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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 23.0° F  A Few Clouds
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The impossible buildings of Filip Dujardin in Imaginary Architecture at the Chazen
Untitled, from the series Fictions, 2009, ink jet print, 110 x 150 cm. Jim and Peg Watrous Endowment Fund purchase, 2009.6.
Credit:Filip Dujardin

Although he hails from Ghent, Belgium, an old city filled with storybook canals and picturesque buildings, that's not the sort of world photographer Filip Dujardin conjures up in his show "Imaginary Architecture".

Instead, the 40-year-old artist has taken photographs of nondescript, often depressing modern buildings and remixed them using Photoshop to create strange hybrids. The results may be fantastical, but could never be described as whimsical.

Dujardin's photos, on view at the Chazen Museum of Art through May 16, depict lonely, gritty places, full of hard, industrial materials like concrete, glass and corrugated metal.

Except for grass and a few trees, there's not much suggestion of the natural world. There are few people: most photos contain no one, and those with people generally contain a lone figure or two, dwarfed by Dujardin's imaginary constructs. Or, even more bleakly, there's just the remnant of human activity, like a discarded bike.

While Dujardin's work is mesmerizing on its own, it also taps into a rich history of imaginary architecture, both utopian and dystopian. One thinks of German Expressionists and Italian Futurists who drew grand, unbuildable schemes in the early 20th century.

And, much more recently, there is the Chazen's fall 2009 show featuring New York artist Nicola López's prints and collages of nonsensical buildings with endless ductwork and jutting angles.

Dujardin's mastery of Photoshop is complete; the "seams" where he's mixed together his source photos are nonexistent. While many of his buildings would be structurally impossible, his ability to create illusions is so good that the buildings begin to seem real.

One photo presents the bland, beige faade of an apartment building. It's filled with an array of windows of all different sizes and styles, randomly arranged. It's convincing, and a fine example of how Dujardin's work straddles the line between reality and unreality.

Dujardin also fits in a few nods to a fellow Belgian artist, the great surrealist René Magritte. In one of Dujardin's photos, we see a businessman from behind as he enters a bizarre, angular office building. A faceless member of the bourgeoisie, clad in a trench coat and toting a briefcase, the man recalls similar anonymous figures in Magritte paintings.

While Dujardin's work may seem to revolve around a straightforward gimmick -- oh look, here's a guy who makes fake buildings! -- his work is much richer than that. The more I looked, the more I realized how many levels it operates on, from its allusions to art history to its connections to our current culture of remixes and mash-ups.

And here's perhaps the greatest trick of all: while Dujardin's fictional buildings are divorced from reality, they give a sly commentary on the current state of architecture. After leaving Dujardin's gloomy world and stepping back into the afternoon sunlight, it shocked me how much the Lucky building across from the Chazen, with its cheap-looking touches of faux masonry, had started to look like one of his creations.

Today, we live in a world of structures that really shouldn't even be called architecture; they're just buildings, often ungainly ones at that. The cliché that good art forces you to see your own environment with new eyes may be shopworn, yet Filip Dujardin manages to pull it off.

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