THERE'S THE creepiness of a horror movie to Craig Doty's art, on view at Strand on Volta. Which is to say you might want to cover your eyes while peeking through the cracks of your fingers at the same time.
I'm not just talking about the artist's more overtly spooky images, several of which depict nighttime scenes featuring characters engaged in behavior that could be construed as threatening, or in response to threat. Even Doty's most innocuous images -- and there's a kind of calm, classical innocence to almost all of them -- feel illicit, if not illegal. Should I be watching this, or reporting it?
One untitled photograph (like most of Doty's work, staged and dramatically lit a la Jeff Wall) depicts an unshaven, greasy-haired young man in a trucker's hat and with a cigarette dangling from his mouth standing at the bottom of a flight of stairs with a hammer in his hand. The setting is ambiguous. If he's outside someone's front door, looking in, as it appears, is his attitude one of malevolence or protection? Another, called "Paul and Ruba," shows a man lying face down in the grass as a woman in fishnet stockings stands inertly nearby. A third, called "Christa and Jesse," shows a man kneeling before a woman with his head obscured beneath her shirt. She's looking off to the left, almost as if she's afraid of being caught. But at what? On the one hand, their poses suggest a parkside sexual tryst, while on the other, there's something comical, almost goofy about the encounter. Then again, there's a quality about the way the man's head is covered by her shirt that calls to mind bondage, or a prisoner's hood.
Sex, violence and the ritualistic elements of both also come into play in Doty's series of "Chiefed" photographs. Reenacting the frat-boy prank of chiefing, whereby a passed-out partygoer's face is painted (like an American Indian chief presumably) with dirty sayings and drawings in permanent marker, most of the photographs from this series are too crude to be reprinted in a family newspaper, but they generally question the sexuality of the victim. The verbal violence implicit, not to mention the prerequisite invasion of personal space, is belied by the placid looks on the subjects' faces. Yet as they imitate the repose of sleep, they resemble death masks as well.
The centerpiece of Doty's show, however, is a pair of thematically related works: one a photograph, the second a video documenting a performance by the artist, and both related to the phenomenon of "milk chugging." Not familiar with it? It's an endurance-type stunt in which participants try to drink a gallon of milk in a single sitting (an hour is a typical time limit). Vomiting, as a result of the lactic-acid overdose, is not uncommon.
Both pieces, obviously enough, have homoerotic overtones. In the photograph "Milk Chuggers," three shirtless lads, all facing forward in cultlike uniformity, raise gallon jugs to their mouth as milk spills down their chins. In the video "The Milk Chugger," which runs three or four minutes in continuous loop, Doty himself sits in the corner of a yard, sloppily gulping mouthful after mouthful of milk while his chest heaves in exertion (excitement?) and his eyes dart furtively left and right. Again, it's as if he's afraid of being busted for something. The video's climax -- surely you can guess what would happen to you if you chugged milk -- is both funny and disturbing, as much for its casual violence as for its evocation of orgasmic release.
Are the works beautiful?
Yes, in a way they are, despite their ugliness. With the exception of "The Milk Chugger," which is shot with the no-frills approach of the home movie-maker, the photos have the stillness and heightened drama of painting.
Doty, a Yale MFA candidate, is already making a name for himself in the art world, having appeared as recently as last fall in Artforum magazine's highly idiosyncratic "Top Ten" list. He's only the latest in a long line of young artists to stage photographs of strange and multivalent tableaus, and he's by no means the most technically proficient. The almost cinematic work of Gregory Crewdson, for instance, makes Doty's pictures look like snapshots. Still Doty has figured out what buttons to push to get the biggest rise out of people, and he apparently likes pushing them, which in my book is a step in the right direction.
CRAIG DOTY -- Through June 25 at Strand on Volta, 1531 33rd St. NW. 202-333-4663. www.strandonvolta.com. Open Friday-Saturday 11 to 4 and by appointment. Free.