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Within a Photo Booth, Liz Rideal's Creativity Blossoms
For The Inquirer via Knight Ridder

The photo booth is a strange place. It's secretive, claustrophobic, and must be a kind of heaven for the narcissist, like a guest bathroom with an immense mirror.

And let's not forget the thrill of instant gratification. No wonder Andy Warhol, that most voyeuristic of artists, was among the first to explore its potential. It is also a relic of our futuristic coin-operated past, like the juke box, the phone booth, the automat (which originated in Philadelphia) - 20th century inventions that were intended to make life more convenient for all. This is the nostalgic photo booth, the one that Liz Rideal has been using as her studio of sorts for the last 20 years.

Instead of photographing herself or her friends Warhol-style, Rideal, who was trained as a painter, creates portraits of fabric and flowers in front of the automatically operated camera's lens. The resulting images bring to mind color versions of Muybridge's studies of motion or 19th-century botanical cyanotypes. Her gridlike collage arrangements of her photo-booth strips are thoroughly contemporary, however, as are her C-print enlargements of individual images.

Rideal's one-of-a-kind photo-strip compositions, which dominate her first one-person exhibition at Gallery 339, are the more original and visually arresting of these two kinds of work. Her two editioned portraits of plants and flowers, while intriguing because they were made in a photo-booth but don't look it (they're vastly enlarged versions of single images from photo-booth strips), seem big for the sake of big.

In her unique pieces, Rideal's juxtapositions of serial images can simultaneously suggest the movement of film through a projector, high-rise apartment buildings, Bridget Riley's dizzying stripe paintings, and even Donald Judd's glowing aluminum-and-Plexiglas boxes.

Warhol's serial photo-booth portraits were one thing. Rideal has transformed the photo-booth strip into an idiosyncratic art of her own.

Gallery 339, 339 S. 21st St., 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. Sundays. Through March 19. 215-731-1530 or

Beauty amid blight

If you've not yet visited the Wagner Free Institute of Science, the 19th-century museum of natural and physical sciences that is still, amazingly, one of this city's best-kept secrets, now's the time. Alongside its extraordinary collections of shells, minerals, taxidermied animals, and skeletons - many in original glass cases - are recent paintings and drawings by the Philadelphia artist Joan Wadleigh Curran that depict the urban landscape beyond the museum's walls.

Contained by the edges of a sheet of paper or a canvas, Curran's images of collapsed fences supported by vines, tangles of plastic webbing, and gnarly tree roots aren't unlike a chaotic urban version of the dioramas of other natural history museums (the Wagner's specimens are not displayed in dioramas). But blight is not without its occasional beauty, as in Curran's painting of a passion-flower vine wrapped around a piece of discarded chicken wire, its exotic purple flower in full bloom.

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