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"CHAMBERS of Enchantment," CEPA Gallery's wide-ranging and perhaps overly ambitious exhibition, is not the magic show that the main title suggests. "Chambers of Anxiety" might be more fitting. Or, given the forlorn, backward-looking temper of a number of the pieces, "Chambers of Nostalgic Reverie" could work.

The correct subtitle, "Recovery & Loss," more accurately suggests the actual themes addressed by these 11 artists. Loss is taken up -- in various ways and to differing degrees -- by Albert Chong, Jim Jipson, Delilah Montoya, Jane Calvin, Fay Fairbrother and, if you consider the ambiguity of personal identity a species of loss, Richard Averns.

Of all the works only Dinh Q. Le's "The Quality of Mercy" refers to a specific loss and a horrific one. Photographs of the eyes of some of the 15,000 people who were killed by the Khmer Rouge in a Cambodian high school stare outward from their narrow slats of space with pleading, plaintive or accusatory stares.

Whether dealing directly with loss or not, few of these CEPA-commissioned projects are particularly optimistic. Most struggle with some personal or social problem, or with the confluence of the personal and the social. In short, they represent the "recovery stage" of some lingering malaise, the artist here playing the rejuvenator.

The fascination with ill health, be it psychic or physical, has its limits. At some point you long for a move toward liberation -- even if it, paradoxically, means the surrender of the personal.

In her word pieces (but not her photographic pieces), Calvin shows that movement by lodging her feminist message within found texts. She, in effect, squeezes "ominous" admissions from the standard narratives of our culture. "The Feminine," for instance, begins, "Tigers live on the flesh of other animals" and continues later with "The kiss was savage/His gaze devouring her." Seldom has the now hackneyed concept of the hurtful male gaze been given such a lively context.

Jipson's elaborate installation of illuminated transparencies and objects is openly nostalgic and suffers for it. Even with its collection of kitschy Madonna nightlights mounted in artful arrangements, it is glum stuff. The miniaturized texts and images form a "poetic" tour of what seems an exceedingly limp culture composed of pale-toned repros of old masters and blurred overlays of texts gleaned from literature and science. The installation is freighted with a fragile, overartful and monkish gloom.

The artists here must resort to all sorts of devices to gain even a little freedom. Joseph DeLappe seems beguiled and hamstrung at once by computer electronics. Heidi Kumao's installation, hypnotic in its simplicity and repetition, employs the primitive "movie" machine called the zoetrope to mark out nightmare horrors that can disrupt family life.

Fairbrother could use some of Kumao's directness. In her autobiographical "Caged Spirit" she feels compelled to load up the installation with a welter of nostalgic items reflecting the terrible repression of the female. But any emotional intensity is frittered away by the excessive aesthetic.

James Thomas' room-size installation, with its illuminated X-rays encased in seven large upright plastic tubes, conjures up museum displays. I don't question the validity of the message -- the need to bring into accord nature and body and spirit -- but I wonder why all the baroque showmanship.

Visual overstatement seems to be the rule of the show. Combined with an often morose and highly personalized view of the world, this visual busyness makes tough viewing for all those not attuned to digging through personal archives. Maybe I missed the one optimistic installation: Jeffrey Byrd's opening-night performance in which the artist was progressively "mummified." Mummification, at least as the Egyptians practiced it, took the long view that body and soul would be ever-ready for eternal duty. That's maybe the ultimate optimism.

Chambers of Enchantment: Recovery & Loss

Eleven photography-based exhibits and installations on various topics.

By Jeffrey Byrd, Dinh Q. Le, Jane Calvin, Albert Chong, Joseph DeLappe, Fay Fairbrother, Delilah Montoya, James Thomas, Jim Jipson, Heidi Kumao and Richard Averns.

Through Dec. 1 in CEPA Gallery, 700 Main St. (856-2717)

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