Photo by Jack GouldBefore one is admitted to San Juan Capistrano's House of Photographic Art (HOPA, open by appointment only), one ponies up five bones and meets with Mrs. Maryanne Charis at the Charis Portrait Studio, where Mr. Charis (or Phillip Stewart Charis, as he's known to those who don't work for him) has captured the airbrushed likenesses of Nancy Reagan (way back in 1969), Judie (Mrs. George) Argyros, Red Skelton, and a host of Zuniga and Spurgeon debutantes.

The portrait studio glimmers with gilding; antique settees boast ropes across their laps, deterring those who might thoughtlessly sit. A baby grand gleams, a small sign on its closed-off keys begging one not to play it. Huge bouquets of silk floral arrangements grace every tabletop. Michael Landon and his wife smile gently down from a photographic canvas. Mrs. Charis, a sleekly coiffed blonde, walks one up the stone steps to her former manse, now home to her stunning photography collection and traveling exhibits, where one slips on a pair of booties to protect the crimson carpets—just like at the Hermitage!

So it's disconcerting to note the incongruity between the opulence of Mrs. Charis'—how shall we say?—august tastes and the less overblown elegance of her varied exhibits.

The ground floor of the Forester Mansion—appropriately named for one of the county's founding Spanglo families—is overtaken by the "African Ceremonies" exhibit, featuring the bold African photos of Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, splashing their color about in riots amid Mrs. Charis' signature silk flowers. But don't worry: there's nothing the least bit political or depressing about these Africans—no flies in the eyes of wasting children. Instead, they focus on heart-lifting ornamentation, as Beckwith and Fisher did last year at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art. They show brides from different African cultures in all manner of pigment and headdresses and beading and extravagance. They show the fiery red faces of Masai warriors. They show Karo courtship dancers painstakingly painted to look like leopards or jaguars. Beautiful black girls walk bejeweled and bare-breasted. Mrs. Charis brought home quite an exalted show; Beckwith and Fisher's brilliant, fulgent photos will star in a giant exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum this year.

Mrs. Charis also brought home another high-profile show: the late Linda McCartney's "Wide Open," which has shown in only one other venue in the United States, stands modestly in two small rooms upstairs, from which one can see an almost life-size portrait of Mrs. Charis. McCartney's sensitive touch is evident in her inevitably misty landscapes and closeups of unbudded flower bulbs. It's less successful in some rather anemic still-lifes, like McCartney Rose Glass II (a rose in a glass) and School Score, a crisp photo of a hand on some sheet music that is just crying out to be made into an inspirational poster for school bands nationwide, like the ragged toe shoes that adorned every 12-year-old's room after Flashdance made its mark.

But while McCartney's still-lifes are unremarkable, her attention to overlooked parts of nature are elegantly understated and humble. She shoots the neglected undersides of flowers, the milky hairs on their stems showing downy-smooth. She shoots the bell-like petals of lusciously drooping pink foxgloves —one of Agatha Christie's favorite sources of deadly poison. She shoots big skies over small slivers of land, like the pastoral settings for Raphael's Madonnas. And she shoots mist constantly—mist roiling over churches, brewing over valleys, seeping into country lanes and cloaking tall oaks. She is as fond of mist as Mary Shelley was, though far less creepily. It's a very sweet exhibit, as dreamlike and delicately sleepy as Yeats' "When You Are Old."

Mrs. Charis represents local artists, too; a small alcove of Ron Chilcote's Impressionist photos—reedy Laguna landscapes as gauzy as any Plein Air painter's circa 1916—are delightful and well-saturated in sunny blues. And a niche of classic photographers features Steichens, Stieglitzes and a couple of Outerbridges—which the Laguna Art Museum sold off last year amid the kind of frenzy that only outraged Laguna Art Museum members can produce.

But it is the office, lined with new works by Mr. Charis, for which Mrs. Charis reserves her most extravagant praise. Of the scanned and morphed portraits of vaguely nuked faces—as though the blinding light of Hiroshima had only melted off half the faces, leaving the rest looking fresh and purty—Mrs. Charis says, "Mr. Charis is mostly known for his traditional portrait work. But these new works . . . They're what Picasso or Warhol might have done if they were working in this age, if they had had access to the new technologies."


"African Ceremonies" and "Wide Open:_Images of Nature by Linda McCartney" at the House of Photographic Art, 27182 Ortega Hwy., San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-5127. Call for appointments. Through May 15. $5.


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