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Getting the Picture

Winter Street Art Center focuses on photo-based art

Like anything that confidently demands your participation, "Blurred Boundaries" is enough to make you tired in advance. Just a glance through Winter Street Art Center's mazelike galleries and corridors -- filled with nearly 100 works by 32 Houston artists -- tells you this stuff is loaded with heady ideas.

Sponsored by FotoFest, known for bringing together photographic cultures from all over the world, the sprawling show not only highlights Houston artists but also provides a forum for ideas related to photography. As the title promises, the city's photographers, painters and printmakers are moving beyond the usual limits of their respective media.

Rather than pay homage to genres straight from FotoFest's tidy history-of-art photography -- landscapes, still lifes, street photographs, portraits and "social documents" -- "Blurred Boundaries" favors experimental photography. The show's freshness is due partly to the scale, physicality, color and subject matter of the works, as well as their installation and attitude -- all radically different from what we're used to seeing on FotoFest walls. I didn't like all the works so much as I liked the show's spirit and energy, its raw edges and the risks it takes.

"Blurred Boundaries" generates a powerful, even seductive, cumulative charge. Curator Debbie Riddle decided to shuffle the deck in terms of modus operandi, alternating the impassive, formulaic and detached with the frenzied and visionary. The show seems less interested in direct correspondences between images and media than in how the disparate works engage each other in dialogue -- how they shed light on each other.

As you amble through the galleries, you don't find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with definite propositions, but instead feel yourself falling for the show's irresistible rhythms. The images seemingly flicker, come and go, dance around. Rough diamonds are positioned alongside more competent works, tied together by unabashed pleasure of execution, paradoxical humor and a thoroughly idiosyncratic spirit. It's a regional show par excellence, with something for everyone but the purist.

The exhibition raises more questions than it answers. With the advent of digital technology, how does one know if an image is real or fabricated? Does the difference matter? Is beauty totally artificial? Can a photograph truthfully represent reality? (Admittedly, many of those concerns have existed since 1839, when photography was invented.)

As well as questions, the show offers statements. Some artists give the painting new force through photographic means. Ann Stautberg, John Herring, Cia Devan, John Sparagana and Casey Williams synthesize painterly issues with photography's optical phenomena. Reflections in water, windows or mirrors double as the photographs' surfaces, inviting complex spatial readings.

Many works investigate notions of identity and transformation, a kind of reassembling of the spirit, the mind, the body and the object itself. Take Phyllis Hand's liquid-light retablos of saints who seemingly dissolve before our eyes; or Debbie Riddle's oversized, free-hanging photograph that combines layers of odd architectural details with a ghostly 1920s portrait of a man. Riddle patinas the metals in the photographic paper, purposefully overcooking the print so that blue, gray and pale pink streaks coagulate, bubble and ravage the surface; the photographic process, normally concealed, seems to squirt its juices. Were the image rendered in paint, such incontinence would seem natural. But because Riddle's materials are photographic, the friction between them and us seems a violation.

Significantly, a number of artists blatantly "steal" images, dissect them, even break them down to their constituent parts. Linda Hayward's inkjet print The Torment of Lewis Carroll appropriates the author's photograph of a Victorian girl sleeping on a sofa. The image is mounted on canvas framed with red velvet, and a motorized device subtly pumps the chest of the youngster, transforming her into a breathing icon. Mark Wade's lightbox constructions force us to peer through a peephole at a scavenged image. The box part of A House, A Home is fashioned from suburban Re/Max realty signs; you feel a twinge when, looking into the dark chamber, you're confronted with a transparency of a humble Third World hut.

Also prevalent are issues of memory, time and space. Prince Thomas's chromogenic prints examine interstitial spaces, a metaphor for his cultural engagement as an Indian born in Kuwait and living in the United States. Hans Staartjes's three large gelatin silver photographs show sensuous forms in a vast oceanic space. The embryonic shapes exude a powerful aura; they seem to have just formed out of space, and might perhaps dissolve back at any instant. Al Souza's transcendent Blue Jam hangs nearby, a pulsating field composed of thousands of jigsaw-puzzle pieces. Mixed-media works by Paula Bishop and Suzanne Manns incorporate macrocosm and microcosm, time, space, heaven and earth, into systems that suggest their own infinite reproduction, as well as personal cosmologies.

I've only scratched the surface of this lively exhibition, which offers something revelatory around every corner. Don't miss Paula Newton's mysterious Cheryl Clones, a grid of six glazed inkjet-on-canvas images that juxtaposes the smooth heads of a baby doll and a Buddha. There's also Tommy Fitzpatrick's schematic rendition of a cherry-red kiddie car, and David Thompson's dreamy little UFO painting. Combining the jokiness of a school skit and the deadpan earnestness of Family Circle magazine, Kelly Klaasmeyer's brash color C-prints show festive holiday centerpieces that seem like the detritus of contemporary urban life: For Halloween, there's a yummy poundcake goat's head with a chocolate pentagram; for Christmas, a Nativity scene with a scrumptious peanut as Baby Jesus, and fruit roll-ups for the robes of Mary, Joseph, and the three wise men.

Charles Mary Kubricht's grid of lushly painted acrylic-on-wood panels simultaneously construct and deconstruct photographic frames of a woodland lake, much like a perceptual puzzle. The work doesn't differentiate between the whole and its parts -- the two are inseparable. Each loosely brushed panel gathers the spheres of sensation, intuition and feeling into haunting poetry.

Equally ambitious is the 19-panel photogram directed by Osamu James Nakagawa which features work by Lamar University design students. Draped from ceiling to floor, Cosmic Dream seemingly implodes with luminous silhouettes of bodies, butterflies, strings of pearls, hats and all sorts of mundane objects, as well as galactic symbols free-falling in space.

All in all, "Blurred Boundaries" offers viewers a chance to think about the possibilities of artmaking. More importantly, it contains the whispered promise of an enduring and devoted support of art in Houston, by both its arts organizations and the community at large.

"Blurred Boundaries" will be on view through November 9 at Winter Street Art Center, 2123 Winter Street, 861-3782.

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