It's a bird, it's a plane, it's an artist! Paul Smith plays action hero at the Blumenthal Sheet Metal warehouse.
Paul Smith

FotoFest is the art world's version of the Bataan Death March. Large-scale art events always offer an overwhelming amount of work to see and engender a commensurate level of exhaustion and image oversaturation. But at least at, say, the Venice Biennale, or Germany's Documenta, the exhibition is usually concentrated in an area manageable for walking. FotoFest, held in the city built around the car, offers special challenges. With 140 scattered venues and a terrain of bulldozed trenches and buckled asphalt, Houston's epic biennial photo-based art event requires the skill of an orienteer, the dedication of a religious pilgrim and the gutsiness of a Paris-Dakar Rally driver. Hurry up, light rail, and God help the poor visiting bastards who didn't rent a car.

Themed "The Classical Eye and Beyond," FotoFest 2002 features both traditional photography and new media. The cornerstone of the classicism exhibit is a museum-quality show of Russian pictorialism, vintage photographs from the 1880s to the 1930s, at Williams Tower. Well, it's not all at Williams Tower. The 1920s nudes have been relegated to the FotoFest offices. Apparently Williams considered the rather tame images to be inappropriate for display. One such "shocking" photograph, now on view at FotoFest's Vine Street headquarters, is Aleksander Grinberg's 1926 Dark Tonality Nude. Only the woman's torso is visible; the head and limbs fade into the black background, mimicking a fragment of classical statuary. It's an elegant image, though ripe for contemporary feminist critique.

You can walk across the Main Street bridge from FotoFest HQ to the old Sunset Coffee Building on Allen's Landing -- unless you're playing beat the clock for a 6 p.m. close and it's your ninth stop of the day. Taking the liberty of pro-rating, I slipped a dollar into the slot at a "$6 All Day" parking lot and emerged to the pungent aroma of raw sewage. Either those ubiquitous construction workers hit a line or that smell is coming from the bayou, where, incredibly, a yacht from Delaware is moored. Yeah, and I'm going canoeing at the waste treatment plant.

Memories of Spaces and History, Georges Rousse's installation at Sunset, is worth even full-price parking and olfactory assault. In photo documentation (on view at Barbara Davis Gallery), Rousse's installations simply seem to be images and colored shapes digitally overlaid on photographs of architectural spaces. But the photos record Rousse's actual manipulation of the space, what you too would see if you stood at the camera's perfect point of view. Rousse's specific visual and structural alterations on the first floor (black line drawings on painted white rectangles) turn the empty, grotty, three-dimensional warehouse corners into two-dimensional images of downtown's vanished architectural facades. An amazing visual click occurs when you stand at the correct perspective and three dimensions flatten into two.

Leaving the Rousse installation, do not rush out of the parking lot and drive seven blocks down Commerce Street until you realize the Topek Building was a block and a half from where you were already parked. (The fuse for my blinkers blew again, so my U-turn prompted more than the usual rush-hour ire.) At the Topek (no. 10 for those bright enough to actually look at the handy FotoFest map), Andreas Müller-Pohle presents ENTROPIA, a hypnotic video of rolling, notched metal cylinders shredding the artist's photographs. Nothing is safe, and the action feels increasingly violent. As people stand by in rapt fascination, individual creation is systematically destroyed by the sleekly impersonal machines.

Also at the Topek Building, Fraser Stable's video Double Garage Scene presents a film clip side-by-side with its mirrored image. The camera pans around a garage in a circle, so that the original and flipped images run together at the center of the screen, disappearing into themselves. The scene shows a man sitting in his car singing a Tosca aria with powerful focus. A tough young man in a leather jacket repeatedly urges him, "Come on, let's go," but to no avail. The sound is slightly out of sync, giving the film a muffled, disoriented feeling, like a glimpse back in time. The images endlessly circle into each other, and the man's strong, clear tenor fills the room.

Outside the Topek, I discover my tire is flat -- too much urban off-roading. A housing-challenged guy hanging out in the Spaghetti Warehouse parking lot helps me change it with an alacrity worthy of an Indy 500 pit crew member. I'd want him with me on the road to Dakar. Mobility restored, I head to the Blumenthal Sheet Metal warehouse north of FotoFest HQ, where some of the strongest new media work is housed.

Martha Burgess presents her work in progress, Gumshoe, Opus 23, "moonlighting." A flat screen displays blurred images of a roadway at night, overlaid with arcs and streaks of light that change in sync with a Beethoven score. The effect is moody and sparsely elegant. In a low voice, Burgess tells a grief-stricken story about attending the wake of two murdered boys. Then the narrative changes into a stream-of-conscious account of witnessing September 11 from her balcony. It is a hauntingly effective piece that hovers nicely in the gray zone where film, literature, and visual and performance art come together.

Also at Blumenthal, Paul Smith gives us images of invincible action heroes à la James Bond or Bruce Willis circa Die Hard, men who can avert any disaster. Smith's previous work has explored male roles in the military and just hanging out with the guys. His current installation is a succession of photo light boxes hung from the ceiling, where we find the artist in various guises: leaping between two skyscrapers; parachuting to earth in a dark suit and sunglasses; and dangling from a helicopter skid in a crisp white suit, his face a grimace as his gun falls from his grasp. It is witty, engaging work that looks as much fun to make as to view.

Taking a page from Bond movie intros featuring curvaceous silhouettes, Charles Cohen removes the participants from pornography, leaving surgically altered and contorted cutouts of blank white in the cheesy sets. The kitchens, bedrooms, car-wash parking lots and lawn furniture take on increased visual importance, partially freed from their role as backdrops for improbable and ambitious sexual coupling. The formal effect of the abstracted forms is compelling, but mostly viewers are trying to mentally reconstruct the details. Pushing the voyeuristic aspect of the work even further, Cohen also presents live-action digital videos with his obscured figures -- the audio of their sighs and the sounds of creaking bedsprings left intact. One viewer, engrossed in the de-peopled video, looked guilty and startled when another patron walked into the gallery -- and doubtless he wasn't the only one.

But Cohen doesn't know when to stop. Not content with photographic and video manifestations of the project, he transformed an image of two butt-to-butt women into a life-size white plastic sculpture. Without the visual context of background, the sculpture moves into the zone of the chrome girls on trucker mud flaps, without the kitsch value.

Oliver Wasow's videos are digitally pieced together from photos and animation to create unnatural landscapes with real components. In one scene, clouds are still in the fixed background image but a billboard presents a swiftly changing video of clouds gathering and dissipating in a chimerical sky. In another video, a billboard placed in a grassy field displays an endless explosion, the sound melding with the noises of insects at night. Technology affords artists virtually the same capabilities as film directors with huge budgets. Think of what the surrealists would have done with this fascinating and disturbing ability to take actual and constructed elements and meld them into a convincing but impossible photographic image.

Claude Closky's installation is absurdity incarnate. An entire room has been built to house a wall-size projection of Closky's Web site. A mouse on a crisp white table allows you to click on the "+1" box in the middle of a plain blue screen with a five-digit number at the bottom. Click and 77,732 increases by one to 77,733. Click spastically and suddenly you're at 77,758. Why the hell are you doing this? Now you know how lab rats feel.

There is a glut of good work up in Houston right now. Let's see, I've got 106 venues left…I'd better join AAA.

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