations from one identity to another, one reality for another. But what was her motivation? Can we, or rather, should we simply ascribe these actions to a compulsion to create? And speaking of compulsions, was it really a creative impulse that inspired Morton Bartlett or could it have been something deeper, darker even?

Although not formerly trained as an artist, Bartlett was well educated (Phillips Exeter Academy, Harvard) and worked briefly as an advertising photographer. He was also an orphan and never married. His photographs --- small black-and-white images of anatomically correct plaster figures of mostly little girls floating amidst pristine ivory mats and surrounded by the requisite simple, black, art-gallery frames --- are vaguely reminiscent of Laurie Simmons or David Levinthal. They're also voyeuristically appealing and quite beautiful to look at.

Yet, there seems to be a potentially sinister or at least unnerving undercurrent to them. (In addition to photographing these doll-like figures, Bartlett sculpted them himself and dressed them in clothes that he also made for them. He called them his "sweethearts.") Perhaps that is because those of us even vaguely familiar with contemporary art and life tend to look at the sweetness of the past with a slightly jaundiced eye.

Then again, maybe these photographs are all the more sweet and poignant because they comprise a sort of family album --- photographs of the family Bartlett never had. Still, it is worth noting that not only did Bartlett refer to the act of creation as a hobby rather than an art form, but he also allowed for eerie innuendo when he remarked, "My hobby is sculpting in plaster. Its purpose is that of all proper hobbies --- to let out urges that do not find expression in other channels."

Overall, the exhibition is technically intriguing and intellectually stimulating. In one way or another, all of the images or objects and techniques fit into some recognizable 20th-century "art world" directions: surrealism, dada, "bad painting" (e.g., the work of Philip Guston), and there are multiple pop culture references, self-exploration or autobiographical scenarios, and fantasies.

As in much modern or postmodern art, ambiguity abounds. But of course, most of the ambiguity comes from us not really knowing how to read the visual languages of the individual makers. This is probably true both of the "insider" artist and the "outsider." Our culture is so diverse in terms of the idea of the individual that easy reading of any personal discourse becomes quite fantastical.

Marcel Duchamp, sometimes seen as the conscience of the established art world, remarked once that, "It is we who have given the name 'art' to religious things; the word itself doesn't exist among the 'primitives.' We have created it in thinking about ourselves, about our satisfaction. We created it for our sole and unique use." Duchamp was speaking specifically about our appreciation and aestheticizing of African ritual objects and their out-of-context use in Modernist paintings of artists like Picasso.

Outsider art seems to straddle the edge of that place we call "Art" --- as the title of the exhibition implies. It looks like art but in some way is not. We love to make comparisons and point out how one thing is like something else. We homogenize and try to make familiar those things that are outside our knowledge and understanding rather than to allow them to remain foreign or alien.

It's safer that way. And although the exhibition uses that catchall word "art" a little too often, it still allows us to marvel at the creative production by these driven individuals.

Photography on the EdgeandLaw & Order: Crime Scenes are on display at the George Eastman House, 900 East Avenue, through April 10. Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday nights until 8 p.m., and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. $8, $6 seniors, $5 students, and $3 kids. 271-3361,