Where the Art Is
Looking like some sort of fundamentalist-Christian terrorist, a young man wears a ski mask and poses next to an overdecorated Christmas tree. The living room is circa 1970s, and the photograph, titled American Jihad II (2003), is by Marc Montoya -- pretty much. You see, Montoya has an extensive archive of other people's family photos that he draws on for his work.
Montoya scavenges vintage and frequently kitsch-infused 35-millimeter color slides from garage sales and estate sales, honing in on odd images the original photographer was seemingly oblivious to. Projecting the slides, Montoya dramatically crops, re-photographs and enlarges sections of the images for his own devices. His large-scale prints have an engaging graininess and the evocative vintage tones of old color prints.
Montoya's work is included in the exhibition "Home and Garden," organized by FotoFest as part of its series of Inter-Biennial art programs. The show is full of strange takes on domesticity. There are works that are unsettling and funny and beautiful -- sometimes all at once. Curated with Jennifer Ward, FotoFest exhibitions coordinator, the show features eight emerging Texas artists.
The same teenage boy who modeled his new ski mask appears in another of Montoya's salvaged holiday photos. In American Jihad I (2003), he poses, sans ski mask, in big dorky headphones attached to a radio/walkie-talkie thingie. We know it's a kid playing with the crap he got for Christmas, but it seems like something weirder. It's as if he were some alien attempting to scientifically monitor Xmas Activities.
When You Care Enough to Send the Very Best (2004) is another '70s holiday image Montoya has unearthed. It shows three girls sitting on a brown couch in polyester miniskirts that unflatteringly reveal awkward and chubby adolescent legs. One, in a pink headband, sits with knees apart in an unladylike manner, resting her chin in her hands and staring glumly at the camera. A Francie doll sits in its hot pink box on the coffee table in front of her. The girl next to her is enraptured with her new View-Master. The chunky teen on the end seems to be playing a kazoo. These images of people in family environments were originally taken by their friends and relatives; they're intimate, casual and revealing. And Montoya seeks and deftly distills the oddity in these photos.
Blast Off the 4H Way (2003) is inherently goofy. A small boy on a '60s parade float stands next to a huge red slightly flaccid, pretty darn phallic rocket. This is one of those shots whose original you'd love to see. It can't have been this ridiculous, can it?
The images Montoya unearths and isolates are kind of like Diane Arbus's -- but in full lurid color. In contrast to her work, however, there's something genial in the oddness Montoya finds. Arbus haunts you with the painful awkwardness of strangers, but Montoya's shots make you feel like you're cracking up at your weird second cousin.
Another participating artist, Julie Ross, has a predilection for seeking American oddity that's similar to Montoya's. She shoots her subjects with a Polaroid camera and then pairs images together. In Untitled (Kitten for Sale) (2001), Ross juxtaposes an image of a JonBenet Ramsey-esque little girl with a shot of a prize-winning fluffy kitten. The girl sits on a white draped table as if on display in her frilly white pageant dress and her mass of blond ringlets. The kitten is presented in a cage decorated with a froth of white ruffles and a blue first-place ribbon. Ross has honed in on similarly creepy and creepily similar subcultures.
Creepy is the operative word in Stephanie Martz's work. Martz tears pages from copies of House Beautiful from the '60s and inserts images from John Carpenter's Halloween into their interiors. As in the movie, clean, modern suburban homes become the site of terror. In Halloween Movie Poster (Kitchen) (2004), the masked killer stands with a knife next to a refrigerator in a "state-of-the-art" kitchen. In another work, an ad for a French Provincial bedroom set carries the text "Only a bride could be lovelier." Martz has pasted in a shot of the masked killer strangling a young blond woman. The show includes both the collages and the photographs Martz makes from them. Both versions work well, but something about the pieced-together collages is more engaging than the sleeker photographs.
Anderson Wrangle stages his own eerie scenes in affluent, upper-middle-class settings. Hunter No. 4 (silhouette) (2004) is from the series notes toward paranoia, which blends the unsettling with a subtle sense of irony. In it, a man is shown in silhouette through the windows of his home aiming a rifle at a stuffed duck. In another work from the series, an older couple packs up their well-equipped kitchen. Still another, titled arrival (2001), depicts a neatly dressed young man holding his dog in a rural scene and looking out toward a truck and a ramshackle structure. There is a post-9/11 sense of angst to the series -- are these normal people, Americans, packing up and heading for the hills?
Michelle Grinstead pushes the domestic space toward the surreal, rather than the ominous; she projects landscape vistas in banal household environments. In Grinstead's world, mountains and fluffy clouds appear over the kitchen counter and the granola canister, and the sun sets over an ocean horizon -- in the hallway. The banal corners of the home are made transcendent.
"Home and Garden" is a provocative and successful show that sprawls through the expansive Vine Street building that houses FotoFest's headquarters. It's a good space, but with less of it, the organizers would have been forced to edit, which would've been a good thing. The show needs tightening up -- there are a couple of clunkers thrown in -- and it rambles a bit, with too many examples from several of the artists. But there's more than enough good stuff to keep you going.
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