Ben Gest photographs on display at Baltimore's Contemporary Museum

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010; 9:20 AM

There's something quietly moving about "Ben Gest: Commissure."

On one level, I mean that quite literally. Stare long enough at one of the photographer's large-scale portraits, 20 of which are on view at Baltimore's Contemporary Museum as part of a year-long 20th anniversary celebration, and you just might get motion sickness. The people and the environments they capture - though "capture" is not exactly the right word; everything and everyone in them squirms a little too much - seem skewed or warped at impossible, even vertiginous angles.

In some, the instability is so great that Gest's subjects appear on the verge of sliding out of their frames.

Is it the floors they're standing on? They're often raked at steep angles, like skateboard ramps. In "Ben and Dawn," a couple is shot head-on, while the kitchen counter they stand behind looks photographed as if from a bird's-eye view. Maybe it's the proportions. Here and there, limbs are exaggerated. Extremities, too. Check out the little girl's hands and feet in "Dylan." It's subtle, but aren't they a little too big for her body? And what's up with that kid's head in "William"? Is it oversize? Closer to the camera than it should be? Or is it me?

Weirder still than the funhouse nature of Gest's physical world is the subtle sense of emotional disconnection that affects its occupants. Look at their eyes. When Gest shoots groups, none of the photographer's subjects makes eye contact with anyone else. Nor, in his single portraits, does anyone directly look at the camera, as we have been trained to expect from photographic portraiture. Rather, the denizens of Gest-world maintain a uniformly downcast gaze, a distracted, preoccupied expression, as if they were scrutinizing a stain on the carpet, just off camera.

It's not as if they're lost in thought, but as if they're actually lost. On a desert island. Waking up from a coma. "Where am I?" they seem to ask. "How did I get here? And who is that person standing next to me (or lying in my bed)?"

Which brings me to the other way that Gest's portraits move. Beyond their optical tricks (see "The story behind the work" on this page), there's a mood of alienation, even sadness. In "Jessica and Alan," a man lies in bed next to a woman with her arm thrown over her eyes. He's looking off somewhere, a remote control in his hand (to match the remoteness in his eyes).

Like the best art, Gest's images ask a question, without providing an answer: Who among us is comfortable - or even fully at home - in his or her own skin? BEN GEST: COMMISSURE Through Jan. 23 at the Contemporary Museum, 100 W. Centre St., Baltimore. 410-783-5720. Hours: Open Wednesday- Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Admission: Suggested donation $5; students $3.

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