By Carlos Batts (Scapegoat Publishing; 2005)

The utterly distinctive photographic artwork of Carlos Batts, as presented in this book, falls somewhere between the harsh naturalism of Weegee and the horrific surrealism of J.K. Potter. Over the past 15 or so years Batts has provided illustrations for numerous album covers, magazines and comics, but AMERICAN GOTHIC, named after the immortal 1930 Grant Wood painting, contains Batts’ most personal and representative work. To quote the man himself: “(This book) is what I think of America now. This my world. I live here. I breathe here. And this is the visceral planet that I’ve created.”

Author John Gilmore, of SEVERED and LAID BARE, provides an admiring forward (“I am captivated, sucked into the breathing membranes of movement and color and dark, pulsing images”) and Stephen Lemons’ introduction fills us in on Batts’ background, specifically his childhood in Baltimore and the many years he spent on pornographic commissions. But the bulk of this book consists of glorious full page reproductions of nearly a hundred Batts masterworks.

Carlos Batts’ photographs more often than not consist of intentionally sloppy, fractured montages that are usually presented out of focus and over(or under)-exposed. They’re the opposite of slick, and yet all evince a unity of form and expression that lifts them into the realm of art–grotesque and troubling art, certainly, but art nonetheless. Batts seems to thrive on chaos and dissociation, which enhances his evident fascination with all things grotesque: skulls are a recurring image, as are open mouths, disembodied (or obscured) eyes, chains, blood and bodily decay.

In Carlos Batts’ disturbed universe a man’s glowering eyes and forehead are attached to the mouth of a skeleton. A white woman in blackface leers at us in what may be desire or psychosis. A woman’s facial features are obscured by duct tape, with several trickles of blood (their source indistinct) registering most strongly. A man’s painted form is presented cut-up, leaving only his leering eyes and gloved left hand, which clutches a menacing axe. A photo of Anna Nicole Smith is defaced by negative damage and crudely drawn-in devil horns. An unholy tangle of what looks like octopus tentacles and flesh contains, at its rightmost edge, a distinctly human-looking eye. You won’t see images like these anywhere else, and they’re guaranteed to leave a permanent mark on your psyche.