Trees and Rocks
Photographs of trees, leaves, rocks and dirt make up most of the work that's part of FotoFest 2006's central theme "The Earth." (The fest's secondary theme, "Artists Responding to Violence," was reviewed last week.) FotoFest has an admirable desire to provoke discussion and to educate, but organizers could achieve those ends so much more effectively if they would only select stronger work. A lot of the photographs are just way too National Geographic. Now, I like National Geographic, and paging through the photographs and reading the text is great, but stuff that works well in a magazine format does not always work well blown up big on the wall. This show has too many images that are long on photojournalism and short on art; others, unfortunately, make a wholehearted attempt at art and fall short. A scant few manage to be topical and to function well as art.
The theme for FotoFest 2004 was "Water," which could be taken just as literally as "The Earth" -- and it was. This year, as in 2004, even the fairly interesting photographs are simply overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of similar work. And while "Water" had its problems, there were more worthwhile works in that show.
Almost half of the artists in "Earth" have trees in their photographs. At Winter Street, the most ambitious work is by Masaki Hirano. Hirano depicts large panoramas of clear-cutting in Tasmania by blowing up and piecing together photographs in grids or panels. Yes, clear-cutting is bad; yes, we see the devastated land. But the images are shot in black and white with affectedly arty results, and there's something distant and removed about them. Scale can be really powerful, but here it comes across as a crutch for ineffective images. Hirano could have made different choices that better conveyed the sense of destruction. He also could have chosen a title other thanÉStumps of Silence.
Other artists also mix trees and environmental concerns. John Ganis photographs clear-cutting in Washington State and a pipeline running through an Alaskan forest -- again, this destruction is bad. Ganis says he's hoping to capture the "ironic beauty" of these sites, but he falls short. The photographs are neither ironically beautiful nor disturbing. They're so mediocre, we just don't care.
At Williams Tower Gallery, David Williams photographs slender tree trunks and makes them the center of a triptych. See, they aren't just any tree trunks; Williams went all the way to Japan for them. They're part of "a tree-lined pathway that runs alongside the walls of the Tofuku-ji Temple in Kyoto." Williams apparently wants to convince us that the photographs aren't boring, they're Zen...
Back at Winter Street, Vadim Gushchin's series "Wood and Bread" approaches its subjects as still life, honing in on the simple, minimalist forms of a sliced log and a sliced loaf. Mildly interesting, they come off better than Williams's equally spare trunks, but in this forest of wood-themed photographs, they barely cause you to pause.
Also at Winter Street, Vesselina Nikolaeva records former Eastern European borders -- "no man's land" -- with some fairly effective results. Here, a forest of trees becomes slightly ominous. The ghosts of the totalitarian past haunt her images of abandoned border outposts. Also exploring borders is Noel Jabbour, a Christian Palestinian artist who creates stark, dramatic photographs of the brutally divisive concrete wall Israel has erected to cordon off the West Bank. Her photographs at Winter Street are formally beautiful and morally troubling.
Herman van den Boom's work has a definite edge and a quirky point of view, even though he's presenting more pictures of trees. His photographs at One Allen Center capture banal, overly manicured Belgian domestic landscapes. His images of sticklike trees planted in a tight grid, or a hedge trimmed into a giant Jabba the Hutt-like blob, focus on the absurdity of the human manipulation of nature. The photos have clean, spare compositions that highlight the formal aspects of hedges, trees and tidy brick houses.
Also at One Allen Center, Keith Johnson has a similar propensity for the absurd, but his photographs aren't as strong as van den Boom's. He does home in on things like a hay bale in the middle of a ditch surrounded by sprayed green hydro-mulch -- an attempt at erosion control. The lurid green around the hay bale is disconcerting, but Johnson's work just doesn't have a tight enough grasp on the strange.
At Winter Street, Dornith Doherty has some fairly promising work about the Rio Grande, but it's convoluted. She projects slides of the landscape around the river over stuff she finds, like old clothing, corn husks and prickly pear cactus. The result hints at interesting interplays and juxtapositions, but most of the images are too dense and hard to read. If Doherty would restrain herself a little bit for the sake of visual clarity, the images would fare better.
Nicholas Hughes at One City Centre has some quite nice images of landscapes, with horizon lines that are so blurred, they have a hazy, abstract quality. He's managed to cross a subtle line so the works register as art rather than documentation.
Eric Klemm's images of vintage automobiles being overtaken by the foliage of an old-growth forest are some of the strongest works at Williams Tower Gallery. Among the weakest is Harri Kallio's series of digital photographs, which insert models of the long-extinct dodo bird into Mauritius Island environments. Kallio obsessively constructed the models himself, an endeavor that's much more crackpot and interesting than the resulting images.
But "The Earth" isn't all trees -- there are rocks, too! Mark Ruwedel (Winter Street) photographs ancient trails through rocky landscapes. Elaine Ling (One City Centre) seeks out "Incredible Rocks," and Barbara Yoshida (Winter Street) creates moody images of "Rocks and Stones by Moonlight"...
Ultimately, FotoFest is an epic undertaking by smart, well-intentioned individuals. I admire the social consciousness they exhibit in their choice of themes, but the exhibitions are too unwieldy and filled with too much mediocre work. FotoFest's noble goals could be much better served by stronger choices. Photography is a wonderful medium, but it is only as good as the artist using it.
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