September 6 - October 13, 2001
FotoFest - Vine Street Studios
by Kenneth M. Hatch
Being Human: Portraits by Suzanne Paul, presented by Houston FotoFest gallery and curated by Clint Willour, features over 40 years of Paul's work. The exhibition displays more than 60 photographs of her friends, fellow artists and Houston art patrons. The work ranges from early images of her sister and dog made with a Kodak Brownie camera to a current portrait of Lynn Wyatt. The large gelatin silver prints generally were hung in groupings by subject.
Paul stated that photographing people is one of her passions, and this ardor is represented clearly in this exhibition. Paul photographs people in both informal and formal settings. Both approaches have their strengths; however, Paul's playfulness and quirkiness come out more in the informal portraits. Paul also possesses a remarkable talent for printing her images; they are almost luxurious in their tonal quality.
Some of the photographs are from the work Paul did during her Houston Center for Photography fellowship. These prints, from negatives made with a Kodak Brownie, are of her family and the family pets. The Brownie was a gift from her mother when Paul was nine years old. This camera opened the door to a lifetime devotion to photography.
One of these family photographs is Claire in the Grass, 1955. Six-year-old Claire is on her back with legs crossed, sunglasses covering her eyes and another pair of sunglasses next to her head. The shadow of a young Suzanne Paul crosses Claire's legs and her lower body. The grass is printed dark — almost black. Claire glows with the inter-light that only the best printmakers are able to achieve.
A later photograph, Rachel 1986-1988, makes a wonderful pairing with Claire in the Grass. The two images illustrate the consistency of Paul's vision from her earliest images to those made by an artist in her prime. Rachel looks directly into the camera yet appears to be unaware she is being photographed. She is leaning back on very dark grass and has the same luminosity as seen in Claire in the Grass. Both images are very sensual, but Claire reflects the innocence of the 19505 and Rachel of the earthier, rawer 19805.
Another grouping is of street portraits and images of friends. In Eamon in Mask 2001, a young boy wearing a mask with a mesh opening for his eyes looks directly into the camera lens. He is missing his bottom front teeth. The effect is of a miniature WWF bad guy waiting for the Smack-down to start. Only after enjoying the menace of Eamon for several seconds do you notice the protective stance of his mom in a terrycloth robe standing behind him in the open doorway. In Fran and the Amarillo Dinner Dog, 1984, the dog could be a finalist in any ugly dog contest. The Amarillo Dinner Dog is presented to the camera by Fran with almost the same affection shown by Eamon's mom. These images are great fun and add a whimsical element to the exhibition.
Paul has been making images of artists for 30 years beginning with her work for Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, and many of the usual suspects are on display in this show. The photographs include classic portraits of the godfathers of Houston art — Dick Wray, Lucas Johnson and Richard Stout. Of this grouping the most interesting is of Richard Stout. The Dick Wray and Lucas Johnson images are classic male artist hero images made from a low camera angle — well done resulting in good standard portraits. Richard Stout's image feels darker; he looks slightly uncomfortable, on edge as if afraid that the artist may show his secrets. These images invite the viewer to reflect on the impact and influence these people have had on the Houston art scene.
The photographs in this exhibition offer a selected tour of Houston's art history. These and the other portraits are artfully crafted images of the very human side of the people who have had their lives touched by Suzanne Paul.
KEN HATCH IS A VISUAL ARTIST WORKING AND LIVING IN HOUSTON.