Times Staff Writer

Jo Ann Callis' photography has always had an unsettling quality akin to finding a parrot in your bathtub or a scoop of ice cream on your plate of hot spaghetti. Whether she sets a dish aflame in a mundane table setting, turns a mouse loose near a batch of sugar doughnuts or lets a red stain seep through a fancy tablecloth, she conjures up a sensuous vision and leaves you alone to ponder its creepiness, its veiled eroticism or its whiff of magic. "I have to go now; my coat is on fire," she seems to say as she vanishes.

A familiar fixture of the contemporary photography scene for about a decade, Callis has established herself as a maker of dreamlike tableaux--all contrived in a studio from images drawn from her mind. Now she appears in "Summer 1985: Nine Artists," at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Temporary Contemporary facility through Sept. 29. Though her current show departs from the images permanently etched in memory as vintage Callis, her gallery may turn out to be the most frequently visited and revisited segment in the assembly of solo exhibitions.

She shows two relatively new bodies of work: one black-and-white, crisp, cool and sterile; the other heated by vivid hues and sensuous mystery. The black-and-white "Still Lifes" mark an abrupt departure from Callis' former color photographs, but--stark as they are--they continue her interest in banal objects and unexpected relationships. Her customary elegance is also here but restrained to the point of fastidiousness.

Each of these works combines separate images of single objects or groups of them in grid-like fashion. A catalogue interview says that she sees the pictures as "flashcards" that "play off each other." Presented like specimens in an institutional setting or as illustrations in a technical handbook, such benign objects as a wooden chair, a glass of water and a block of ice have a vaguely ominous quality. So vaguely ominous that you suspect you are being influenced by their proximity to the magical, newer Cibachrome photographs.

Callis' "Still Lifes" inspire respect because they are so carefully done and they imply that the artist has put herself through a period of pushing her ideas to their most austere conclusions. For all that, they read as flat, mostly conceptual exercises when compared with her evocative color visions.

In her new work, Callis is back on track but now working with people in set-up situations. Gone are the animals and the food that populated her earlier color work; freshly arrived are human characters appearing as fuzzy apparitions. There's also a change in the feelings she translates into photographs. Dread, apprehension and other vague manifestations of anxiety have been supplanted by wistful memories and tingling sensations.

In most of the color works, objects are in focus while people are blurry. This has the doubly enchanting effect of propelling the picture through time and removing equivocal scenes from the realm of specific personalities. The photographs won't stand still; they counter Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment" with an indecisive flow of events, left open to interpretation.

You find a spectral fellow making shadow-puppet animals with his hands, a woman juggling, a man doing push-ups over a mirror. Some pictures present obvious relationships, as when a "Woman Twirling" echoes a wooden lamp base carved in the shape of a dancing couple. Others address theatrical situations or present pictures within pictures. In one of the most intriguing works, "Man and Slide," a fuzzy figure and a sharply focused cat cohabit a room dominated by a window-like scene of a swimming pool.

Is the view a projected slide (as the title suggests), a real situation just outside the room, part of a film or just another piece of evidence documenting the strange look of banality? There's no one correct answer, and that's probably the way Callis wants it. Her gift is not for telling it like it is but for suggesting what may be.

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