Liliana Porter is describing a gold plastic bust-of-Jesus lamp in her soft Argentinean accent. She's using the over-the-top light fixture as a means to explain her fascination with the kitsch objects she selects to star in her photographs and videos. "How did this thing come to be?" she begins, and then wryly answers her own question. "First, someone had to write the Bible..."
The mind leaps ahead through history to Leonardo da Vinci, then Thomas Edison, trying to establish the timeline of people and events that has resulted in this example of Catholic kitsch at its finest. The convoluted origins of banal decorative objects are just part of the fascination for Porter. She also used her figurines to explore ideas of reality and simulated reality. Her collection, which focuses on objects from her youth in the '50s and '60s, would bring her a lot of money on eBay. That kind of kitsch appeal could be overwhelming if it weren't for Porter's skillful use of her tchotchkes as narrative characters.
Porter's subjects include things like a ceramic John John (with yellow hair?) saluting the unseen coffin of his father, People's Republic of China worker figurines straight out of a cultural revolution souvenir stand, and annoying wind-up toys. Her photographs show everything from single or paired figures to casts of dozens. Shooting four- by five-inch negatives, Porter gets more-real-than-real shots that she prints in saturated Cibachrome colors. A bear-pitcher with a gaping hole for a mouth stares wide-eyed back at the viewer from a blizzard-white background. A white porcelain figurine of a woman -- like an angular mass-market Henry Moore -- sits with her elbow resting on her knee, in conversation with a tiny ceramic mouse. They seem to be taking a 15-minute break from their duties as bric-a-brac to pause and chat.
While the photographs are successful, it is in her video Drum Solo (2000) that Porter achieves greatness. With a strong sense of the tragicomic, she creates deft juxtapositions and uses music to imbue the inane objects with emotional power. The videos are almost unanimated rather than animated. The action is provided by stop-motion camera techniques or by simply moving the tiny figures on camera.
By using the dynamic shooting angles we associate with Hollywood's flesh-and-blood film stars, Porter's camera highlights the crudeness of the objects. In Gaucho, a plastic souvenir doll with an unconvincing wig and mustache is shown in a dramatic up shot, while equally dramatic guitar music plays in the background. Another vignette shows a cheaply made blond doll in a blue dress as she stands film noir-style in the shadow of a paned window. Her immobile face is shown in extreme close-up as we hear a tango-influenced rendition of "My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean."
Music creates a completely imagined sense of drama in a scene where a smiling ceramic pig with a drum sits and stares at us to the sound of a drum roll. It's used to comic effect as an absurd choir of various Chinese figurines inexplicably sings a pentatonic Havah Nagila against a luminous red background.
There is love in Porter's work. Bride and groom figurines struggle through the whipped-cream carnage of a wedding cake only to be unceremoniously scooped away by a silver cake server. There are kisses as well, and in Porter's videos it takes all kinds: A porcelain dog with acrylic hair kisses a duck crafted from tiny shells as a gentle breeze ruffles his topknot; Minnie Mouse tongues Che Guevara on a souvenir plate; and a bust of a Nazi solider kisses and looks longingly at a dog.
Porter's characters also know tragedy. The openmouthed plastic head of a boy peeks out from under the sole of a shoe; the threat dissipates when the camera pulls back to reveal that the shoe is unoccupied. A Mickey Mouse lies prone with a long black string tied around his feet; the string is slowly pulled taut until Mickey's body is dragged across the floor, his head left behind. In another scene a tiny white plastic cowboy aims his gun at a huge goofy, round piggy bank; there is the sound of an explosion and all that's left of piggy is a pile of orange powder. At the end of the video the entire cast assembles for a musical grand finale as the camera pans to each of them, pausing at the stars.
Objects from the photographs and the videos make guest appearances at the gallery. A penciled-in road moves across the wall onto a shelf and up to a small house painted on a blue-and-white Chinese vase; a plastic man in a business suit pauses on the path home. On another shelf a faded plastic Soviet solider stares down a Limoges penguin box. Ultimately, however, the strength of the video makes the previously satisfying images and objects seem secondary.
All of Porter's work bespeaks a keen wit. Deceptively simple, it's anything but a one-liner. Porter manages to cull layers of meaning from the most ridiculous kitsch figures, making us feel real remorse for having so unfairly underestimated them. Her video is the kind of thing you drag your friends to see. Let's hope she makes another soon.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events