CULTURE- ART FEATURE- Twisted features: Taking portraits to the extreme

When Stephen Margulies mentioned he was curating an exhibition called "The Mutant Image" at the UVA Art Museum, my adolescent heart leapt. I envisioned a gallery filled with strangely manipulated pieces exploring things monstrous and bizarre, something of an art show equivalent to the 1932 film Freaks.

And there is a little of that. But Margulies' agenda for examining mutation is subtler and more expansive (and, dare I say, more mature). Margulies is interested in mutation at the genetic level– where variations lead to exaggerated features– and also at the creative level, where artists work to define individuality visually.

Black-and-white photographic portraits form the bulk of "The Mutant Image," although Margulies has sprinkled in a few prints, a drawing, and some comic art (plus a dinosaur eye for good measure). Most of the photographers represented, ranging from Weegee to Diane Arbus, turn their lenses to celebrities who are already cultural mutants thanks to their exaggerated identities in the public imagination.

Margulies has arranged the show to allow the pieces to comment on each other, quietly pointing out parallel aspects and artistic strategies. For instance, in the section "Extreme Beauty," George Hurrell's 1933 black-and-white portrait of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. hangs next to Sheila Metzner's 1985 color image of Isabella Rossellini. Both pieces identify their living subjects with inanimate sculptures contained within the same frame.

The images that correspond to what I thought I would find hang in the sections "Humanity" and "Mutant Fusion." Here Joel-Peter Witkin's gorgeous composition, "Bacchus Amelus, New Mexico" presents an armless man, masked and naked, posed among the symbolic trappings of classical Olde World artworks. A painted sky in the background extends to either side of the central figure's shoulder stubs, suggesting celestial wings. Like much of Witkin's work, the image is simultaneously beautiful and intensely disturbing.

The same may be said of Nicholas Nixon's "C.C. Boston," which shows an elderly woman, eyes closed, in profile. Her last wisps of hair are ethereal above a serpentine vein that pulses across her temple. Death is so close that it can almost be touched, and its proximity makes the viewer want to turn away.

The one "monstrous" image in the show is Nancy Burson's "Warhead I," which visually elides photographs of Reagan and Brezhnev, throwing in bits of Mitterand, Deng, and Thatcher. The result looks like a warped Hollywood portrait of Bela Lugosi portraying that most famous of mutants, Dracula.

"The Mutant Image: Photographs, Prints, and Drawings from the Collection," is on view through April 30 at the University of Virginia Art Museum. 155 Rugby Road. 924-3592.