A Look at Books
Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom, the digital photography pioneers (and married couple) known as MANUAL, return to their roots in a way for this first major collaborative exhibit since their 2004 retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. As photography goes, it's both fascinating and troubling. As another chapter in Hill and Bloom's collaboration, it's very refreshing. Gone is the dated-looking "digital vs. nature" juxtaposition that dominated their earlier work. The duo now seems to be utilizing technology as a tool for nuance, subtlety and emphasis, rather than for techno-referential ironic/ambiguous statements.
Just like it sounds, "MANUAL on books" is a photographic meditation on books — specifically, it appears, ones from Hill and Bloom's personal library. The 42 inkjet prints depict hardcover and paperback books in a variety of settings and treatments, from still-life to abstract, and like any given book, each photograph succeeds or fails based upon the scenario it employs.
In terms of imagery itself, rendered by photography, I'm disappointed in the virtual exclusion of people and faces in this show. I tend to find still-life photography excruciatingly boring and certainly questionable as fine art. Occasionally, though, I'm surprised by a certain composition or thematic charge in an assemblage of objects. Still, I'd rather look at pictures of people. And there's really only one soul in the entire show. Bea Studying Degas captures a young girl lying on a Persian rug, reading art books. Amazingly, though, Hill and Bloom manage to make it almost completely uninteresting, one of the most uninteresting in the entire exhibit, for that matter. It seems haphazardly composed, like a snapshot. So obviously Hill and Bloom have chosen their nonhuman subjects wisely.
That said, there's some beautiful work here. Chrome Yellow vs. Fall Girl juxtaposes two frames of diagonal rows of identical paperbacks. The left one contains books by philosophers and Russian novelists like Dostoyevsky and Gogol. The right one contains pulp novels — sci-fi, detective stories, cheesy romance. The visual pattern is pleasing both up close and from a distance. Two photos represent Hill and Bloom's homage to artist Josef Albers's abstract color studies. Hardcovers of different sizes and colors are carefully stacked and photographed from above to mimic Albers's paintings.
For The New Gun Book, Hill and Bloom employed a collaborator named Robert Russell, who I assume must own and shoot guns. The photo displays a book by the same title riddled with bullet holes. The different-sized, spent cartridges of the bullets that were used are displayed alongside the propped-open book. It's clever. Number One and Nested Books explore shape and the physical construction of books, transforming them into sculptural objects. And Christian Manliness and Other Sermons achieves a minimalist serenity, standing solemnly on end, spine up, like a little black monolith.
One ingeniously abstract image depicts pages of photos of city manhole covers. The circles have been cut out and wrapped around little balls displayed with the pages.
The show goes wrong when it opts for pure still life, like the explicitly titled Still Life in the Dutch Manner. It's a couple stacks of old books, a skull, some green ribbon and a red-string-bound notebook obviously arranged on a studio worktable. Another captures a book of Japanese art slightly obscured by shiny red fabric. These photos lack inspiration and purpose. They look like set dressing. Others simply display a book with an object that augments it. I'm not arguing "I could do that." Certainly Hill and Bloom's exploration of the subject (books) yielded results. But this show could've used a little editing. To Moody Gallery's credit, the show is frontloaded with impressive work, while the duds reside in the back gallery.
But is there an unfortunate trend at work in Houston? Francesca Fuchs's recent show at Texas Gallery was made up entirely of paintings of paintings from her personal collection. It had a kind of aimless, zombified feel to it, as well as a deep longing, perhaps, for inspiration. "MANUAL on books," at times, embodies a similar feeling — one of the artists looking inward or at their immediate surroundings to find a new idea or direction. It's soulful, despite the soullessness, and in a sense it contains MANUAL's best work in a decade.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events