FotoFest is the South By Southwest of art festivals — there are shows all over town from artists near and far, and despite your best intentions, it's impossible to be everywhere and see everything.
Even with time on your side — FotoFest runs about a month and a half — with more than 100 participating galleries, museums, art centers, universities, civic organizations and corporate spaces showing during the biennial photography festival, nobody's going to make it to every show that's stamped with the "FotoFest 2012" logo. In fact, there's a whole exhibition — "Discoveries of the Meeting Place" — that consists of audience favorites from the previous FotoFest, in case you missed them.
So, you pick and choose based on your valued criteria — artist, proximity, curator, subject matter, what have you. I managed to factor in all of the above when strategizing a FotoFest day.
My first stop of the day brought me to DeSantos Gallery and its new show from Cara Barer. The Houston fine art photographer last impressed at the space three years ago with images from her book project — an exhilarating piece of sculpture and photography that saw the artist manipulating old books, twisting and coloring pages in alluring ways. Barer follows that up here with additional works in paper in "Time Capsules." Instead of manipulating paper, though, she stacks magazines and newspapers on top of each other, pages folded so you can just barely see various headlines and dates, and photographs them. There are snippets of familiar headlines from the past year's biggest stories. "Drought" can be seen in all caps in the piece Sheer Madness, the headline "King of Pop's Doctor Guilty" in Hallucination, and, in what has to be a reference to Ai Weiwei and his zodiac heads now in Hermann Park, "12 Heads Do the Talking for a Silenced Artist."
The photographs themselves are blown up so that these stacks overwhelm with a larger-than-life quality. You're surrounded by text that you'll essentially never read. Whereas the books in Barer's earlier works were unreadable due to her manipulation, here it's because of information overload. The dramatic lighting of the "time capsules" is reminiscent of the artist's earlier book photographs, but whereas those were visually stunning and unique, the stacked effect gets tiring real fast, and the show is a bit ho-hum.
Upstairs, another local artist, Shelley Calton, also presents a new series with "License to Carry." Calton's known for her gritty roller-derby portraits. In a similar documentary-style fashion, she continues to shoot female niches, but her subjects draw their power not from physical bouts, but guns.
As the name implies, the women photographed in the series can carry a concealed weapon. In Calton's photographs, though, they reveal their guns. One woman displays hers in its case, while another clutches it to her stomach while lying on her bed. Most of their faces are visible, though some remain unseen — a cropped head, a hand clutching a gun, or just the gun itself, warning label in focus. When their faces are visible, the women have a sense of peace of mind, or calm, about them.
Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, there are lighter moments and some subtle humor in these striking portraits. In Alana, Alana is in her girly bathroom. She's putting blush on her face with a pink brush while wearing a pink leopard-print robe, a Hello Kitty soap dispenser on the sink not too far from a large black handgun. For Jessica, Calton photographs a closet shoe rack. Among the bright sandals and heels, the owner also hangs her gun.
A few blocks from DeSantos is Liliana Porter's "Fragment of the Cast" at Sicardi Gallery. The quirky show, with its mix of photographs, mixed media and installation, is a nice companion to John Waters's show at McClain Gallery next door. If you have the time, you should definitely do both. But where Waters's work is often gross, strange and delightfully distasteful — photos of puke and drug use are now seared in my mind — Porter doesn't want to offend, but rather to delight with playful imagery.
The Argentinean artist is known for her photographs of miniature items — small figurines, painted cups and curious trinkets — that, when touched by Porter, take on new life or comic circumstances. In Man with Axe, a trail of carnage — broken plates, scattered chairs, the head of a Charlie Brown — leads to a figurine of a tiny man, ax in mid swing. Similarly, in Forced Labor, a giant mess of rope can be traced to a comically small figurine of a man, winding it all up. Her photos cleverly manage to animate these figures, especially Dialogue. Here, a wide-eyed girl is photographed against a large white background, her big eyes on a toy penguin that's on the other side of the glass. The expressive faces of the figurines, coupled with the imaginative interactions among the different objects, all toy with your perceptions of reality. It's like something out of Toy Story — you feel like the second you turn around, they're going to move and go about their business, smashing plates or wrapping up rope.
A five-minute drive gets you to two shows at Lawndale. In "You, Me & Diane," hanging in the space's back gallery, the "me" is Emily Peacock, the "Diane" is Diane Arbus and the "you" is either us, the audience or the friends and family Peacock enlists to help restage some of Arbus's famous photographs from the book Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph.
Arbus is one of the most prominent photographers of the 20th century, made famous for her black-and-white portraits of people on the margins of society — giants, dwarfs, transvestites, nudists, circus performers. So it's a pretty brazen move by Peacock to re-create her iconic images. She goes beyond, say, a Sherrie Levine, and inserts herself into most of the photographs as she restages them, down to the dress and posture, as much as she can.
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The resulting photographs are more playful than anything. There's a youthful, "playing dress-up" quality, but when art students play dress-up, they take it further, imitating a young man in curlers at home on West 20th Street, a Mexican dwarf in his hotel room, a nudist lady with swan sunglasses, a hermaphrodite with a dog in a carnival trailer, a child with a toy hand grenade, an albino sword swallower. Peacock transforms herself into these central figures through detailed makeup, wigs and costuming. If in doubt, you know it's her thanks to the tattoo down her right arm.
It's a clever conceit, and the photographs are charming, but one thing does nag. The people Arbus photographed really were giants, dwarfs, nudists, transvestites; they weren't pretending for a photo shoot. The show is ultimately an homage to Arbus, but let us not make light of the often unfortunate people who made her so famous in the first place.
Upstairs at Lawndale is a big name around here — Chuy Benitez. The celebrated Houston photographer is serving as curator, though, not exhibitor. In "The Photographic Mirror," he's pulled together 16 artists whose works aim to represent modern self-portraiture. It's varied stuff, from black-and-white shots, to Us Weekly-like faux-magazine covers, to triptychs, to digitally manipulated photos, with artists hailing from Houston and as far away as Iran. Standouts include Joel Hernandez's contextual, theatrical self-portraits that reference his Mexico upbringing, and two works by Alejandro Cartagena. In one, he's standing on a roof, holding a comically enlarged print of an old-school portrait in front of his head. In another, he's similarly disguised, standing behind a door mirror. Both play with traditional notions of self-representation in a refreshing way.
At some point during the festival, you're going to wind up at Spring Street Studios. The big show up right now on its two floors is "Contemporary Russian Photography," one of the three main FotoFest exhibitions focusing on Russian photography (works falling under the theme will be reviewed in an upcoming issue of the Houston Press by Kelly Klaasmeyer). But some of the artists in the studios also have work up to coincide with the festival. And for a two-in-one, Lynn Lane and Carrie Courtney display photos that are a departure from their bread and butter in "Things That We See and Do." Lane is known for his photographs of dancers, Courtney her portraits of animals. You'll find neither here, but rather black-and-white photos of the night from both. Lane's are taken from a 2 a.m. drive through Pasadena — you can even see the speedometer registering his miles per hour in a photograph of an oil refinery taken while Lane was at the wheel of his Jeep. Courtney's are pulled from trips to Kemah, Florida and San Francisco and feature electric shots of a boardwalk, carnival and street scene that play with the contrast between light and dark. Both sets are richly textured, spontaneous-feeling works worth a quick detour from the main event.