Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Houston Fotofest

I spent the week of March 22 in Houston as a reviewer for Fotofest. This was my second time at the festival but my first as an official participant. The first time I went, I was bowled over by the abundance of art Houston offered me. Museum of Fine Art Houston, The Menil (which includes the Rothko Chapel and the Twombly Gallery), Houston Center for Photography, not to mention dozens of galleries are all worth a trip by themselves, and we haven't even started to mention the program that Fotofest puts together. Make no mistake, Houston is an art lover's destination.

The Menil Collection is an idyll for an art lover. I was smitten the first time I went, and time hasn't dulled my infatuation. Renzo Piano's building is an oasis for art, and the Menil fills it with examples from antiquity to contemporary that satisfy any thirst. It's my luck that every day I've visited has been a perfect spring day. Ambling along Michael Heizer's land sculpture in the front lawn, gazing at Mark di Suvero's sculpture from a bench under blossoming cherry trees, or simply marveling at how Piano's architecture seamlessly blends with the neighborhood, the experience comes close to perfection.  Maurizio Cattelan was a guest curator for the installation that was up while I was there interweaving his own works into the holdings of the collection with wit and intelligence.

Anne Wilkes Tucker has few peers in the photographic museum community. In Houston at the MFA, she has built one of the great collections of photography in the American museum canon. I've had the pleasure of meeting her in a number of cities around the world where I've benefited from her quiet and generous pedagogical spirit, so it's a special treat to be on her home court. I won't labor the details of the exhibit I saw this time, I only mention that this, too, is a Houston treasure worth a special visit.

But the reason we all trek down to Houston every two years is Fotofest itself. And the soul of Fotofest is the portfolio review. Four full-on weeks of them. Hundreds of photographers and dozens upon dozens of reviewers. The sheer quantity of work being looked at boggles the mind. In addition to the official review sessions, photographers roam the lobby of the hotel asking for extra sessions. I'd been warned before I went the first time that I should choose carefully which bathroom to use because one might be asked to look at work mid-stream, so to speak. I wasn't accosted like that, but there many requests for extra time. I figure that's the reason I'm there, so I usually say yes, but it's an exhausting schedule even without the extras. The size of the event, in a funny way, is one of the few disappointments of the festival. Unless you attend the full four weeks, there's no telling what interesting artist you missed in a previous or succeeding week. But that's a quibble. There's plenty of visual nourishment in any given week. Fotofest also mounts exhibitions. They usually contain a mix of established and less seen artists. The lesser known artists are either younger or are from places less well-served by a gallery scene. I count these introductions as highly as the ones I make at the reviewer tables. The following recommendations are a combination of work I saw in the exhibits and work I saw at the official review sessions.

Portfolio review is a funny animal. Both artist and reviewer come to the table with expectations and assumptions. Some of these are reasonable and helpful, and others are....well....something else. I'll leave it to a future post to air my (highly subjective) thoughts on review sessions, but suffice it to say I heard about some mind-boggling behavior from both sides of the equation. My philosophy about reviews is that the artist has paid a fee and deserves something back for that fee. Unless the artist specifically asks my opinion about the work, I usually restrict my comments to practical suggestions for career advancement and professional opportunities. That is what most of the artists have paid their fees to receive. Of course, it goes without saying that there's work which speaks to me more personally that others. Below you'll find a list of the work I found most satisfying - both in the reviews and in the shows - with a short description and a website. My apologies to those of you whom I met and are not listed. This is a highly edited and personal list which excludes much very fine work.

Houston Center for Photography had a solo show for Anthony Goicolea. Mr. Goicolea needs no introduction from me, but I wanted to mention him for two reasons. The first reason is that I have underestimated him. I was completely unimpressed with the early series that chronicled teenage boys in metaphorical tableaux, but subsequently I have been won over. The last 2 shows at Postmasters Gallery have been spectacular and unassailable. The second reason is that the HCP show was also a marvel. In particular, the diptychs from the "Related" series are masterpieces. From the artist's website: Goicolea has executed a series of portraits based on old photographs of family members, known and unknown, while they were still living in Cuba. By drawing and painting these portraits, Goicolea creates a reinterpreted, second-generation reproduction of their likenesses. These images are drawn to resemble daguerreotypes and are executed in negative on layered Mylar and glass. After drawing his own negatives, Goicolea then inverts them to create a positive photographic mirror of each drawing.
This is an artist to follow. I am a convert. If you haven't already, check him out. he's the real deal.

Matthew Brandt was included in one of the Fotofest shows highlighting young artists from Southern California. I was impressed by his integrated use of substances taken from the subject of his photograph (lake water, body fluids) and antiquarian processes.

Myra Greene has a gorgeously realized and completed project of ambrotype self-portraits that explore the representation of cultural stereotypes in 19th century photo objects. Super.

Jason Lazarus and Richard Mosse were part of a Fotofest show, "Whatever Was Splendid: New American Photographs". Mr. Lazarus' use of fictionalized narratives paired with found photos blown up to epic size were new (at least to me) and very effective. Mr. Mosse had eerily beautiful portraits of car carcasses demolished by warfare in Iraq in addition to a terrifying video which united wounded American vets playing violent video games at Walter Reade with video game-like footage of actual airstrikes. Not to be missed.,

Andrew Buurman was showing a fine series highlighting people in positions of worship and devotion while gazing at schedule boards in transit hubs. He's also the creator of a fine book called "Allotments" which is available on Amazon.

Greta Pratt has a CV which would lead you to believe she's better known than she is. A solo show at the Smithsonian including a catalog, a solo show at MassMoCA, and a Steidl book to count just a few high points. She has a number of finely developed projects -- my favorite is Lincoln portraits -- that are ripe picking for a smart gallery. Collectors take note, too. Prints are available and are inexplicably undersold.

Erika Diettes is a sensitive yet unsentimental Colombian artist who was showing powerful work about the Disappeared Ones from Colombia's drug wars. Ms Diettes understood that many bodies were disposed of in lakes and rivers, so frequently the only way family knew of the loved one's death was when an article of clothing washed ashore. In her "Rio Abajo" series she photographed pieces of the found clothing submerged in water, then mounted the photo to a body-sized glass panel which is suspended from the ceiling. Simple and powerful. In some ways it's reminiscent of that other important Colombian artist, Oscar Muñoz (a link she happily admits), but the work stands easily apart and for itself.

Amy Eckert brought some small, intellectually engaging collages which discussed architecture and our ideas of home. They combine magazine images with her own photographs in a way that left me completely convinced. I plan to buy.

David Rochkind had a compelling documentary series about the effect of the drug trade on rural Mexican cities. By his own admission it's a wok in progress, but worth a look for fans of tough, clear-eyed documentary work.

Dennis Yermoshin showed an autobiographical/documentary series about his immigrant Azerbaijani family which was solid and compelling. He's young and maybe a tad unseasoned, but he's super talented and one to watch.

I saw Chris Sims' work as a juror for Critical Mass last year. I reviewed it highly there, and I continue to be impressed. The series he showed me here was about faux Iraqi villages built on US Army bases to "acclimate" soldiers to life in a middle eastern combat zone. If they weren't terrifyingly surreal they'd be funny.

I'm in Germany now. Posts from Berlin's Gallery Weekend coming soon.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Yes, I'm overdue for a post......

Sorry for the month without a post. I'm overdue to do my recap of what I saw while reviewing at Fotofest as well as a few shows in Houston and NYC. Coming soon as well are details from my upcoming trip to Berlin, Bratislava, and Vienna. That trip ends with a 9 day stay in Shanghai. I was invited to be a juror for the 10th International Shanghai Photo Competition. They wrote to me a few days ago to inform me that there were fewer Western artists in the mix this year over last year, and that they would like to spread the word that it's not too late to apply. Check out this link if you're a photographer to see if this is something you'd like to be a part of. As a juror, I'd love to see the greatest diversity possible in the applicant pool. Check it out.

More soon.....