Photographic Memory

At first glance, "Politics and Elliptical Visions" seems schizophrenic. The exhibit, curated by photography graduate student Anderson Wrangle, combines documentary photographs from the Velvet Revolution in 1989, when Czechoslovakia became a democracy in a short six weeks, with Czech art and documentary photographs taken before and after the fall of Communism.

On November 17, 1989, just days after the Berlin Wall fell, at least one Czech student was killed when riot police squelched a student demonstration in Prague. The government violence led to days of mass protest, and many of the country's photographers helped combat a news blackout by posting photographs in shop windows all over the country. Students showed the pictures to workers throughout Prague to convince them to go on the national strike that helped force the Communist government to step aside. Because so many photographers played a significant role in the Velvet Revolution, and because in Czechoslovakia the distinction between art and documentary photography is blurry, curator Anderson Wrangle decided to combine two seemingly distinct projects. He culled the photographs from the permanent collection of FotoFest, the organization which mounts the International Month of Photography in Houston every two years.

As a result, all the images in the show, even the landscapes, seem tinged with revolutionary fervor and colored by hidden political meanings. Jaroslav Bárta's Windows series, plain shots of curtained apartment windows set into the bricked-over ornamentation of larger windows from more opulent times, reminded me of "masking," a phenomenon in Communist regimes wherein people censor themselves out of necessity. They must appear to be in line with party politics, so the face they present to the world is like a mask. The curtains in Bárta's window hide the rich inner lives of those behind the plain squares stamped out of walls whose rich histories seem themselves to argue against the leveling ideals of communism.

The 20-odd photographs that document the Velvet Revolution occasionally transcend the level of solid photojournalism. Radovan Bocek's sea of people has an odd chasm in the middle, as if an invisible ship were moving through the crowd. Bárta's photograph of a crowded street memorial shows a blond woman who looks like a New Jersey secretary in a pensive moment up above the crowd, about to add a lit candle to the altar.

If the heady energy that accompanied the fall of the Eastern bloc seems remote in these more sobering political times, its inspirational power diluted, there is still plenty to see at FotoFest's new home in the Vine Street Studios on the north end of downtown. The vast diversity of the photographs makes defining a Czechoslovakian photographic identity a dodgy proposition, but as lofty symbols are handled with a deft humor again and again throughout the show, the edges of a national sensibility seem to take shape. With their grounded thoughtfulness, the Czech photographers remind me of Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, or of their own great novelist Milan Kundera. Magical realism is at work here, as is an imagination so charming and generous as to seem naive.

Miro Svolik, one of the most famous of the quirky Czech photographers, is not represented in the show, but his collaged transformations of hills into fish and landscapes into human bodies, seen at the last FotoFest, are echoed in the work of Peter Zupník. Zupník's optimistic hand-colored images turn a house cat into a tiger, a cake into a galactic spaceship and a window display into a jungle. In his My Landscape, a phallic mushroom in the foreground seems to fit exactly into the arch of a distant railroad trestle, in a Freudian commentary on distance that's startling enough to be interesting. Also in the playful vein, Ivan Pinkava's one-liner His First Wine is a perfectly bohemian photo of a perfect bohemian boy, with crushed grapes adorning his skin. His Portrait of Nina Vangelli, her face coated with flourlike powder, carries more mystery and thus more power.

Others in the show follow conceptual lines not germane to Czechoslovakia. The Czech Man series, photos of families or groups of people taken in a portable studio, is akin to August Sander's '20s and '30s portraits of German "types." But again, the accent is more political than taxonomic: Jan Maly, Jiri Polacek and Ivan Lutterer took many of their portraits -- and all of the ones on view at Vine Street -- in the days following the Communist crackdown on students, to show the wide variety of people who took part in the peaceful demonstrations that led to democracy.

Some of the best images in the show, namely those of the self-schooled Bohdan Holomicek and the village documentarian Jindrich Streit, are the most straightforward. Streit's picture of a village family riveted to a glamourous woman on a TV screen captures, in the most succinct way I've seen, the awesome impact of television. Holomicek's nine snapshots (a girl on a couch staring straight at the camera, another on a bus with much the same gaze, a weathered old car stranded in the woods) resonate with a dark, proud self-respect, leavened by an idyllic picture of a boy stretched out on a couch with an affectionate piglet camped on his chest. In the midst of these lovely images, a haunting shot of a smirking boy who has just applied a lopsided clown mouth to his face once again brings to mind the subtle indignity of the mask.

The combination of political images with everyday ones becomes more than simply expedient in "Politics and Elliptical Visions." The revolution tells us more about Czechoslovakia and its artists than we would otherwise know, and creates a context better than any wall text for the show. It gives a whole new resonance, probably a deserved one, to images such as Pavel Banka's 1985 studio nude of a woman's soft, blandly sensual torso under an arc of wire that binds her head to her navel, awaiting some release.

E-mail Shaila Dewan at [email protected].

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Shaila Dewan