A large color photograph depicts set tables in a rustic, wood-paneled room. Food waits for guests on each plate, and a young girl sits between her parents in her first communion dress, a crown of white polyester flowers on her head. The image, by Przemyslaw Pokrycki, is part of "International Discoveries: A Selection of Contemporary Artists from Around the World," on view at FotoFest Headquarters at Vine Street Studios. FotoFest founders Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss and exhibitions coordinator Jennifer Ward picked the show's nine participating artists from the hundreds they meet traveling to photography events all over the world.
Pokrycki's work records rituals — baptisms, first communions, weddings and funerals — in his native Poland. First Communion #10 (2005) is tinged with melancholy. The meal perfectly in place, the family waits expectantly for guests who might, from the looks of things, never come. The ruddy-faced father appears uncomfortable and shy in his dark, ill-fitting suit; the mother, clad in matronly beige, smiles slightly as their daughter sits between them, looking tiny and as if she might start crying.
Pokrycki has only captured a moment, and the assumptions we make based on the image may be wrong. The scene could have been the prelude to a raucous party, the family simply uncomfortable with having their picture taken. And the convention of automatically grinning for the camera is a decidedly American one. But the strength of Pokrycki's work is his ability to take what could easily be forgettable group portraits of family functions and somehow make them richly detailed stories.
Part of his work's appeal may be the "exoticism" of the images, which are filled with Eastern Bloc artifacts. The rooms contain hideous light fixtures and Polish versions of the dreaded Russian shkaf — that ubiquitous, massive, cheaply made wall cabinet packed to the point of bursting with all manner of things. You can see one in the background of a cramped apartment crammed with relatives, all turned to face the cameraman, the tables in front of them laden with a host of Slavic foodstuffs.
Another photo depicts a Polish nouveau riche wedding reception in an elegant yellow-and-white neoclassical hall. (Post-communism, any riche is nouveau.) Still another shows a red banquet room with the bridal party in front of a heart-shaped assemblage of pink balloons tacked to the wall. But home is the location for most of the events, and these photos are the most evocative. In many, living-room furniture has been moved to make way for makeshift tables — or coffin biers. Instead of in banquet halls or funeral homes, many rituals in the photographs take place in the domestic space. In Funeral #2 (2007), old women in headscarves — survivors of the war and communism — fill chairs and couches, keeping a dead man company. Clad in a cheap grey suit, the aged man's wizened body lies in a lace-lined coffin in the center of the room, his hands neatly arranged to hold a crucifix. Pokrycki's work is a poignant record of what it is to be human; it captures people celebrating and honoring the rituals of life and death.
Photographs by Uruguayan artist Roberto Fernández Ibáñez have poetry in their images and titles. His works explore the changing seasons as well as the changing "inner climate" of the artist himself. The rich, selenium-toned, black-and-white images would be pleasing, but not especially remarkable, if not for Ibáñez's accompanying text.
One image shows a chair and rickety folding table in a garden. On the table rest a pipe, a pouch of tobacco, a stack of paper and binders, a thermos carafe and a cup and bombilla (filter straw) for yerba maté, the Uruguayan drink. Tacked nearby the photo, neatly written in pencil in Spanish and English, is this text: "The new sprouts, paper, pencil, maté: my ambitions." Ibáñez has set himself up in the mild weather to be appropriately inspired, accompanied by the writer's aids of nicotine and liquid stimulants. The tranquil scene is permeated with ennui. He's set this spare stage for himself but doubts his ability to perform.
There's a delicacy to Ibáñez's work, a sensitivity to and a love of the details of daily life. In another image, the shadow of two fern leaves is stretched flat across the round wooden seat of a stool. The text reads, "The siesta hour — The shadow of the fern also rests." A card accompanying a photograph of a black dog peering anthropomorphically out of a lace-curtained window reads, "After the lightning and my dog's fear, a serene rain." Some of the text is better than others — translation may be a factor. But in Ibáñez's work, a broken tree branch, a blanket across a bed or a towel-wrapped figure at the beach can become a poignant comment on the state of the artist's natural and emotional world.
Two young artists in the exhibition dress up to play various roles and photograph themselves à la Cindy Sherman, but they don't exactly reach her level. When South Korean Chan-Hyo Bae moved to England, he experienced the shock of a new culture and a new language. He began a series of self-portraits dressed in drag, donning the guises of a variety of English "ladies." In one image, he looks like an escapee from Pride and Prejudice; in another, he looks like Queen Elizabeth with an Adam's apple and epicanthic fold. In yet another, he shows a dash of Eliza Doolittle. The images are beautifully shot against lush, dark foliage, and the costumes and makeup are well done. Bae is playing with culture, gender and era, but the work skirts one-linerdom.
Meanwhile, American Kelly Flynn addresses gender issues by looking obviously female while dressing up for stereotypically male roles. She paints her "costumes" over her naked body in shiny, rubbery latex, becoming Superman with the big red "S" over her blue breasts. She transforms into the Roto-Rooter man with a belt and a nametag that reads "Phil" in awkward lettering, holding a plunger with a toolbox and pipe snake at her feet. She plays the President in a "suit" at a lectern. The shiny latex gives the images a bright pop feeling and fetish undertones; the images are engaging but pretty one-dimensional. Apparently, Flynn has done some videos, and that medium might work better with her ideas. She's an artist with grand plans for her work: She hopes to "inspire women everywhere to stand up and be seen equal to men in society." Good luck with that one.
FotoFest's "International Discoveries" are eclectic and interesting enough to make the show worth a trip.