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Insecurity Complex

Multipronged art: The forks in Mauricio Alejo's Tenedores take on a life of their own.
Mauricio Alejo

Houston is a city enamored of festivals, with seemingly endless imagination for thinking up subjects to champion. While FotoFest does not typically stimulate a thirst for either Miller Lite or electric guitars -- and, in this way, is more akin to Worldfest than to either the Westheimer Street Festival or the Freedom Festival -- it does share a common trait of the festival mentality: It is, underneath that extroverted loudmouth exterior, a bumbling mass of insecurities.

FotoFest, in its 16 years of existence, has staked a claim for itself as a major international photographic event; yet as festivals go, it's really a 98-pound weakling, unattractive and unwanted, compared to, say, the muscle-bound Houston International Festival. Likewise, as a barometer of contemporary photographic practice it doesn't seem particularly relevant, at least not in the sense of making or breaking careers, defining trends, or providing scandal or gossip for columnists. It does not, in other words, do for photography what the Whitney Biennial does for contemporary art.

Photography as a visual art has been insecure ever since a band of 19th-century romantics first dreamed up the idea. That the medium holds an uncontested place among the most culturally significant technologies of the last 200 years, right up there with electricity and dryer sheets, has only recently begun to boost its practitioners' confidence. While the verdict's still out on whether this flood of images has made us more aware or more numb, we can agree that photography has brought the world together in an unprecedented way.

Significantly, FotoFest founders Wendy Watriss and Fred Baldwin have consistently made a global perspective a top priority by bringing in photographers from all over the world, acting as something of a National Geographic with a more equal distribution of cameras. FotoFest 2000 continues this tradition and expands on it with the Festival of Light, a series of 22 photography events in 16 countries that launches with the Houston festival and runs through the end of the year. Each festival is linked on the Internet at www.festivaloflight.org.

FotoFest has come a long way from its dowdy days at the George R. Brown Convention Center; it has forsaken its over-the-top trade-show-style exhibitions of the early '90s for modestly scaled yet industrially chic spaces scattered throughout downtown. Radiating outward from its new home base at Vine Street Studios, FotoFest 2000 celebrates the "Eighth International Month of Photography" with more than 100 exhibits in galleries, museums, corporate lobbies, community centers, alternative spaces, department store windows and restaurants.

For all their impressive reach, FotoFest-curated shows actually constitute less than 15 percent of the exhibitions in this year's festival, making the organization more master of ceremonies than headliner. If any grand themes emerge from FotoFest 2000, it is up to the viewer to find them; the hunt can be plentiful or scarce, depending on how adventurous one is at navigating a path through the cobweb of shows clinging to any available wall space in the city. Despite the communal aura of Houston's emerging downtown district, the two essential elements of any successful tour of FotoFest are the finely printed exhibition guides and a car.

FotoFest 2000's premier exhibition, "Contemporary Korean Photographers: The New Generation" at Williams Tower Gallery, features the first generation of Koreans to practice photography as an art, free from the practical limitations of journalism and the ideological trappings of national identity. What distinguishes these ten artists' works from their predecessors' is the freedom with which they explore an individual expression that, the curators argue, represents a unique moment in Korean history.

While the 1988 Olympics in Seoul opened channels of communication between Korea and the West, many of these pictures display an ambivalence toward modernization and the creeping influence of Western thinking. Chuha Chung's Voices of the Earth series is a darkened set of prints, rich in midtones, that portrays a near-barren earth from a humbling bug's-eye view. In speaking of his work, Chuha aligns himself with John Steinbeck's salt-of-the-earth workers. He warns that "Now in Korea, we think of the earth as money, not as land for farming, but for capitalism and speculation."

Aiming his camera at the decidedly unnatural, Hongchun Park photographs unpopulated, grimly lit amusement parks, discovering surreal juxtapositions and sinister imagery, which provide a stark contrast to the intrinsic feel-good nature of the subject. In Museum Project (1995-1998), Seokjung Kim somberly reduces his environments to dehumanized museum exhibits, staging elaborate scenes of nude men and women placed inside plastic display cases, which are then set upon a Buddhist altar, or alongside a couple eating dinner (who not only are sharing an oversize helping of raw beef but are themselves encased in an even larger box).

Expressing their hesitations from a more contemplative viewpoint, Byunghun Min, Jungjin Lee and co-curator Bohnchang Koo portray the fragility of the natural world as manmade forces conspire against it. Lee's American Desert, Koo's A Portrait of Time and Min's Weed series evoke meditation through large-scale, hand-tinted prints (Lee) and through delicate approaches to traditional silver gelatin prints (Min), all of which seem to suggest that God, indeed, is in the details.

 

It's not surprising that a practice so new in Korea's history should yield so few truly surprising results, yet one can't help but feel the choice of exhibition space does little to enhance the work's uniqueness. The Williams Tower lobby may receive more traffic in a month than any gallery space in town, but the cramped partitions are far from inviting.

One of the largest FotoFest 2000 exhibitions is also the most obscurely named, "Highlights in Nordic Photogravure." Filling the cavernous space of Winter Street Studios, this show is based on the discovery of Eli Ponsaing, associate professor of graphic arts at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, who updated the antiquated copper-gravure plating process for a more efficient and environmentally sound polymer-based method. The effects are largely painterly, allowing a range of color control and texture unavailable from conventional photographic processes. Like most art, however, which focuses so heavily on technique and method, there is little behind the surface to engage you.

In his exhibit "Objetos Ajenos/Alien Objects" at Vine Street Studios, Mexico City resident Mauricio Alejo also tampers with his craft, manipulating the surfaces of his larger-than-life prints into a gritty chiaroscuro, in which the harsh contrasts of light and dark are almost tangible. His simple arrangements of found objects, whether the can in Lata (1997) or the forks in Tenedores (1998), become characters in Alejo's expressionistic vignettes. He tends to abuse his characters by subjecting them to excessive darkroom manipulations, elevating the photographer's techniques over the subject matter.

The images in Bill Jacobson's Portraits series (1993), part of the "Portraits, Songs, Thoughts" exhibit at the University of Houston's Blaffer Gallery, are less like paintings than lightly rendered charcoal drawings. The fading gray outlines of Jacobson's subjects give the impression that you're watching an image develop in the darkroom. Yet his portraits never crystallize, their stunted evolution saying in clear yet sullen tones that the subject refuses to be captured. Jacobson's formal inventiveness serves his subject matter well, matching an easy-on-the-eyes sensuality with a whispered, elegiac voice.

Representing one of the more austere schools in recent photography is the group show "Contemporary German Landscapes" at ArtScan Gallery. Recent German photography has become synonymous with the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, professors and artists whose deadpan serial shots of water towers, grain silos and other architectural structures have influenced two generations of German photographers. What distinguishes ArtScan's works from much of what we see in FotoFest 2000 is the Germans' unquestioning belief in photography's most fundamental ability: to record small bits of information on paper. Hans-Christian Schink is the standout here, proving that it does help to spend the extra money on exceptionally large prints. Schink achieves grand effect with minimal means. A 14 Anschlubstelle Leipzig-Mitte (1996) is simply a portrait of a large grassy hill against a bleached-out sky. Despite its matter-of-fact veneer, the image is as dense as a piece of sculpture while still conveying all the subtle tones that only a photograph can capture.

Lawing Gallery devotes its entire space to New Yorker Philip-Lorca diCorcia's cinematic urban scenes. DiCorcia, as though moving against the forces of nature, combines two seemingly opposing practices, the captured moments of '60s-era "street photography" with the more recent techniques of staged photography, into one not entirely seamless package. As one might expect, the results often give off a freakish, genetically engineered glow. By carefully mixing artificial light with daylight, diCorcia not only creates an ambiguous space between intention and accident, but also alters the photographs' depth of field, allowing us to be in two places at once. It adds to the works' unsettling psychological narratives.

The collaborative duo known as MANUAL (Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom) offers narratives of a different sort in the unfortunately awkward rear space of Moody Gallery. Allegorical works, The Story of Wood and The Story of Water, and the ambitious video Time Out of Joint projected on the back wall with hi-fi sound, continue to blur the boundaries between technology and nature, the digital and the analog, and virtual and tactile experience on a scale not previously shown.

Although isolated from much of FotoFest 2000's core activity, Inman Gallery makes a generous contribution with San Francisco-based photographer Todd Hido and Houston FotoFest veteran Amy Blakemore. Hido's night and early-morning shots outside nondescript suburban homes use available light and long exposures not only to emphasize the banal alienation of such places but also to serve as supreme color studies. Thickly hued light, electric blue or powder-pink, floods each frame like an eerie night-light or suspicious vapor enveloping the neighborhood. Conversely, Blakemore has none of Hido's patience -- a good thing, as her subjects are fleeting, or stumbled upon, and only a snapshot will do. Blakemore attempts intimacy, but still creeps up on her subjects nonetheless: Mom (2000) and Dad (1999) both appear to be sleeping.

 

FotoFest 2000 presents an enticing spread, buffet-style, that can appease the hunger for images of both the casual observer and the photography aficionado. Clinging to every festival's mantra, "relax, enjoy yourself, there's plenty more where this came from," FotoFest has assembled a collection of gallery shows that undeniably fill us up but leave us wondering, after all the guests have gone home, what exactly we have consumed.


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