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"Imago Ignota," at 1708

Forbidden Art

The stern warning is a favorite literary device used in biblical stories, fairy tales and mysteries of all sorts. Whether it is an expulsion from Eden or Bluebeard's infamous locked closet, the troublemaker is told that he or she can have everything but that one little forbidden item or experience: "Do not eat that. Do not go in that room."

You know what always happens next.

That is what Pam Fox's highly tempting exhibition, "Imago Ignota," at 1708 is like. It is the knowledge behind the door you were not supposed to enter. Fourteen Silver Gelatin prints darkly line the walls of the gallery's back chamber. Each of the artist's imagi ignota, or unknown images, is a construction of historical scientific objects interspersed with natural specimens. Turn-of-the-century beakers, medicine phials, early electrical testing devices, metronomes and calipers, all from Hampden-Sydney College's physics and chemistry department repositories (where Fox teaches), have been placed in mysterious still-life arrangements with life's dried vestiges.

Among the menacing instruments of inquiry, pitcher plant throats gape, vacant shells mourn, leaves curl and shudder, and snakeskins writhe. In the spirit of a bit of nervous comic relief, a few doll clothes weigh in as surrogate human beings. The tone of the presentation is sepia and ancient; the effect is both elegant and unnerving. Whatever you do, DON'T go in there! — D.M.

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