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Economic Engines 

We live in fascinating times. A couple of weeks ago in London, as Wall Street was in the middle of a meltdown, the brash British artist Damien Hirst staged a glorified garage sale in the form of a Sotheby's auction of more than 200 of his works. Allegedly a huge gamble " he professed to be weak-kneed at the prospect " it ended up pulling in a cool $200 million. Some art reporters have suggested that many of the bidders were the very same London gallery dealers that Hirst bypassed in favor of Sotheby's in the first place.

What gives? Was this simply an attempt by the artist and his dealers and collectors to prop up his prices in an art market that looks to be going the way of the real estate market? Some say market manipulation is Hirst's favored form of performance art, but it is also possible that too much of the establishment may be too invested in him to sit idly by and watch the hyper-inflated prices of his work implode.

So does this sound like an attempt to stave off the long-awaited and maybe inevitable popping of the art bubble? Could be. The art bubble is a big-time factor in New York and London, but not in New Orleans, where no artist save perhaps George Rodrigue has risen to that stratospheric level of hyperbolic froth, and even he's a piker compared to Hirst, Koons and more recently Richard Prince, the latter-day masters of the postmodern art universe. If all this sounds like a particularly dystopian strain of science fiction, a visit to the Taylor/Bercier gallery can be a breath of fresh, or steam-scented, air.

Fans of the steampunk genre of sci-fi, which blends Victorianism and futurism, should feel quite at home there with Jamie Baldridge's latest photographic concoctions. While the Lafayette photographer's work is often self-consciously magical, he's such a superbly innovative craftsman that the viewer may be seduced into his vintage futuristic universe nonetheless. We know it's smoke and mirrors, but that doesn't make it any less amazing. In fact, he employs advanced computer programs like Maya, mixed with traditional film technology, to create images like Vox Dei, Third Movement, in which a woman in vintage white cotton rather excitedly confronts an antique phonograph as a flock of song birds settles on and around her. It's a very illustrational form of vintage magic realism, but for anyone who's ever had a soft spot for Jules Verne, Doctor Who or Bruce Sterling, the appeal is undeniable. In Annunciation, which harks more to Poe or Baudelaire, a female nude in a fetal posture looks catatonic on her vintage brass bed as a raven illuminated by a ray of dusty light surveys her pale and quivery form.

But the key to Baldridge's vision may actually be seen in A Difference Engine Contemplates Ontological Certainty, in which a woman whose cranium is a maze of conically configured gears whimsically gazes at a slice of cake with a candle on top. The 'difference engine" was also the name of the first computer, a complex brass device for computing 'very big mathematical tables," designed by British inventor Charles Babbage in 1822. Powered by a hand crank, it inspired later 19th-century visionaries to propose larger industrial versions, which in turn inspired Bruce Sterling and William Gibson's 1991 novel The Difference Engine about a futuristic 19th-century London where steam-powered computers are commonplace. Considering that our current financial system is a regression to Victorian times, when financial panics were routine occurrences, Baldridge's photographic Victorian futurism may be right on the money. His publisher, 21st Editions, certainly hopes so " his forthcoming limited-edition photo book, The Everywhere Chronicles, will soon be available for a mere $8,500 a copy. Pricey, but compared to Damien Hirst it's probably a steal.

click to enlarge Jamie Baldridge's photo, A Difference Engine Contemplates Ontological Certainty, illustrates his flair for conjuring an alternate reality of elaborate Victorian futurism.
  • Jamie Baldridge's photo, A Difference Engine Contemplates Ontological Certainty, illustrates his flair for conjuring an alternate reality of elaborate Victorian futurism.
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Speaking of Through Oct. 25, Jamie Baldridge: RECENT PHOTOGRAPHS

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