"The Meeting Place" is a crucial part of every FotoFest biennial. Held at the FotoFest headquarters hotel, this is where scores of reviewers sit in a ballroom and peruse hundreds of portfolios offered up by eager photographers, amateur and professional alike. (See "The Meat Market," April 1, 2004) Dozens of 15-minute reviews are packed into each day as the reviewers — prominent curators, gallery owners and other arts professionals — plow through all manner of images. Here, insipid sunsets and pictures of pet cats can vie with gritty documentary photography and arty conceptual projects. The reviewers are looking for, hoping for, something amazing. Sometimes they find it and sometimes that work makes it into the next biennial's Discoveries of the Meeting Place exhibition. This year's iteration, featuring work by ten photographers selected by ten prominent reviewers, is currently on view at Allen Center One and Two.
"Discoveries" is always my favorite part of every FotoFest. Filled with what are essentially mini solo shows, the exhibition is just about the work and not how any of it fits into (or is shoehorned into) a larger curatorial agenda. "Discoveries" exhibitions are an inevitably disparate grab bag of work, but that's what makes them exciting.
I'm not sure where else I would have gotten a chance to see Andy Freeberg' s "Sentry" series, a wickedly deadpan view of the art world. In precisely composed images, Freeberg photographs the white-walled front desks of Chelsea's white-walled galleries. Receptionists are invariably hidden behind partial walls that look like bunkers and are intended to be just as welcoming. Friendly isn't cool, you see. In Freeberg's images, the only visible signs of life are a bald pate or pouf of hair peeking above the barriers.
What is amazing is the rigid uniformity of the spaces, the architecture seemingly as conscribed as transepts in gothic cathedrals. An obvious irony is that businesses supposedly focused on presenting the works of original and talented individuals appear as open to change as Pope Benedict.
In Andrea Rosen, 2006, the fluffy top of a receptionist's hair vies with a potted plant. In Sonnabend, 2006, an employee's bald, sloping skull is the one organic element in the space's austere geometry. As the wall text by selector/reviewer Karen Sinsheimer gleefully reveals, The New Yorker characterized Freeberg's work as "taking scalps." The only chromatic variation on the scheme is the image of the black desk wall at Marvelli gallery. It looks as stark as Lenin's tomb and feels just as genial. Freeberg's images are visually solid and sardonically conceptual, openly mocking rigid and pretentious gallery conventions.
By contrast, the spaces Dona Schwartz photographs are downright ingratiating. Schwartz's "On the Nest" is a collection of portraits of expectant parents standing in the rooms they have prepared for their babies. The images are incredibly touching and richly revealing.
A smiling gay couple, Jason and Kevin, 7 days, 2007, stand with their arms around each other in a blue and yellow room filled with Disney decor and plush toys. A hugely pregnant woman and her heavily tattooed husband stand in a pink and green nursery, their unborn child's name, Evi, already spelled out in wooden letters on the wall. Everything is so carefully orchestrated that you pray everything went as planned. In Sha and e.g, 8 days, 2009, an African-American couple stand in their book-filled library, a bassinet in the corner and a Moses basket perched on a bookcase — an image of urban intellectuals unaware of the toy onslaught to come. Optimism and naiveté peak in Alisa and Jeff, 5 days, 2008. In a pale yellow room, the couple pose next to a turquoise blue plastic birthing tub, ready for Ye-Olde-Unmedicated-Home-Water-Birth. The words "release," "let go" and "open" have been carefully printed on colored note cards tacked to the wall. Two birthday hats, two rubber duckies, an underwater camera and scented candles are nearby. (Go ahead, Jeff, try and amuse your laboring wife with a birthday hat and a rubber ducky. Take a few snaps while you are at it. I dare you.) It is to her credit that Schwartz's photographs unjudgmentally record her subjects' eager and idealized expectations.
Moving from the birth to the death end of the spectrum, work dealing with militarism and conflict was selected by several reviewers. Rachel Papo's images of female Israeli soldiers are nicely shot but fairly superficial. They seem to rely more on the novelty of young, attractive women with guns and uniforms. A pretty girl holds a glass of beer as a lacy camisole peeps from underneath her fatigues, while in another photo a sniper instructor stands with long Rapunzel-like curls. This subject matter is far richer than the images Papo has produced.
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Christopher Sims's subject matter is so fascinating that I don't even care about the quality of the images. Sims's "Theater of War: The Pretend Villages of Iraq and Afghanistan" captures military training facilities in Louisiana and California. The military has apparently created fake villages filled with fake militants and fake civilians in order to prepare the troops for Iraq and Afghanistan. For the sake of the soldiers, I hope the training is more impressive than the "villages" sporting sets and costumes unworthy of even the crappiest of community theaters. At the Fort Polk, Louisiana, training facility, singlewide trailers are used for "native" structures, and someone crafted a minaret out of a corrugated metal drainage pipe. Everyone seems to be walking around in pale blue bedsheets. (Reason No. 587 to let gay people serve in the military: costume designers.) Seriously, this is the kind of training our troupes, er troops, get? In an especially tragic irony, actual soldier amputees get to cover their stumps in fake blood and play the wounded while actual Afghan and Iraqi refugees are hired to pretend to be refugees along with local Louisianans.
While the dark surreality of Iraq on the Bayou is pretty bizarre, the juxtaposition of some of the work in the show is even more so. I was looking at Liz Hickok's goofy photos of cities made from cast Jell-O when I turned the corner expecting more Jell-O and saw a photograph of the circular hole of a well cut into red dirt. At the bottom of the image was handwritten text that read, "This hole reminds me of the time we buried a woman alive."
The text is from a girl who was a child soldier in Sierra Leone. Raped and kidnapped by the Revolutionary United Front at the age of 11, the girl was forced to kill or be killed. The photographs are from Sara Terry's series "In My Life: The Story of an Ex-Girl Soldier." Working with the photographer, the girl seeks to remember and acknowledge what she has done and find a way to forgive herself. The images and text are sharp, painful glimpses into a horror we cannot even imagine. A dirt soccer field is "exactly like the one where I went through combat training." An image of an expanse of swamp reminds her of where she gave birth. This unassuming combination of image and text will stun you into silence.
Photographs of themed baby-room decor, art-world pretentiousness and the brutal world of a child soldier will probably never be shown together again. But the disparate nature of these images and points of view presents what becomes an inconceivably powerful range of human experience.