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A History of Violence

FotoFest tackles yet another theme, with mixed results

The vestiges of another repressive regime are the subject of No. 65 (2003) by Nathalie Latham. Latham tells the story of her visit to a former secret Soviet city, a military complex with a plutonium plant, accompanying U.S. scientists studying the effects of radiation on chromosomes. Her story is told through accordion-folded books displayed on shelves and pasted with photographs, accompanied by the artist's handwritten narrative. Some of the images of Soviet-esque offices are nice, and the information about the city is interesting, but many of Latham's observations and dealings with people come across as superficial. The whole thing has the air of a "My Summer Vacation" school essay.

Some of the least illustrative works in the show are Liza Nguyen's images from her trip to her father's native Vietnam. Nguyen took samples of soil from notorious sites such as My Lai, where U.S. troops massacred more than 300 civilians, and Dien Bien Phu, the site of the epic French defeat. She poured out the soil and photographed it against a stark white background, printing the color images about four feet high. You stare at the different shades of earth in each photograph. The enlarged dirt particles yield no stories in and of themselves. But we project the histories of the places onto them -- the napalm bombs, the bullets, the blood, the Agent Orange. The dirt bears witness to the lingering emotional, physical and environmental impacts of war.

There are a couple of other decent works in the show, but much of what remains runs to mildly interesting photojournalism and awkward digital photography. FotoFest did branch out with some 3-D work at Vine Street, but with disappointing results. During her husband's deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, Elizabeth Mellot-CarreĆ³n made a series of clay boxes and filled them with things like rose petals and photos. No doubt Diaries of Enlistment, 2003-2004 is personally meaningful to her, but it doesn't translate to a larger audience -- at all. The boxes come across as self-consciously sentimental. Meanwhile, her installation about rape, One Day, presents stacked and suspended female bodies cast from paper. The model was obviously a Barbie doll -- not for the sake of pop-cultural commentary, but for the sake of convenience.

The faces in Mouths of Ash are ravaged by what they have seen.
DiverseWorks
The faces in Mouths of Ash are ravaged by what they have seen.

Details

"Alfredo Jaar: The Sound of Silence": Through April 29.

"Artists Responding to Violence": Through April 23.

"Alfredo Jaar: The Sound of Silence": DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, 713-223-8346.

"Artists Responding to Violence": FotoFest Headquarters and Gallery Space, 1113 Vine Street, 713-223-5522.

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If only everything were as strong as the Jaar piece. FotoFest needs to be more open to photo-based work that pushes the envelope, but at the same time, it needs to be more selective. The Jaar piece was phenomenal, and going from it to Vine Street starkly illustrates the difference between photojournalism and art. Jaar is by no means the only artist out there making powerful, photo-based work, but too few of the others have found their way into FotoFest. We can only hope The Sound of Silence is a harbinger of things to come.

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