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"The Buffalo Hunters"

A Show at Art League Houston yields mixed results

Eric Michael Jones should be applauded for thinking big. His digital photos, some printed as large as five feet tall, uphold my general thinking concerning photography exhibits: the bigger the better. Who wants to squint? Film grain should be viewed in blown-up proportions — it enhances the image. Digital photography, though, pre­sents issues. As much as Jones earns points for going extra large, he may want to think about downsizing, both in dimension and in concept.

Of the eight images on display in "The Buffalo Hunters," many of which were inspired by fairy tales and short stories, only one truly gets under the skin. Nobody Said Anything, inspired by the Raymond Carver story, depicts twin girls disemboweling a tuna-size lionfish hanging by its tailfin from a noose. One girl covers the fish's eye, while the other, wearing long, black rubber gloves, pulls a mix of entrails and jewelry (diamond necklaces, strings of pearls) out of a slit in the fish's belly. The girls' expressions aren't of glee, and their demeanor isn't indicative of two children who've just whacked open the world's most bizarre piñata. They're simply focused on the job. It's wonderfully unsettling.

The image contains elements of collage; Jones has obviously pasted brunette wigs on the twins, and their heads are disproportionate to their bodies, suggesting another cut-and-paste job. Hell, the whole thing's probably Photoshopped (Jones admits that the works in "The Buffalo Hunters" contain very little of his own personal photography). Still, Nobody Said Anything works as an example of well-composed digital imagery. The noticeable imperfections of digital media — the obvious indications of Photoshop surgery — augment the image's content, its dream logic.

Another piece scores, though not as effectively as this one. In The Scarlet Ibis, which might be a posed shot, a dead girl lies in the tall grass, stalked by the titular bird. Jones's restraint is effective; the image is sharp, and the colors are only slightly unreal.

From there, things get convoluted. Both The Wood and Hansel, the two photos inspired by fairy tales, look like green-screen posed costume portraits pasted on top of stock "woods" imagery. Both images deal with child endangerment. The little girl of The Wood hides from a masked, bird-beaked villain, and a black-cloaked witch leaks to the camera her toxic intentions for little Hansel. The images' sheer size reveals ugly pixilation and areas, like the border along the witch's coat, where a smoothing or blurring tool should have been employed. Admittedly, viewed scaled-down at Jones's Web site, www.ericmjones.com, both photos fare better. The witch's digitally elongated forehead is a nice, weird touch, but what's with those cheesy bruises on her forearm and wrist? They look more like leopard spots.

A lack of emotional engagement endangers these images more than their adult subjects threaten the captured children. In his exhibition statement, Jones refers to his emotional connection with the stories that inspired these photos — how they break his heart, how powerful and moving he finds them. Yet these works feel passionless and drained of action. The large dimensions, in this case, seem to emphasize what is missing.

Action finally occurs in the final three photos, a trio for which the show was named. Over the course of The Buffalo Hunters I, II and III, four tween-aged girls jump off the same cliff into a lake. The nighttime setting and the girls' clothing suggest they snuck out of a pajama party to go midnight swimming. Jones relates it to "the historical practice of driving senseless, panicked packs of buffalo off the edges of cliffs to their death below as a means of harvesting the herd." Except here, Jones posits, the children take control and aggressively engage in the urge to jump. This pretension taints what are otherwise interesting images. Essentially, Jones hasn't leaped off the cliff himself. He's too concerned here with the intellectual threads connecting his inspiration to his imagery — "the big idea" in big, bold print. He should scale down a little: There's action; there's a progression; there's a potential outcome. Simple. There's no need to bring the buffaloes into it.

 
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