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X-Ray Vision : Artist employs infrared photography to put a new spin on American icons.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Medium plays a big part of the message in the photography of Stephen Schafer, who goes by the handle “Schaf” and whose show, “Deja vu,” is now at the Buenaventura Gallery.

Drawing on the softening, altering qualities of infrared photography, he celebrates--with an eye to elevate--commonplace scenes and objects. Thus we find glowing (literally) portraits of a blender, the rounded volumes of old comfy chairs and other interior scenes that seem to have spilled out of somebody’s dream, by way of a memory of grandma’s house.

A bone-deep nostalgia for old Americana, idealized in infrared, runs through the show, including the iconography of funky old diners. “Mammoth Lakes” is depicted as a close-up of a coffee shop tabletop, the most dramatic feature being not the natural splendor of the place but a towering sugar dispenser.

In some images, Schaf relies on yet another device, revealing film sprocket holes on the top and bottom, which has the effect of baring the process behind the product.

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But the effect also intrudes on the purity of the scene in which he is working. This sprocketed series deals with images of a rural outpost, where rambling porches, rickety mailboxes and curvy roads through the backwoods rule.

Why the distraction? In another, contrasting corner of this intriguing show, Schaf nuzzles his lens into lovable clutter, finding visual pleasure in the density of “Melville’s Hardware” storefront in Long Island, or a Manhattan newsstand.

In these urban settings, more is more, but even there, the reality of the situation is glazed over by a photographic approach that conveys a romantic perception of concrete things.

DETAILS

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Schaf, “Deja vu,” through Nov. 6 at the Buenaventura Gallery, 700 E. Santa Clara St., in Ventura. Gallery hours: Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; 648-1235.

Scary Monsters: Art sometimes irritates, as well as imitates, life. A few weeks back, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival put on a tribute to veteran film composer Elmer Bernstein, in combination with a preview screening of the new Martin Scorsese film, “Bringing Out the Dead.”

A catered reception was held in the Contemporary Arts Forum, where the current show of vivid, grisly and funny computer-altered photographs by Charlie White is hanging.

More than a few revelers, hovering over the food table, noticed the creepy proximity of the piece called “Highland Park.”

It is a large, crisply realized piece in which a decapitated, fly-infested head of an alien being is proudly brandished by men we assume did the killing.

In the shadow of this image, we eyed the carved turkey platter a bit strangely, but dug in anyway. Life goes on.

Aliens invade and are occasionally offed. Besides, some modicum of poetic justice was at work here, in that the crowd went on to watch the sometimes horrific scenery of Scorsese’s new film, about the mean streets of New York City as seen through the eyes of a soul-searching paramedic.

To boot, White’s show, called “In a Matter of Days,” draws heavily on the cheeky shock tactics of Hollywood--not to mention the ingenuity of the special effects--in creating scenes where alien creatures imperil Southern Californians.

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They send people scrambling in a gym and a Cal Tech classroom and, in “Inland Empire,” one scrawny beast has a face-off with an angry barefooted woman in a parking lot. The show is great morbid fun, just in time for Halloween, but on some deeper level it addresses the macabre euphemisms through which Hollywood, and--by extension, avid movie lovers--deal with angst.

Also at CAF are the four strange portraits of Elizabeth Olbert, in a show she calls “Big Country.” If her means and ends are radically different than White’s, her art also deals with scenarios on the far side of humanity as we know it.

These are precise, yet highly stylized and carefully distorted paintings of faces that we struggle to identify.

Subjects with pale white, hairless skin, android eyes, misshapen noses and/or lips are painted with a visual treatment that varies from pristine surfaces to checkered, pixilated areas that suggest, variously, skin disorders and the atomic nature of digital graphics.

In these curious paintings, which the artist describes as “synthetic realism,” a wavering relationship between reality and humanity lends an ambiguity that gives the art extra mystique and tension.

DETAILS

Charlie White, “In a Matter of Days,” and Elizabeth Olbert, “Big Country,” through Nov. 7 at the Contemporary Arts Forum, 653 Paseo Nuevo, in Santa Barbara. Gallery hours: Tues.-Sat, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun., 12-5 p.m.; 966-5373.

Josef Woodard, who writes about art and music, can be reached by e-mail at joeinfo@aol.com

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