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Photographer keeps a slightly askew eye on America

Fred Scruton is an aficionado of a visually askew America. In big color photographs currently on view at Nina Freudenheim Gallery, he reveals an America that crackles with the slightly cockeyed visions of the folk artist, the painfully earnest efforts of the amateur sign painter and muralist, and the ever-awkward products of the would-be commercial artist.

Fragments of graffiti appear along with the occasional shot of kitschy public displays, like the gaudy steel sunflowers he found in Meadville, Pa. Robust murals on decaying ghetto walls, rusting advertisements on the backs of trucks, crude signs in which letters and misshapen objects are in charming misalignment -- all these things are documented by Scruton's carefully composed photographs.

Scruton, who was born down the road in Hamburg and teaches photography at Edinboro University in Edinboro, Pa., travels the country to land his varied images of America vernacular. Nominally taking a documentary photographer's stance, he more often than not outstrips that genre to make photos that are tight, formalist constructions where each part has its role in the total effect.

They may look like "neutral" photo documents but are in fact structured visual statements even at those times when the zany subject matter would seem to disallow such refinements. His photographs are fastidiously cropped, their textures and light managed with precision.

This attention to the form of his picture -- apt to be overlooked by observers fooled by the detached tone of the photographs -- is critical to fully grasping Scruton's art. The formal composing creates a new visual and psychological frame for sometimes ragtag, unsophisticated subjects that are interesting mainly because they can be seen through sophisticated eyes. In other words, "high art" is the lens through which we see this "low art."

With Scruton, who seems to be that rare artist able to suppress his artistic ego, this is never a demeaning situation. He never mocks his subject matter. On the contrary, he reveres it. Even when it is absurd or unintentionally humorous, he lends it at least a modicum of dignity. And as important, in most photos the formal arrangement of a picture is subtly used to slant the meaning of the subject and how it may be perceived.

For example, by moving in tightly on two images of young children being menaced by rats, Scruton in effect forces the subject matter into the viewer's domain. These startling images consist of a duel assault: first from the wall artist whose visual naivete creates the initial impact; and second, from Scruton's intense compositional focus that so serverely contains the eye within this distressing arena of danger. The photographer adds the final blow by compelling us to inspect, up-close, every micro-detail of the creased and peeling paint and eroded colors. Thus decay is imbedded directly in the images, and suggests the larger decay that is at the root of the horrible drama under way.

In contrast to these rather grim images, a number of photographs are humorous. The subject matter itself may provide the amusement, as in the jaunty, cartoony ad for a black beauty parlor. Or it may come through Scruton's witty vantage point. For instance, an artfully conceived view of real wheelchairs and specialty loungers that some medical supply store in Bayonet Point, Fla., mounted on poles as a three-dimensional advertisement has a sly, almost surreal wit.

Among my favorites is the inadvertently hilarious ad for a mattress company in Erie, Pa. It features a stiffly sleeping woman on a gray streaked bed who is cast into the gloomiest surroundings, thanks to the weathering of the sign. It seems to promise all the comforts of a gothic-horror nightmare. Even the legend "low everyday prices" looks a little too spiky for comfort.

Scruton can also be pointedly neutral when he has to be. In a photo of a barn with a fake barn painted on its side (Union City, Pa.) he moves back, so that his camera encompasses the larger scene with an expanse of grass leading to the focal point. Few photographers would choose such a relaxed view, preferring to zoom in on the painting, which is, after all, the whole point of taking the photo. By retreating from the central point, Scruton finds a way to let the painting unfold gently, gradually, from the larger image.

Tantalizingly, Scruton is often content to let the original function of his subject matter remain a mystery. A circular sign from Chicago shows a roughly painted eye and two hands clasped in friendship. It's in black and white, and no letters are there to help us out. By its harmony of geometric shapes and limited palette of blacks and grays, the photo gains a serious deportment worthy of some exalted place and purpose.

Unless you happen to find the subject itself beguiling, Scruton's photographs are not immediately seductive. They have an apparent artlessness that is deceptive. To gain entry to their reserved domain you have to engage them actively, with a fresh view not clouded by the precepts of documentary photography.

e-mail: rhuntington@buffnews.com

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