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His prey lurks in the underbrush, hidden, silent.

The only giveaway: a telltale glint of silvery metal, even on this overcast weekday, in a desolate, weed-choked vacant lot on Buffalo's West Side.

Julian Montague, tramping through the lot in jeans and workboots, his camera bag strapped around his chest, raises his hand and calls a halt. There it lies: tarnished body shining softly, tatters of garbage and foliage streaming from its sides, a crushed beer box resting nearby.

To you and me, it's an abandoned shopping cart.

To Montague, it's a treasure.

"We found one," Montague says, excitment in his voice. "And it's a beauty!"

Some might disagree with him. A rusty old cart, they'd say, can never be beautiful.

But Montague disagrees. And he's turned his obsession with stray shopping carts into a series of successful photography exhibits and now a book, released this spring by Abrams and available in bookstores and art galleries everywhere.

"In this project, I never photograph people," explained Montague, 33, an artist who lives in Buffalo and is represented by a New York City gallery. "I'm interested in the cart's journey."

That journey is precisely what his project seeks to track.

Montague's "Stray Shopping Cart Project" is really a huge system of classification: like a naturalist's approach to birds or fossils or plant leaves.

"I'm interested," he said, "in the ways scientific classification and language shape our world. I want to take this thing everyone knows and make it so much more complicated. I'm not trying to tell sad stories here."

To that end, Montague patrols creekbeds, railroad embankments, city streets and abandoned lots -- anywhere a stray cart might be found -- in order to find, photograph, categorize and chart the carts he finds.

His work with the stray carts is making him a young artist to watch, said a New York City gallery owner.

"To get a book deal from Harry Abrams at this early point in his career is really amazing," said Tatyana Okshteyn, owner of the Black and White Gallery in Brooklyn, where Montague's shopping carts will be the subject of a solo show beginning Sept. 7.

"He's going to evolve into a major American artist."

>A serious subject

Many of the examples Montague has found over the last several years -- in Western New York, primarily, but also in Cleveland, Hartford, Hawaii and Europe -- turned into the 250 pictures that fill the pages of his book, "The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification."

It sounds tongue-in-cheek, but actually it's not.

Montague, who also works as a graphic designer of scientific educational materials, approaches the carts in his field guide in a deadpan manner. He takes this seriously, in other words. (It pains him to learn that his book is being shelved in the humor sections at some big bookstores.)

"I'm doing this in the character of someone who takes it very seriously," Montague said. "It's not jokey."

For proof, he pointed to some pictures in his book.

"When you find a cart and identify it, it can be assigned to more than one category," he said. He gestured at one of his photographs, showing a beat-up cart laying in a streambed. "This one is simple vandalism and naturalization." He points to another picture, of a cart crushed by a snowplow. "That one I pretty much know is from Wegmans, because of the model and because there's a nearby Wegmans."

Some of the 33 categories created by Montague for abandoned carts include:

"Bus Stop Discard": a cart or group of carts found at a bus stop or place where public transportation can be boarded.

"Plow Crush at Source": a cart that's been crushed by a snowplow in its own parking lot.

"Personal Property": a cart that's been taken by someone and converted into a personal possession for their own use.

"Simple Vandalism": A cart damaged by vandals. May include carts thrown into water, off bridges, onto embankments, or over fences.

"Train Damaged": A cart left on train tracks and subsequently damaged.

That last category is one that fascinates Montague, who spent an overcast morning this month hunting for damaged carts along a section of railroad tracks in the Black Rock area of the city.

"Usually you just look for little bits of plastic," he said. "When a cart gets hit by a train it just explodes -- especially if it's plastic."

>'A degree of absurdity'

That morning, he didn't find any train-wrecked carts. But he did find some that had been appropriated by people for use in moving clothes and belongings. And he found others that he classified as "archaic" -- meaning the store that they came from is out of business. (He found an Ames cart and a Quality cart.)

"When you get into these illegal dumping sites," he said, "you really get into some strange stuff. These could have been here for years."

Montague's work has been well received so far.

He's done numerous exhibits in Buffalo -- the last one, at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center, just wrapped up -- as well as in places like New York and Moscow.

Tom Holt, a preparator at the Burchfield-Penney, likened Montague's shopping cart photos to some of Charles Burchfield's paintings -- such as a still life in which Burchfield depicted a scene of scrap metal.

"No one would consider this beautiful, but Charles Burchfield would look at the dirtiest corners of Buffalo," said Holt.

Montague does the same thing, observers said.

"You have to go with the flow with an artist like Julian," said Holt. "You have to be willing to accept a degree of absurdity. It's absurd -- but it's original."

In the meantime, there are more carts to find.

And Montague finds that his work is getting so well known that people will seek him out to tell them of their own cart-hunting expeditions.

That's the curse of the project, he admits. Once you start noticing abandoned carts, it seems like you see them everywhere.

"People see this exhibit," he said, "and then they come back to me and say, 'Now I see shopping carts everywhere.' "

See Montague's project at www.strayshoppingcart.com.

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com