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Is nothing ever amiss in a John Pfahl photograph? His vision is so controlled, so precise, that I suspect that when the world sees him coming it quickly rearranges itself, getting all its various parts in order, just like someone does with the house when they see an honored guest coming up the walkway.

Or maybe Pfahl hires a band of reverse gremlins who are sent out into tire dumps and compost heaps to neaten things up. How can anyone otherwise explain the perfected beauty that shines from these normally unpleasant subjects?

I mean, we're taking garbage piles here. The series "From the Very Rich Hours of a Compost Pile," for all the 18th century elegance of its title, is a crow's eye view into a heap of table scraps (meat excluded). Sure, a few flowers are thrown in, but they are dead and half-buried in barbecue ashes.

And then in the "Pile" series we get views of what are often considered blights on the landscape. But with Pfahl "Five Million Tires, Hornsburg Farm, Charlotte, NY." is an excuse for a wonderfully composed photograph with lovely whirling rhythms moving back into space like one of Brueghel's country dance pictures. When a whitewall tire pokes up above the black heap it seems no accident but a planned event in a diabolically precise universe.

More is going on here than finding pretty pictures in dreary subjects, though. Pfahl sets up a moral conflict, and an old one at that. If the world can contain such excruciating beauty how is it that right there, lurking beneath the surface, is decay and death? Pfahl may not advocate gathering rosebuds while you may, but he must agree with the poet that beauty and corruption are only a blink apart.

This 17th century theme makes his compost pictures particularly peculiar. They are essentially still lifes that celebrate the visual delight of finding in natural forms fine color harmonies and satisfying patterns.

In one image watermelon rinds repeat arced rhythms in severe abstract correctness. A view of rotting pears superficially resembles a traditional bountiful still life glowing with rich color -- except for the fact that what we actually have is a vivid depiction of rot.

Pfahl is a master of artifice. He has found in photography an ideal medium for the expression of utopian form. But he continually denies that form -- denies the possibility of a utopia -- by his choice of subject matter.

Look at his "View of the Burn treatment Center from the Bone Marrow Treatment Unit during the Russian Uprising." The series lyrically carries one theme -- a window blind -- through nine finely wrought variations. Then you realize with a shock that rips at your aesthetic bliss -- you are looking from one grim place into another grim place. You stand in a bone marrow center looking into a burn center. That chilling fact can take the edge off of the most positivist modern form.

Ellen Carey's abstract photographs contain conflicts of a less disturbing kind. She is essentially making abstract paintings by photographic means. Nothing she does has not already been done in modern painting. What makes her work compelling is the way she sets off one medium against another.

Abstract painting developed by denying illusion; photography found new ways of using illusion. Although there were some strong efforts in abstract photography it never progressed into a major art form. The ghost of illusionism kept it down.

Carey doesn't quite dispel this ghost but she certainly makes it do her bidding. One work called "Fusion" consists of four overlapping circles of color. It looks like a minimalist "color chart" piece from the '70s. But the fusing and the general uneven darkening of the color demonstrate that the irregularities of real light are in operation. Then, as a further clue to its source in photography, the design is set on a field of "bubbles," circles puffed out in photographic illusion.

After a while a consistent dialogue between painting and photography emerges. In "No. 31," for instance, a cool white rectangle on a silvery gray necessarily refers to Malevitch's "White on White," a "pure " painting. Only Carey's version is purer: This is "Light on Light." Compared with the clunkiness of canvas and tactile paint this is an object of ineffable insubtantiality.

The 16 panel "Primary Branches" is as much an analysis of the concept of abstraction as an abstraction in the usual visual sense. It is a picture that doesn't get anywhere on purpose. Nature, represented by progressive views of branches, is static, not much good for anything other than being the guinea pig for the processes of art.

Carey is working in rarified territory. She takes none of the dramatic leaps from high formalism to low subject found in Pfahl. Her game is more of a slow and subtle shuffle from faint illusion to flatness and back again.

What prevents it from being only a formalist game is her cagey marriage of the two incompatible systems of aesthetics found in painting and photography.


John Pfahl/Ellen Carey: Photographs
Buffalo photographer Pfahl shows "From the Very Rich Hours of a Compost Pile" and the "Pile" series; Carey shows abstract photographs.

At Nina Freudenheim Gallery, 300 Delaware Ave., through April 12.

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