single family photograph can conjure a host of memories: the taste of dry turkey, wriggling in the itchy dress your mother made you wear, trying to kick cousins under the table. But even when the images are not your own, photography retains its unique ability to conjure a sense of place, to trigger memories, to launch narratives. Images of the real world allow us to mentally insert ourselves into the scene, while the conventions of black-and-white photography invoke nostalgia. Two new exhibitions capitalize on these qualities: Sicardi Gallery's exhibition of Eduardo Muñoz, curated by Wendy Watriss, artistic director of FotoFest, and FotoFest's own "Photographic Eye" presentation of the work of three Central European photographers.
Austin-based artist Eduardo Muñoz left his native Cuba ten years ago at the age of 29. His work at Sicardi Gallery melds present and past, using photographs as "mnemonic devices" to trigger associations. Muñoz's images rely on other photographs within them for a hall-of-mirrors sort of nostalgia. In his series Sabina's Letters (1999-2000), photographed domestic interiors are themselves populated by photographic images. A woman's mouth and nose are projected over the corner and down the wall, the image pixilated like a television screen, the orange-red of her gently parted lips radiating against the mildly grotty Sheetrock. The face seems to grow out of the interior, beckoning you to walk through the door ajar at the end of the hallway. The banal, prosaically lit interior has been skewed into something neither comfortable nor ominous.
Muñoz's most successful images play the crisp, saturated color of contemporary settings and objects against exaggeratedly vintage images. The visual disjunction serves to emphasize the haziness of memory. In one powerful juxtaposition, the bag and handle of an upright vacuum serve as vertical compositional elements on the left side of the print, and the grainy black-and-white image of a man at the beach, looking down as he holds something (a fish?), covers the back wall. The pairing of the indistinct photo and the hyperclarity of the domestically industrial vacuum mimics the coexistence of internal reverie and mundane life. Another image depicts the glaringly lit interior of an elevator with warped wood laminate walls and a decrepit linoleum floor. Next to it, a blurred black-and-white image of a little girl levitates on the concrete block wall. Her arms are straight down at the sides of her 1940s gingham dress. Her feet are a cloud of ruffled white anklets. Her stance is the stiff and awkward pose of a child trying to stand "properly." The vintage image floats like a memory among the frayed edges of the contemporary institutional space. She becomes an icon of lost youth, of bygone days, of awkward innocence -- somehow threatened by and lost to time.
Time and nostalgia are also integral elements in the work on view at FotoFest's "The Photographic Eye: Contemporary Photography from Central Europe." The three young photographers based in the Czech Republic present well-crafted, small-scale, quietly traditional black-and-white photography. Their nostalgic aesthetic is strongly influenced by the mid-century Czech photographer Josef Sudek and his metaphorical take on ordinary objects, his embrace of nature and his attention to the intimacies of daily life. But instead of being retrograde, the artists' loving embrace of the approach seems a statement in itself.
In Waiting for Jirka and Tomas (1999), Czech photographer Voita V. Sláma gives us the scrawny legs of a boy, cropped above the knee. His feet disappear into hiking shoes that look impossibly big; he's a preadolescent whose feet grew first. The shadow of his gawky torso stands next to him on the stuccoed wall.
Shot in Potsdam, Germany, Smoking Room (2001) engages in similar shadow play, but it also evokes a distinct sense of place. A pedestal table stands on one spindly, shiny metal leg, its top awkwardly draped with a starched white cloth. An ashtray with a smoking cigarette rests on top. Below, the draped table's shadow creates an elegantly amorphous shape on the cold terrazzo floor.
The sparsely populated image's visual clues bespeak communist-era public space; it retains that particular brand of newly minted grimness manufactured behind the iron curtain. In contrast, Igor Malijevsky's Stairs II (1998), shot in Prague, captures the decaying grandeur that was suspended in amber under communist rule and that has yet to take on the glossy preservational sheen of nascent capitalism. Malijevsky's work is moodier and more manipulated that Sláma's. A dark, curving art nouveau iron railing is in soft focus at the top of the stairs. The foreground is an atmospheric blur, with a dark shape that could be either a banister or a figure.
Malijevsky's Telephone (1997) seems straight out of the 1930s (except for the slender phone). We see the back of a woman in a dark dress seated in a white chair. Her pale, elegant neck is encircled by the delicate links of a necklace. And there's a curve to her body as she sits and reads while the phone waits on the windowsill above the cast-iron radiator.
Slovenian artist Aleksandra Vajd presents some of the subtlest yet most powerful images from the group. Her series Crumbs upon the sheet (1998-99) is printed in tiny format but framed floating in large white mats. Her aesthetic is slightly more contemporary than the others' but it feels timeless. In one shot the soft, glowing curves of a frosted glass vase are illuminated as it rests in the aged plaster niche of a window. An even more tightly cropped photo gives us the back of a head of tousled hair against a faintly clouded sky. In another, a square of light strikes the floor next to a crumpled, but delicately knitted, sweater. In the adjacent photo, a child's chubby hand, overwhelmed by the thick cuffs of his sweater, is pressed against the glass, looking out onto a soft gray scene of houses and woods.
Muñoz is a Cuban expatriate who gives us memories in the context of contemporary environments. There's a sense in his work of remembering something far away. In contrast, the worlds of the young Central European artists have undergone drastic changes. Yet they photograph contemporary environments like nostalgic memories.
Eduardo Muoz Through May 10 at Sicardi Gallery, 2246 Richmond, 713-529-1313.
"The Photographic Eye: Contemporary Photography from Central Europe" Through May 18 at FotoFest Headquarters, 1113 Vine, 713-223-5522.
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