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Flesh for fantasy

Melanie Manchot trains her lens on intimacy

we gaze at images of dewy-skinned women on magazine stands, but it can be jarring, even offensive to some, to see an older female form photographed with all of its attendant lumps and sags.

But 'Liminal Portraits' Ñ part of a show called 'Love Is a Stranger' by London-based artist Melanie Manchot at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art Ñ asks us to do just that.

'Liminal Portraits' depicts Manchot's mother posed nude in front of open vistas and public settings. Like much of her recent work, the series is concerned with issues of the body, identity and the intersection of public and private spaces.

While it may be hard to imagine anything quite as odd as photographing Mom naked, Manchot told PICA curator Stuart Horodner that the uneasiness between photographer and subject was replaced by a deeper trust and respect. This is evident in the tender naturalism of the photographs in the series. In other poses, the artist's mother has some fun and arches back, holding her arms over her head in the trashy style of the British tabloid The Sun, which features a topless woman each week on Page 3.

While the media's obsession with youth is nothing new, many artists working today seem to find it endlessly interesting, and Manchot's work veers dangerously close to adding nothing new to this dialogue. Who hasn't, by now, seen a creepy Bob Dole salivating for Britney on Pepsi ads and who isn't, in fact, bored to death by it?

But another of the show's photographic series, 'L.A. Pictures,' shows a lighter, more original side to Manchot's work. For the project, which is a series of 10 Lambda prints, she approached couples in public spaces and asked them to kiss for the camera. She then asked them whom, in their wildest fantasies, they actually would be kissing.

Each photo has a border along the bottom where the responses are printed on backdrops colored in the lazy, hazy Los Angeles color palette. (Superman, Galileo and Cleopatra were some of the fantasy smoochers.) The landscape Ñ Melrose Avenue, Santa Monica Ñ is sweetly banal, touching and tacky.

A third, less-interesting series in the exhibit, 'Gestures of Demarcation,' shows the artist, nude, and another figure, dressed, with back turned to the camera. The ambiguous figure pulls and stretches Manchot's flesh in awkward ways.

The video installation 'For a Moment Between Strangers' is better. Armed with a hidden video camera, Manchot approached people on streets in Los Angeles, London and Cologne, Germany, and asked for a kiss. A few people look around for more cameras. 'Is this a joke?' they seem to ask. Some turn away in disgust and careen away from Manchot, and others consider the proposition and decline or agree.

The installation's latent hope Ñ that the kiss will triumph Ñ allows the exhibition to end on an upbeat, optimistic note.