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If Walls Could Talk

FotoFest's narrative shows tell the fascinating stories no one wants to hear

An American flag hangs high in John Cleary Gallery. Beneath it, press-on type proclaims, in appropriate post-September 11 patriotism, "God Bless America." On the gallery walls below, all-American youths shoot speed in the family room. The irony of the juxtaposition is inadvertent but apt. The images are from Larry Clark's Tulsa, a groundbreaking book of photographs from the 1960s that slit open the underbelly of Middle America when it was published in 1971. The voyeur of disaffected youth who would eventually bring us the controversial 1995 film Kids started here, in his twenties, photographing Tulsa teenagers as they tried to escape the banality of their surroundings through sex and chemicals, the primary entertainments offered in thousands of similar towns scattered across the American expanse.

The photographs are shot in a gritty black-and-white documentary style, but with empathy; Clark is one of these kids, and they are his friends. They sit in somebody's parents' living room, on the couch and on the coffee table, smoking and injecting. On the wall, Jesus stares vacantly skyward; on the mantel, Mom and Dad haven't got a fucking clue. The shots of youthful risk-taking change as the series progresses through nearly a decade. The drug use goes from experimental to harrowing. The boys turn violent, and the girls develop black eyes and pregnant bellies. These are portraits of people for whom things will only get worse. The really graphic images from Tulsa are tucked away in the back of the gallery.

Cleary is selling some of the photographs, which he bought nine years ago, to a museum in Germany and collectors on the East and West coasts. It seems that collectors on the Third Coast are less enthusiastic about this raw, albeit 30-year-old, view of the heartland. But the work is still strong and extremely disturbing. The fact that the images are from Tulsa strikes at any sense of complacency. Popular assumption, even today, is that these are the kinds of things that happen only under the evil urban influence of big cities.

Kids those days: Larry Clark captures some innocent gunplay in 1960s Tulsa.
Kids those days: Larry Clark captures some innocent gunplay in 1960s Tulsa.

Details

"Tulsa"
Through April 6 at John Cleary Gallery, 2635 Colquitt, 713-524-5070.

"Discoveries of the Meeting Place"
Through April 1 at Erie City Ironworks, 1302 Nance, 713-223-5522.

"Analog"
Through April 30 in Studio One at the Art League Houston, 1953 Montrose Boulevard, 713-523-9530.

A slew of FotoFest-related shows are telling stories that shatter complacency -- whether it's by documenting unsettling realities, tapping the strange undercurrents of the ordinary or revealing societal wrongs through photographic satire.

Paula Luttinger's documentary style is more moody and poetic in her work El matadero (The Slaughterhouse) at Erie City Ironworks. The archaic Fresson printing process she uses for her black-and-white images imparts a warm, soft painterliness. A man's white rubber boot steps obliviously in the slick dark blood that covers the concrete floor. A hooded figure stands in a dark room confronting a penned and wild-eyed animal. We grasp a fleeting impression of fear and anguish as cattle rear up in blurred panic. We see suffering as well as the indifference of those who create it on a daily basis. In these images, the cattle are the only ones with faces and expressions; their executioners are impersonal and anonymous. PETA would love the series, but the feelings it engenders are much broader than any specific agenda.

Luttinger's photos have an emotional rawness that is reinforced by her background. Biographically, Luttinger blows Clark out of the water. In 1977, during the rule of Argentina's military junta, the 21-year-old Luttinger was kidnapped and interred for five months in a secret detention center. Very few made it out alive. After her release, the government forcibly exiled her. The series, shot in Argentine slaughterhouses, is a visual analogy of the dynamic between victim and torturer. For Luttinger, the work allows her to "apply form to the trauma," a trauma that is beyond the power of words.

Also in "Discoveries of the Meeting Place" at Erie City Ironworks, the glossy, grommeted banners of Annu Palakunnathu Matthew's series Bollywood Satirized use the conventions and imagery of flamboyant Indian film posters to critique Indian society. Smart, funny and biting, the faux films address everything from arranged marriages to skin-tone discrimination to dowry death. The posters incorporate the prejudices people pass on to their children, supposedly for their own good. With a seal declaring it "100% family comedy," one movie sports the adage "As a woman you can be dark and rich or you can be fair and poor but you can't be dark and poor and expect to get a good catch." A dragon's claw hangs over a woman's head in Can I Say No? A Story of Limited Choices. The text: "My parents like him, our horoscopes match…We have nothing in common." It is a visually strong work that strikes at the core of women's issues in contemporary Indian society.

Eric Zapata deals with issues of race and ethnicity in contemporary American society. Zapata is one of those people with a polyethnic face, someone people might mistake for Pakistani, Italian, Latino or Arab. In an earlier series of photographs that explored ethnic stereotypes, Zapata cast himself as everything from a terrorist to a convenience store clerk. In his current work, included in "Analog" at the Art League Houston's Studio One, Zapata intermingles himself with iconic pop-cultural American images -- from Bruce Springsteen's ass on the Born in the USA cover to Molly Ringwald and the breakfast club in library detention. He even replaces Elliot on the bike with E.T. By inserting himself into the photographic stills, Zapata indulges his role-playing predilections while wittily calling attention to the excessive whiteness of American pop culture.

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