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Social distortion 

Opera and landscapes brim with emotion

From a first glance at his photographs, you might wonder what humanity did to hurt John Largaespada's so badly.

Using digital manipulation, Largaespada creates scenes drawn from opera and ordinary life but seen through a distorting fun-house mirror that transforms the friends and actors who pose for his images into grotesques from a Tod Browning back lot. His artifice is so lugubrious and outrageous it approaches the CGI baroque of Hollywood's What Dreams May Come, the fever dreams of Delicatessen or life seen from the inside of a fishbowl.

"The Band Box" initially looks like a dipsomaniac's worst hangover. A black-clad hipster sits at a diner counter interrupted in medias res chatting with the proprietor. The scene's Caligari dimensions are defined by a customer with a grotesquely bulbous head and the waiter's similarly misshapen one. Their physical weirdness is amplified by the juiced-up color scheme whose grubby, lurid crimsons and scummy yellows recall David Lynch's expressionist sets.

But there is something in the way Largaespada deforms the features of his subjects that bypasses cruelty and the expected misanthropy for something far more tragic and humanistic. The sensation is akin to the sudden vision of someone with an extreme disability or facial disfigurement, which can cause a sudden lurch in your soul, a feeling of painful but expansive kinship in the whole sad, wounding experience of life. Some have accused Diane Arbus of a pitiless exploitation of her disabled subjects, but there always seemed, for me, an intense feeling of connection to their plight.

In all of his work, Largaespada is clearly invested in the expressionist's project of rendering interior states outwardly. But instead of expressing a view of the world as a freak show, he only imagines what it might look like if our most tender emotions and vulnerability could be seen on faces and a landscape as plastic and malleable as taffy.

That investigation becomes especially revealing in his series of works centered around scenes from famous operas like Carmen and La Boheme, in which the dying Mimi wears the pitifully endearing expression of a Botticelli maiden whose face has been stretched like Silly Putty into an animated mask of grief. In his opera series, where the light is caramelized and dramatic, Largaespada is able to use his talent for manipulation of faces and background to convey the writ large emotions and situations that opera so cherishes. Much as opera uses song and music to connect audiences more deeply and profoundly with its characters' situations, Largaespada uses his distorted universe to convey extreme states of emotion. Though you'd never guess it from his clean-cut slacker look and bar code tattoo, Largaespada is an opera fan and season ticket holder back in Minneapolis, and he clearly finds an affinity in his art making with the transportive power of performance.

The beauty of Largaespada's solo show is his ability to use a consistent technique of highly stylized computer manipulation to create radically different effects and meaning. After all of his controlled, airless set pieces, in which flowers radiate color like Wizard of Oz poppies and life is coated in extreme grades of blinding sunshine and shoe leather browns, it's a shock to also see a body of landscapes of the Dakota badlands, stomping ground of serial killers and tourists.

Laying his prototypical artifice on top of the dramatic scenery, Largaespada allows a jagged mountain in "Space and Matter" to bleed like a runny watercolor into the sky and ground, as if in the process of a "Star Trek" beam-me-up. The image underscores the history of photography and painting of the West from Albert Bierstadt to Ansel Adams, as an artistic infatuation with nature as repository of the mystical, a transcendent place where an earth defined by painful beauty seems to speak its inner thoughts.

Like his people who exude the feelings percolating within, even Largaespada's landscapes become deformed and changed by some desire to communicate from the waxy ooze below land to the tiny, poignant saplings sprouting above.

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