Monday, March 24, 2008

Houston Fotofest '08

High on my list of photography events to explore was Fotofest in Houston. I had planned to go this year, but life got in the way and it seemed I would just be too busy. But friends continued to exhort me to go, so I managed to find 3 days where I could sneak away and take a look. I was very glad I did. What a pleasure! I feel like I have too much too report even form a short 3 days.

Of course, the heart and soul of Fotofest is portfolio review. More than 2 weeks of portfolio review days are scheduled with dozens, if not hundreds, of reviewers coming to Houston to look at work. The reviewers are curators, publishers, gallery owners, collectors; the full spectrum of the arts community. Artists, too, span the gamut from newly minted MFAs to mid-career established artists. As one would expect, the level of art shown runs the range from eye-rolling bad to eye-opening good. Part of what makes this experience so rich is that there are so many perspectives. What is terrible and unusable to one reviewer may be the find of the season for another. While I'm sure that most artists are seeking blanket approbation, they know that if they don't get it from everyone there may still be that one good contact that changes everything. I love this atmosphere of collegiality and artistic community. Artists and reviewers meet often in the common areas of the hotel to schmooze, talk, and share work. I spoke to many reviewers who maintained long-term relationships with artists through Fotofest. They had watched as portfolios and careers had developed over the years. Each meeting was an opportunity to offer counsel, direction, or suggestions on how to improve or market work. This is an amazing thing that has been created to help artists.

I asked Barbara Tannenbaum from the Akron Art Museum if I could sit in on a few of her sessions. She consented and I got to see some great work as well as be able to see how an experienced and knowledgeable curator runs a review. I was very impressed with the work of Bastienne Schmidt. She has a new, tripartite series that is multimedia and emotionally layered. Though she is well published, she has yet to find a New York gallery for reasons I don't fathom. This is good, strong, nuanced work. Her website is under construction so check back to see her work once it's up and running. (

I was also taken by the work of Suzanne Opton ( I had seen her portraits of vets from the Iraq war who had just returned to the states at Photo Miami last December. She captured their vulnerable and wounded psyches with empathy. What bumped this work to another level was her decision to photograph Iraqi refugees in Jordan - the lost middle class and intellectual core of Iraq who have had to flee - in similar vulnerable poses. The comparison of the juxtaposed images is incredibly powerful.

I also enjoyed seeing Denis Darzacq's series entitled "La Chute". Like all good art, it asks questions and poses enigmas. It's method and meaning are unclear, but at all times it is engaging and visually arresting. I believe he is having discussions with NYC galleries. I hope we will see a show of his work here soon. (

The theme of Fotofest this year was China. In general, I am sorry to say, I found the work on display to be disappointing; more of an example of how China is struggling to find its place in the art world than a demonstration of commanding art. I have seen significantly stronger shows elsewhere and earlier, most notably Christopher Phillips show at ICP a few years ago.

There were exceptions and revelations. The most commanding to me was vintage work of one photographer. Sha Fei was a war and propaganda photographer in the model of Robert Capa. He was assigned to the Chinese Communist Party's 8th Route Army during the 2nd Sino-Japanese war and used his photography as a weapon of the war as Capa did during the Spanish civil war in the same period. Fei found disfavor with the ruling power and was executed in 1950. His short, truncated career put him in obscurity until the 80s. This was the first showing of his work outside of China. The pictures of soldiers teaching boys and girls to shoot and fight were amazing views into an unknown world. Similarly, a photo of collaborationist mayors being let to execution were as strong as any war photography I've ever seen.

One other photographer of note for me was Lu Nan. His work documenting the treatment of the mentally ill in China was moving and sympathetic. Well worth exploring more.

There are ancillary exhibitions all over town. Some of these were amazing, perspective altering shows. The biggest treat for me was my time at the The Menil Collection. This place is not just idyllic, it IS an idyll. From the Michael Heizer earth sculpture that greets you,

Michael Heizer, Isolated Mass/Circumflex (#2) 1968-72

to the park benches that allow quiet, wind-rustled meditation on the Renzo Piano structure,

to the remarkably perfect Twombly gallery and Rothko Chapel, I cannot imagine a more Utopian place to experience art. I confess I am not much of a Cy Twombly fan. But some places are just exemplary vehicles for the art they show. They advocate for their art in blissful symbiosis. I've said this about DIA/Beacon as well. I mean, if you don't like Sandback and Serra in DIA, then you won't EVER like those artists. The effect is the same for Twombly here. If you don't find your way into this artist's opus in this space, you can pretty much forget ever finding your way in.

The photography show on view was a small essay on the comparative works of Walker Evans, William Eggleston, and William Christenberry. The revelation in this show was Christenberry. It became clear to me that I had harbored ill-conceived and flat-out wrong ideas about his work. I had thought that he was younger and a follower of Eggleston. While a small part of that is true in that Eggleston introduced him to color, the two men are actually roughly contemporaries, and Christenberry has clearly always followed his own path. I had also thought of Christenberry as "Eggleston Lite". Wow, is that wrong! My ignorance came shining through on every wall of this show. I was also unaware that Evans and Christenberry had been friends and colleagues. Many of the photos in the show traced a journey the two men took together to re-trace a trip Evans had done many decades earlier. That Christenberry's pictures mirrored and equaled the work of the master Evans was the final nail in the coffin of my misconceptions. This show completely re-shaped my opinion of this great photographer. I'm certainly not the first person to "discover" Christenberry (not by a long shot), but I mention it because I'm always wowed by a show that can have a transformative effect.

Another wonderful show at the Menil was called "How Artists Draw". This was a seductive exploration on how artists of the 20th century have made drawings. In a larger way, it was an exploration of how humans seem to have a need to make a mark, to express themselves by making a gesture onto a fixed surface. The medium seemed to matter not at all. There were drawings with pencil, crayon, ink, paint, watercolor, paper, and even etching into sand. All the work equally expressed the human desire to create shape, color and representation with whatever means are available. This was a fun, instructive, meditative, and beautiful show. Wow.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston had a small, but persuasive Bill Brandt show. Every time I see a survey of this artist's work, I am more impressed. This is not to say I have ever been unimpressed. He starts every show at a very high level of estimation from me. I love his work. Yet every time I see a new show, I am introduced to a new facet of his brilliance and to another body of his remarkable opus. The exhibition was composed mainly of images from the Alan Chasonoff and Manfred Heiting collections that are in the possesion of the museum. That excellent connoisseurship had been used to form these collections was evident in almost every photo. These were the kind of vintage photos that give vintage photos their caché. Richly nuanced prints on paper saturated with silver of a kind that has not been seen for decades were the norm here. A 1954 nude in grainy tones of gray had the constructivist, cubist aspect of a great Leger drawing.

The portraits on view demonstrated that Brandt knew what he was talking about when he said that a good portrait should show something of the sitter's future. The 1929 portrait of Ezra Pound limns the sitter's venal nature, while his later self-portrait shows a man secure in his place in the pantheon of photography. New for me were the extreme close-up portraits like DuBuffet's right eye, and the expressionistic body landscapes set in actual landscape. These seem to me to be every bit the equal of Weston's work while being all their own stylistically and philosophically.

This show was a gem. Has there been a Brandt retrospective in New York in the last 25 years? I know there have been in Europe, but what has come here? Whatever the answer, I vote for more.

Last and not least, I was struck by some sculpture in a group show at the MFAH. Katrina Moorhead is an Irish artist who was a fellow at a program at the MFAH from 1996-98. Her sculpture using Styrofoam packing forms for stereo components was witty, beautifully executed, and full of emotional punch for its ecological message. Made in 2000, it is titled "Someone Else's Salton Sea (Galaxie)". Good stuff.

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