Nowhere Near Here
Houston Center for Photography and Fotofest, Houston
Through April 23
by Rachel Hooper
For this survey of lens-based artists living and working in Texas, invited jurors Toby Kamps and Michelle White did not hold themselves to a specific theme or focus. Instead, as the title suggests, the two Menil curators embraced an all-inclusive spirit and chose many artists who came to our state from all over the US and the world. Although the subjects of the works span the globe, almost all of the photographers are based in Houston and Austin, the two most prominent art communities in Texas.
The exhibition has a slightly different feel at its two venues— the installation at Houston Center for Photography being the stronger of the two. The group at HCP coheres very well; the most obvious connection is the strange geometries that each artist finds in unlikely places. David Politzer's study of the subculture of giant pumpkin farmers, Heavyweights (2010), tells a compelling story of the farmers who grow the fruits from seed to competition. I would have liked to see the photos that show the farmers at work placed more prominently, however, as I feel they show the pumpkins’ enormous scale and the labor that goes into the farming. The striking and odd beauty of Walker Pickering's road trip photos makes an indelible impression at HCP, especially in the serene and dramatic light and shadows of Hole and Overlook (both 2009/2010).
The exhibition’s two video artists, Kelly Sears and Clarissa Tossin, take a much more conceptual approach. Sears' animation He Hates to be Second (2008) digs into images and text from the early 1960s in a beautiful, tightly edited short that highlights the sublimated disquietude and violence of the decade. Tossin's video of the white marble of Brazil's supreme court building being continuously cleaned on loop calls to mind Jeff Wall's Morning Cleaning, Mies van der Rohe Foundation, Barcelona (1999) and Inigo Manglano-Ovalle's Always After (The Glass House) (2006). Like these other projects, Tossin’s work raises questions of class and race in the constant maintenance required in the upkeep of modernist structures. But in Tossin's take, the act of cleaning is itself aestheticized by dynamic arcs of water flying through the air in regular rhythms and the repetitive circling of the floor polisher.
With some uneasy juxtapositions and branching hallways, the larger grouping at Fotofest headquarters felt a bit disjointed. Despite these difficulties, there were some standouts in the exhibition. Portraits by Logan Caldbeck, Adam Boley and Nancy Newberry were my favorite discoveries, as I felt a very real connection with their subjects who seem to show their true selves. The more abstract of Chris Akin’s "visual haikus," such as Times Square (2010) were striking; with others I questioned whether the artist was seeing something that I didn't. Among Santiago Forero's self-portraits, the picture of him standing on a stump is particularly lovely. I did get weary of the repetitive trope of the artist standing with his back to the camera in every image, but the curators made a good decision to break up his work in small groups between the two sites. By contrast, Otis Ike and Ivete Lucas' groupings were too small. Their video was charming, as was the house around it, but I could not see how the self-portrait or two other photographs fit with the project as a whole.
There were some distracting display issues upstairs at Fotofest as well. Wura-Natasha Ogunji's three stop-motion videos would have benefited from a more immersive presentation. If the screen were larger and the sound were on headphones or in an isolated room, it would be easier to see the magical effect of the characters flying or walking on water and to experience the soundtrack without the distraction of other works. Mike Osborne's most powerful images, such as Man in a Convenience Store Window and Glass Building, I-45 (2010) cast Houston as a slightly ominous film noir setting, but I did not understand why his otherwise technically flawless work went unframed. Nearby, Mimi Kato's digital photomontages showing scenes of a Japanese town, what the artist calls “one-person theatre,” were displayed well. Though the work had a great concept, it was hard for me to differentiate easily between the characters and understand the narrative because the artist plays all the parts.
As impressed as I was with Nowhere Near Here, I have to admit that I set out to review this statewide photography survey with a sense of melancholy about the state of the arts in Texas. Shortly after the opening of this exhibition, one of its major funders, the Texas Commission on the Arts, was shut down by the state government. Art Lies, the only contemporary art print magazine based in Texas, also recently announced that it will cease publication. The high quality of the work in Nowhere Near Here is evidence of how artists are currently thriving across the state, but how will they adapt to potentially diminished publication and exhibition opportunities? Although the future is uncertain, I can only hope that talented artists will continue to find fertile ground here in Texas.
Rachel Hooper is associate curator and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Fellow at Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston.
N.B. Rachel Hooper and David Politzer are both employees of the University of Houston.