Charif Benhelima, Santiago Forero, Suha Shoman, Ed Wilson, Martin Zet

The Station Museum, Houston

Through May 30, 2010
by Wendy Vogel

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      Martin Zet
      Images from the series Saluto Romano
      Digital print
      21 x 28 inches
      Courtesy the artist and The Station Museum, Houston

      View Gallery

      Santiago Forero, The Riot, 2009
      For full caption see image gallery

      View Slideshow

      Remember the poster in Fox Mulder’s office? The FBI operative played by David Duchovny in The X-Files had a fuzzy picture of a UFO on his wall, and the image was superimposed with a caption that became the show’s tagline: I WANT TO BELIEVE. His proclivity for investigating the paranormal made him the mockery of his colleagues, who gave him a cramped basement office and a meticulous, razor-sharp partner in Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). Like Fox Mulder, I also believe—not in the paranormal, but in art that critically broaches political content without falling victim to proselytizing or sentimentalism. With that in mind, I headed to the Station Museum, whose current installations were united in their address of “serious subjects, such as war, occupation, immigration, concentration camps, spirituality and self-exploration.” But with just a few exceptions, what unfortunately lacked among these artists was a Gillian Anderson-esque filter for their artistic output: the distance and reflection needed for the works to speak critically, and the subtlety to leave them open for interpretation.

      Though billed as five solo exhibitions, it is impossible not to forge connections and comparisons between the international artists, all of whom utilize highly recognizable political subject matter and some form of documentary address in their work. They are equally united in a personal relationship with their subject matter, sometimes to their downfall. In this show, the artist’s emotional connection and personal politics trump critical vision most notably in Suha Shoman’s videos, Bayyaratina and Stop for God’s Sake (both 2009). Both concern the Israeli occupation of Shoman’s native Palestine and use PowerPoint-style effects to illustrate particular narratives. Stop for God’s Sake couples appropriated, gratuitous media imagery of Israeli and Palestinian attacks with religious imagery and quotes from the Qu’ran, Bible and Torah and is accompanied by swelling operatic music. The final image, a black screen with white text stating “Who started it? Who shall end it?” is startlingly trite. Instead of a critique of the media, the work becomes empty propaganda in its own right. Charif Benhelima’s work, though more complex, also falls victim personal indulgence through unnecessary curatorial “artiness.” His project, Welcome to Belgium, was originally conceived as a book featuring black-and-white photographic portraits of refugees and guest workers alongside quotes from official political documents. The photographs themselves display a compositional rigor and a deep engagement with the refugees, especially the touching portraits of Héléna Benjouira, a young Tunisian single mother battling poverty and drug addiction. But the images are nearly overpowered by a bizarre installation of text. Snippets of laws that outline the rigid governmental policies regarding refugee and citizenship status function awkwardly in the exhibition space. These text fragments are used as contextual captions, but are silk-screened too low on the wall. The text from a 1964 guest worker pamphlet is printed directly on the floor. The experiential nature of an overall immersive visual experience is, here, unsuccessfully translated from the book to the white cube.

      Ed Wilson’s work, a series called The Architecture of Death, also traffics in sentimentality and the language of memorial. This installation shows Wilson’s transformation of black-and-white photographs he took at concentration camp sites into expressively rendered steel reliefs. Although it calls to mind the approach of 1980s Neo-Expressionists such as Anselm Kiefer, this work does not take an ironic or formally innovative approach. The sculptures, if seen without the accompanying photographs, come dangerously close to romanticizing the German landscape in a way that does not bear witness to the history therein. Evacuation Sites 12, 13, and 14, (all 2007), however, shallow reliefs of eerily empty rooms with a single hanging light bulb, mimic the tone and spatial rendering of landmark modernists such as George Grosz, to more subtle effect.

      The two remaining artists show a richer engagement with the histories of conceptual art and media critique, respectively, leading to the most cohesive bodies of work in the show. Czech artist Martin Zet’s Saluto Romano (2005-6), a holdover from the artist’s survey show at the Station in the fall, is a fifteen-photograph series in which the artist has inserted his body into landscape and architecture as a rhyming formal element or site-specific addition. Some images, such as the one depicting the insertion of his thumbs-up gesture in the foreground between the columns of decaying Roman architecture, are a light-hearted homage to tourist pranksterism. In other photographs, the artist slumps himself against a tree, presses his nose to the divide between a marble surface and plastered one, or lays himself out like an L on the side of a woolly rug. These gestures, sometimes poetic and sometimes pathetic, recall VALIE EXPORT’S photographs inserting her body into urban architecture in the early 1970s, or even Bruce Nauman’s early videos. Zet’s personal connection to these sites, articulated in a statement about his search to define “freedom” in a changing post-communist landscape, situates his appropriated body-art gestures in a contemporary context.

      Santiago Forero’s photographic series, I Want to Live in America, features eye-popping digital prints of exaggerated staged tableaux based on media stereotypes. Forero, a Colombian artist of extremely short stature, casts himself as an adventurer in the series Action Heroes, of which two prints are shown. In The Riot and Vietnam (both 2009), Forero is alternately a jihadist and American soldier, staged in tightly framed environments that recall the packaging and advertisement of action figures. Broadway (2008), a staged portrait of a Latin American gang in orange hoods beating a white man with a cowboy hat while a member of their gang films the episode on a hand-held camera, provides an ironic twist on the type of fear-mongering against Latin American communities promoted by conservative media outlets such as FOX News. Unfortunately, Forero’s documentary video, The American Southerner (2004), does not hold up as a finished work in comparison to his photographs. The video, comprised of short interviews with recent immigrants from El Salvador, Argentina and Mexico, frankly express the subjects’ disillusionment with the American dream, but by juxtaposition the piece threatens to turn the irony of Forero’s photographs into explicit moralizing.

      Indeed, with the exception of Zet’s installation, the moments of interest in this show are overwhelmed by didactic presentation. While the issues addressed by these artists are worthy of dialogue, the exhibition could have been the site of a deeper and more nuanced conversation. Topical subject matter and critical reflection do not have to be at odds; when they come together, they make true believers in art’s power to envision social change. Even more sweeping curatorial gestures, such as the topical installations juxtaposing art and contemporary “cultural artifacts” by the collective Group Material in the 1980s and ‘90s, exemplify a strategy that promotes dialogue between art and media representation. This type of curatorial thinking can replace the populist tactics that promote the status quo, or, in the worst case, condescend to the viewer.

      Wendy Vogel is a Critical Fellow in the Core Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

      An sophie Laurents
      Apr 17, 2010 | 6:00am

      This writer might not be very pro-Arabs to write such a “impartial” analysis of the show… Specially the comment on Suha Shoman’s video, which in fact presents a counter-perspective to media discourse by equally leveling all political violence – no matter which side it comes from.

      Davi Crown
      Apr 17, 2010 | 7:24am

      Rhetoric, rhetoric, rhetoric. There is lot of air in the balloon. So much talking around and so little about the works themselves. Where exactly is the sentimentality? Political art without involvement is artist’s personal marketing.

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