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Guise and dolls 

Chorus of Light a revealing look at Elton John's fascination with celebrity

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An antidote to an overabundance of Ritts lies around the corner in a selection of sumptuously decadent, brooding Andres Serrano pieces. A visceral temple of blood, milk, urine and other organic challenges to marble gods and goddesses, Serrano drags the refined down into the gutter of human lust and biology, or vice versa, redeems blood and bone as art. Works like "Piss Elegance" also provide an ironic put-down to the fatuously highbrow pretense lurking in the beefcake wing.

Some of the best work in the show is contemporary photography. A Nan Goldin assemblage of color photographs ("Thanksgiving") injects an element of humanity and pathos into a show that can often slip into chilly detachment. Thankfully bypassing the ubiquitous drama queen Cindy Sherman, Chorus instead features the creepiness-tinged Minnellian outback melodramas of Tracey Moffatt, nicely accentuated by Gregory Crewdson's Sherman-meets-Jeff Wall-meets-David Lynch suburban nightmares. Conceptual work with an intimate tinge, like Duane Michals' or Masao Yamamoto's democratic hybrids of the art object and the snapshot, supply unexpected and welcome doses of feeling and photographic experimentation to the show.

Chorus is not merely marked by Elton's celebrity, but by the apparent delight of the singer in adorning his walls with a meritocracy's yearbook of other famous names: Marilyn Monroe, Chet Baker, the Beatles, Jessye Norman, James Dean, Salvador Dali and Francis Bacon. John's accumulation of these images of artists, actors and musicians suggest an individual as entranced by and anxious for a hit off the crack pipe of celebrity as any of us, intoxicated by the magical, transporting, seductive aspects of fame. It's tempting to think of John, browsing through his closet, deciding on the day's attire while gazing upon his personal Milky Way of stars, each of them captured, according to the talents of the photographer, wearing his public mask, or in Phil Stern's portrait of Marilyn Monroe, letting the mask fall away for an instant. More often it is the mask of celebrity John seems drawn to -- carefully lit and arranged to project the star "essence" -- undoubtedly because John, too, is engaged in the process of self-preservation and identity construction that are the celebrity's commerce.

The celebrity portrait component of the Chorus show at the High's downtown branch feels more warm and revealing and closer to the intimate side of its collector than caught up in issues of "taste" so evident in the Midtown survey. The streak of appreciation for Americana in its human form also gives this phase of the exhibition a more humble, personal aura.

Though there are more images of John in high-celebrity mode, posing with utmost dignity, having settled into a comfortably bourgeois persona, the most charming, human image of John in the show is of the performer in full rock 'n' roll dandy frockery, sporting an outrageous, striped three-piece suit and wearing a jubilantly goofy grin. Norman Parkinson's rough-around-the-edges portrait of John subverts the composed, cool demeanor the musician's portraiture more often favors. Some of the better works in the show thus echo this notion, replacing the stylized "glamour" of an Annie Leibovitz portrait for something more humble like a cozy shot of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman cooking in their Beverly Hills kitchen. A triptych of Polaroids of Andy Warhol in drag are hilarious -- far more lowborn, honest and "about" this chameleon man than the David Bailey or Irving Penn portraits of Sting or Francis Bacon hanging in close proximity.

The curators of Chorus are onto something in playing up the Elton mystique in conceptualizing this show. While it leads to a certain kitsch appreciation of a celebrity's taste that may alienate more sophisticated audiences, the most advantageous light in which to view the show may be through the lens of John's own perception. Lacking an organizing principle beyond individual taste, what these images say -- about their collector and the degree to which celebrity is an "aura" which photographs propagate -- is worth a thousand words.

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