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.

Newcastle, a few more choice spots

My last, and much delayed, post about Newcastle concerns 3 organizations I had the pleasure to visit. The first, Waygood Gallery and Studios, is by far the most complex. I've had its history explained to me a number of times now, and still don't really have a handle on it. What is clear to me is that they are renovating a former factory space in the center of town. It will contain studios, a gallery, a café, and a shop. Waygood's past always included studio space. While the renovation has been happening, the studio space has been housed in a huge, warehouse-like building in an area of town called Harker. My visit there showed me a warren of small spaces in a vast industrial building. I was told that as many as 50 artists had workspace there. It seemed a remarkably vital and creative space. Harker however will not survive. It is already slated for demolition. The new downtown space does not have room for 50 studios, so some artists will be left to look for new studio space. I saw the work of a number of intriguing artists, for example Michael Mulvihill and Jock Mooney. At least in the moment in which I saw it, Harker/Waygood seemed another example of the collective artististic environment I alluded to in previous posts. It is an enviable community of creative work. I don't know how the new Waygood will manifest itself, but I hope this communal core will not be lost. (

Rashida Davison is the heart, mind and soul behind Globe Gallery. ( Like most of the art presenters I met in Newcastle, she has a long and devoted past tied to the cultural life of the area. Aside from the adventurous program of exhibits and shows in the gallery's raw and adaptable space, Globe has something called Plan Chest. Plan Chest is reminiscent of Pierogi Gallery's Flatfiles, but definitely has a personal and individual stamp. The gallery's website tells us that, "over the next year Globe Gallery will be commissioning five contemporary artists to produce a series of signed limited edition prints for sale at Globe Gallery. The Plan Chest prints are limited to 50 editions and priced at £250 unframed. The first two artists showcased are New York based Alexander Gorlizki and Miranda Whall, currently working in Aberystwyth, Wales. These unique prints are only available for sale at Globe City Gallery". Additionally, they offer prints by a number of nationally and internationally respected artists who have worked with Locus+ like Nathan Coley, Layla Curtis and Mark Wallinger (please refer to earlier post about Locus +) and also Globe Gallery artists Claire Davies, Denis Doran and Gerald Laing. Particularly exciting for me were the map-based work of Layla Curtis (check this artist out), the Indian outsourced work of Gorlizki, and Gerald Laing. More commissioned work is in the planning stages. Like the editions put out by organizations like Blind Spot and Artists Space, I think these editions will be something to look for.

Last on my list is a young gallery called Workplace. Some of the US-based art community will know them from NADA art fairs. They are a strong, artist led gallery with an engaging program of artists. Of particular interest to me were Catherine Bertola, Cath Campbell, and Sarah Walton. Also worth checking out is the wacky, wholly original, and variably interesting video work of Marcus Coates. The guys at Workplace predict a strong future for him and he may be one to watch. Check out their website for more info on these artists.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Newcastle, Days 2 and 3

I have been thinking a lot about my subsequent days in Newcastle and trying to put the entirety of the experience into some kind of perspective for myself. Make no mistake, the schedule was full and I have no lack of experiences to report or organizations to talk about. But a small, insistent thought has been developing in my head that what I saw in Newcastle was substantially different than the art and gallery scene in NYC and maybe even different than anywhere I've seen. It's an old story to talk about how commerce affects the arts and an equally old story to look at how government spending affects the arts. Certainly in NYC, where I live, commerce rules the day in a way that's visible in every gallery, museum, and studio. Then I think of the art world in Paris and Berlin, which I've gotten to know pretty well over the last few years, which have considerably more government funding and cushion for art and artists. But neither of these places has the feel of Newcastle.

I can't profess to be an expert on Newcastle now or in the past, but a couple of things seem clear to me. For a city of its size, Newcastle has had an extraordinary tradition of artist's collectives, performance art, and conceptual art practice. Perhaps this is because there are a number of vibrant university art schools in the area, or certain artists have lived here and established a tradition, or maybe it's a reason as a newcomer I can't see. But the fact of it is there. Also, and I think this does have a direct relationship with the size of the city, it seems that the officers of the Arts Council have a very personal and connected relationship with the artists and art organizations of the town. That's probably not possible in a city the size of London. I get a sense of interconnectedness between the Arts Council folks, the artists, and the galleries that is more about neighborliness than collegiality. Art that is made and shown here will be seen by people you know; people you will run into in the daily course of your life. I can't help but imagine that this has consequences, maybe not all of them positive, on what gets shown.

Another thing that seems clear to me is that government support of art in Newcastle makes a radically different paradigm than what I'm used to in NYC. The invisible hand of the market is often truly invisible here. Galleries and artists have a safety net that frees them from the unending need to sell more work. I'm not saying that the intersection of art and commerce is evil, just that it's bound to produce different work than if the commerce isn't there. Galleries can show work that they feel is important even if it doesn't readily find a market. The same is true for artists. I got a sense of experimentation and exploration, even a greater openness to failure, from the artists I met here. I'm not saying that artists in commercial environments don't explore, experiment, or fail; it's not a black or white argument. My point is that the less commercial environment makes that atmosphere more easily available. It takes some of the pressure off.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the important work of Locus+. (Locus + website) Jon Bewley has been an important part of the British art world for coming on 4 decades. He continues to steward an organization that seems to have its fingers in more than its share of important art pies. You have to read the fine print when you pick up the Chris Burden monograph in G
agosian Gallery, but make no mistake, the book was made at Locus+. The group's website describes itself:

"Locus+ is a visual arts commissioning agency that works with artists on the production and presentation of socially engaged, collaborative and temporary projects, primarily for non-gallery locations. To date we have completed over 50 projects touring to a further 25 other venues, produced over 20 publications and 9 artists multiples.

Although Locus+ was formally established in April 1993 it was preceded by the Basement Group (1979 to 1984) and Projects UK (1982 to 1992) the first office-based organisation in the UK. The organization is recognized as a key regional, national and international agency for the development of new initiatives in the realization of visual art and cross-media projects."

Those US institutions that have a strong tradition of conceptual and performance art would do well to look at bringing the touring exhibit of the Basement Group's archives, titled "This Will Not Happen Without You", to their museum. It is clearly an important and under-known moment in 70s art practice. I was also impressed by the work of Layla Curtis which I saw there. Her breakdown of of the meanings and semiotics of maps are visually exciting, full of nuance, and endlessly detailed. I hope Mr. Bewley and his organization will get more play here in the US. He certainly deserves it.

More in the coming days on Workplace Gallery, Waygood Gallery and Studios, and Globe Gallery.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Newcastle, Day 1

Well, here I am in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the UK. Why go to Newcastle, you ask? The short answer is I was invited. The longer answer is that I was invited by Paul Stone and Chris Yeats from Vane Gallery. I met these two at the art fair "Art 212" a few years ago. I was completely taken with the work of one UK artist they had brought with them, Graham Dolphin. I bought one work and continued to stay in touch. We ran into each other at various international art fairs since then, and have had the chance to continue to discuss art and the art world.

Last year, Paul and Chris had an intriguing offer for me: would I like to come to Newcastle to participate in an Arts Council England program call "Inspiring Internationalists"? As the arts council material describes it, “'Inspiring Internationalists’ gives arts organisations the opportunity to bring to the North East an inspirational individual you have met during your travels, or have knowledge of and whom you believe will help your organisation". Though I make no claims to my inspirational qualities, I was thrilled at the opportunity to see a place I had never seen, and to be given access to an arts environment that was completely new to me. I said yes, and here I am. (Inspiring Internationalists blogsite)

My first visit was to Vane Gallery itself. Though I feel that I am reasonably up to date on Vane's program, it was good to see again the strong selection of artists that Paul and Chris had on the walls. Of course, there were strong examples of Graham Dolphin's drawings including a very fine fashion portrait using soldering lead as the drawing tool on an appropriated magazine ad, but there were other fine works up as well. Of particular interest to me were the works of Jorn Ebner. Mr. Ebner uses mixed media to create what appear to be landscape or architectural schematics. This cool exterior belies an emotional core to the work which seems to me to be passionate and communicative. I'm eager to see more. Video work by Claire Davies showed a clear eye for rhythm and color. The few works I saw were fine examples of using the video screen as an abstract expressionist palette. All these works and more can be seen on Vane's website. Check it out.

Next up was the 800 pound gorilla in the Newcastle art scene, The Baltic ( The Baltic is a former flour mill built on the banks of the Tyne river which, beginning in 1998, was re-built and re-purposed to house a multi-purpose arts center. It is the largest gallery of it's kind in the UK outside of London. Newcastle shares a history with other cities that will sound familiar to many Americans. It has a strong industrial past that had created a remarkable architectural legacy that needed to be adapted to contemporary uses. Like DIA/Beacon in Beacon, NY, MassMoCA in North Adams, MA, or Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, Newcastle saw opportunity in an aging industrial structure. Using generous national lottery funding at a time when British funding of the arts was particularly healthy, the Baltic opened its doors for its first show in 2002.

It is a commanding and dramatic space. For example, the galleries on the top floor are 11 meters high. It is a perfect space for large, contemporary work. Filling those big, dramatic spaces with work that fits the scale is the challenge. On view while I'm here were 5 substantial shows: Barry McGee, 2006 Turner Prize nominee Mark Titchner, Mona Marzouk, Barthelemy Toguo, and a collective of anonymous artists called "CutUp Collective".

Strongest for me were the ruminations on contemporary media by Mr. Toguo. Using a local newspaper as wallpaper, he edited out almost all text except for headlines, leaving the photos and a few details of dates and place. This redaction asks us to reimagine the context of the photos and their place in the news. Some photos reoccur and other slide in and out of view. I found it a completely absorbing work. Also being shown was a video by Mr. Toguo that showed him stripped to the waist, some unseen-but-awful wound causing bleeding around his groin, while he rhythmically and tirelessly chops at a log. The log is one of hundreds (if not thousands) which fill the screen. The chopping figure is alone in a field of toil doing a job that seems to make no progress and seems to have no end. It is as graphic a depiction of purgatory as I have seen, and was a powerful reference for the mind-numbing, back-breaking work that is done by the world's poor every day. Mesmerizing.

Next up was a small photo space called "Side Gallery". It is aptly named as it occupies a small 2 story space just inside a small alley. On view was a photo essay by the Welsh photographer, Rhodri Jones. At first I was unconvinced by this clean, classic show of straight documentary photos. But I confess, I was seduced. This show gained power, meaning, and complexity as I stayed with it. The individual photos had great balance, drama and composition, while the sequence of images drew a picture of the grand complexity of different cultures within China. I don't believe Mr. Jones is so well known within the US, but that should change. With the fascination for all things Chinese that has been happening in the art scene lately, this is a wonderful gimlet-eyed look at a foreign culture without sentimentality or showiness.