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bluemilk's lightworship a surprisingly traditional look at S&M

The fetishism on display in lightworship: Fetish Erotica by Victor does not seem the sole province of the S&M community whose latex and rubber and leather restraints make up the mini-dramas of its photographs. The black-and-white and subtly tinted sepia and indigo photographs by the local photographer on exhibit at bluemilk's Paradigm ArtSpace feel more like a personal kink than a representation of an underground lifestyle. In keeping with the usual artist-muse history of male photographer and female model, the work in lightworship displays the fetishism of its maker and a rather run-of-the-mill male sexual fantasy of female erotic submission. Somewhere between high and low, the photos in lightworship are a cross between the fringe photography of esoteric mags like Skin Two and Erotica Magazine (where the artist's work has also appeared), New York underground photographer Richard Kern's work, the mass market prole-porn of Hustler and the high art fashion photography of Teutonic sex fiend Helmut Newton.

Despite its claims to barrier-busting and taboo subject matter, lightworship at times has the cornball familiarity of soft-core fantasy, with its submissive Catholic schoolgirls and grown-up Girl Scouts rendered more extreme a la Victor by the appearance of gags and leather restraints and blindfolds, and women with the pallid complexions and raven hair of Club Fetish habitués. Though, granted, people like "Cindy" -- who get off having a plastic bag placed on their heads by long-haired guys who look like refugees from an Allman Brothers concert -- haven't exactly trickled down to the middle-brow ranks of the Gold Club yet.

But explorations of sexuality aren't, by definition, vanguard, unless they truly rework or challenge our assumptions. Lightworship instead illustrates the pornographer's fallacy that merely showing sex is somehow "radical" and subversive. Lightworship instead illustrates how other people's sexual imaginations can often make for strangely numbing, ho-hum subject matter.

Women predominate as subjects in lightworship, whether splayed out face-down like "A on Table," their legs shackled and spread, or kneeling like the faux-schoolgirl at the feet of an unseen tattooed leather daddy perched imperially in a dentist's chair in "Obedience." The desires of these female subjects do not necessarily seem at play here, nor the peculiarities of S&M that so often upend expected cultural postures of women on top and men on bottom. Rather, lightworship has the business-as-usual feel of a long tradition of work from Lewis Carroll's photographed "Alices" to Jock Sturges' beloved pre-teens, of working out male desire on pliant female bodies. The woman-as-masochist is the one-way street of this work that makes you long for the boy toys and spineless execs in restraints and diapers that makes S&M such an equal-opportunity fantasyland.

The one image of a solitary male subject, entitled "Hood," only confirms the status-quo master-slave relationship, not of S&M, but of conventionally represented male desire. In this amber-tinted image, which bears some resemblance to vintage daguerreotypes, a muscled black man is bound and hooded, dressed in a loincloth and kneeling on a wooden platform. It is significant that while women in the rest of the photos are bound with fetish restraints, their arms placed behind their backs or gagged and blindfolded with special rubber/latex sex gear, this man's hands are bound with crude, antiquated rope and placed in front of him, as if in anticipation of being led away. With his linen loincloth and hood, the iconography is immediately and disturbingly evocative of slavery. The image does not seem racist or malicious in intent, only -- like much of the work -- sadly naive. It's as if the photographer hadn't bothered to think below the surface of his images to what they signify.

The smaller 8-by-8-inch silver gelatin prints in the gallery's back room, are nicely executed with delicate blue and amber tints and possess more formal charm than the larger 20-by-20-inch images in the gallery's first room. Many have a surface prettiness, obsessed with the striking balance of light and shadow in the interplay of expanses of alabaster skin and the photographer's shadowy set dressings. But that carefully choreographed beauty also gives the work its glossy, artificial resemblance to commercial photography. With his models carefully posed and positioned for the camera in little story tableaux of plastic bag suffocation and naughty, naughty fellatio acrobatics, where a lass (recalling Allen Jones' 1969 woman-as-furniture sculpture "Chair") sucks a fat candle in "Candlestick," the work has the plastic, static, stagy quality of slick advertising.

If it is the particular and, in many ways, highly conventional (despite its S&M trappings) expression of one man's sexual desire you crave, lightworship is one-stop fetish shopping.

But if some transgressive view of sex is your target, lightworship's hetero-male bent may not fit the bill. In a culture defined by largely puritanical views of sex, in which women pay for pleasure in pain, this status quo photography show is yet another version of this limited view of sex and women.

lightworship: Fetish Erotica by Victor runs through Oct. 5 at bluemilk's Paradigm ArtSpace, 1123 Spring St. Tues.-Fri. 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Sat. noon-3p.m. 404-815-6991. www.bluemilk.net/ www.lightworship.com



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