by Tex Kerschen
What a subdued year for photography in Texas. Between the 22 artists and two venues featured in this exhibition, the one visceral point of connection between artist and audience occurs above a hap
hazard piling of crumpled cigarette packages in Jacinda Russell's mixed-media installation, Fear of Schizophrenia. This nexus is a scrap of brown paper marked with a handwritten admonition by the artist's schizophrenic Aunt Eleanor. It reads, "Don't mess with this pile, trespasser." The writing is birdlike, it possesses the purposeful purity of the thing-in-itself, and the paper itself is carefully mounted to give it a professional appearance that belies its own perverted instinct for self-containment. The artist herself may have even fabricated the note, but at this moment the artist pulls her obsession into the world, and the world opens up to her obsession. Revealed by this scrap of paper, the ghost image of Aunt Eleanor appearing above and below the artist's own self-portraits brings with it the artist's fear of her own genetic inheritance and a sense of general menace.
Like Jacinda Russell's installation, the best experimental works in this exhibition share this outward movement from the art object to the outside world — the moment of uncertainty that resembles epiphany. The nearly unintelligible rush of voices in Bill Shackelford's audio tracks overpower his poster size plotter prints of convicted prisoners. However, as much as the prints move towards the distances of abstraction (through the enlargement of halftone patterns and rough printing), the voices keep the viewer/listener captive to the particular details and complaints of captive humanity. Less dense and more lyrical, Dornith Doherty's photographic elegies succeed in escaping the linear narrative and the myth of depth of field by overlaying sets of resonant stock images (fallen leaves, young women, cult of Demeter references) that a loose composition frees of their stock connotative values.
Elsewhere, the exhibition contents itself with the demonstration of its central premise, the reversal of traditional gender biases in the presentation of art. To this end the artists are separated by gender, the women showing at DiverseWorks and the men at the Art League of Houston. The exhibition succeeds on this count, the women benefit from the larger walls insofar as their prints are either physically larger or their series more revealing than those of their male counterparts. This placement presumably abridges the men's work. The distinctions of scale with which the art world has traditionally sifted the genders, men to the heroic, women to the domestic, are here reversed.
Unfortunately, very little of the photography in either show rises above the level of a supporting clause in this curatorial argument. The video throw-aways most amply demonstrate this. Jim Shelton's Beyond Babylon is an undergraduate film noir cliche from shot to shot, full of Western-style showdown angles and hurrying down the affected road to a trick ending. Flora Moon goes the opposite route, taking too much time to relate an unstructured recounting of a family history during the Chinese Cultural
Revolution, which manages to speak of everything but culture or revolution.
Despite the implications of the decision to separate the sexes, the works themselves are not particularly strident in tone. On the contrary, they suffer from an overabundance of amiability, of nice-ness, and a vague sense of the technical art issues of the times. All of the photography is professional looking; much of it is lightly experimental. The mood throughout the exhibition falls somewhere between the posed surface quirkiness of John Fulbright's work and the domestic pause of the loving and incommunicative portraits of Ken Hatch or Joseph Vitone.
Digital manipulations, late conceptual serialism, installations, video works, light boxes, hand-treated works, audio enhancements, the usual extra-media expansions are all present. What is lacking is urgency; the exhibition ambles along artist to artist, with some of the artists over-represented, and others cut short. Many of the artists here have appropriated the look of conceptual documentation through the use of photographs that resemble supplements to larger projects, which, unfortunately, do not exist. Susan Sponsler's Baby Book Series on self and extra-racial adoption possess the sweetness and necessary nostalgia of the baby-book form, but it fails to re-define the form or expand its message beyond the personal. Kathy Lovas' installation also makes mention of conceptual concerns, beheading the photographic subject, shredding the prints like criminal evidence. Her installation is enigmatic and tame. Likewise, Will Michels' off-the-cuff self-portrait, apartment survey and bedroom studies allude to some uneventful central event which is itself never seen. Conceptualism, it appears, has finally come of middle age, trading in its revolutionary schemata for an inventory of Prufrockian concerns.
For some reason, perhaps the urge to elide the heavy scrutiny that accompanies overstatement, the studies in subtlety and domestic tidiness are given a larger amount of space to play out than the more provocative or experimental works. Ann Stautberg's AM, TX Coast umbrella pictures, for example, emphasize a controlled environment and its unseen specifics, and they gently address a short-list of formal elements, accidents of light and primary coloration. Even large, however, these are just garnishes for an otherwise unremarkable vacation resort still life. The umbrella at a heroic scale somehow manages to escape its epic connotations. The tameness of works doesn't end here. For the most part, the variations from the conventions of photography stop at the level of gimmicks. Nate Cassie's refrigerator light box gags, which chronicle the diet of the middle class with a deadpan anthropological manner, would work well in the medium of a time capsule or a lifestyle magazine. Celia Munoz introduces tinted black-and-white photographs, alluding to issues of color, and mother-daughter relationships through her techni-colored Patterns series. While the series is lovingly and cheerily executed, the juxtaposition of her human subjects and the project row houses remains cryptic and unexpressive. Charles Wiese's portraits of his family, hand-colored and half-toned a la Warhol and Lichtenstein, also convey little besides the artist's tenderness toward those he loves.
Brevity renders certain inclusions, such as Jimmy Castillo's look into his origins, inscrutable. Castillo's identity trinity, from left to right a groom doll, a toy stork and self-portrait set against a glossy blackboard filled with a chalky handwritten memoir appears to be the predecessor to a more complete autobiography, the toys and text feel like interchangeable symbols in the contemporary shorthand of kitsch. The brochure accompanying this exhibition features a different print by Castillo, one that makes a more charged statement by setting the artist between warring cowboy and Indian figures. Presumably this is the print the curator hoped to exhibit.
Jack Thompson, Debra Rueb and Robin Dru Germany also present kitsch-laden works that are readable and hence more evocative, whereas the icons Castillo uses (here as compared to the cowboy and Indian piece shown elsewhere) remain mute, the latter group makes their play dolls and staged gags speak. Kitsch and Pop icons lend themselves to closer readings and external (to the art world at least) allusions, because by themselves they are not very expressive. Used successfully, they reduce or subvert, either pulling high art down from its elitist cultural structures or exposing the ideologies behind mass-media artifacts. Debra Rueb's Tammy doll is a liberated Barbie, given to promiscuity and career advancement; but the doll is a cipher in the artist's sketch comedy, and the photographs themselves exist primarily as frames or backdrops for the social commentary. Robin Dru Germany appropriates the kitschy look of outdated technology in her digital prints to offset the essential narrative question of gender. Similarly, Fanny Tapper's staged scenes, mixing slapstick humor and sexist confrontation, fall somewhere between Cindy Sherman and Nic Nicosia.
The most unassuming works turn out to be the most engaging. O. Rufus Lovefct's small portraits deliver more questions about their subjects than facts. The recent dating on the labels contradicts the age expressed by the pictures, that of being pulled out of a scrapbook or an anthropological digest. The sense of down-home synecdoche in the balloons, hands and other elements leaves a space for new interpretations. The scenes appear commonplace and everyday, but the internal motives in the composition, the hands as building blocks on a round wooden post, the white balloons against impassive faces and the diamond space between open legs and an open wallet suggest the timeless rituals of geometry. The serene faces of the immersed bathers in Janice Rubin's Mikvah series also serve as poetic metaphors for the staying power of ritual ideas within the passage of time. These pictures are honest, affectless and ambitious, challenging time to stop and explain itself.
Littered throughout this exhibition is the physical evidence of the 1990s — a loose amalgam of curatorial and artistic choices that put forward the look of mainstream post-modernism, a lax, dispassionate itinerary of heroically cast minutiae and heterodox styles. The many interesting possibilities of the exhibition's gender-specific organization remain largely unexplored, a curatorial shortcoming. The works are well-executed, but the intentions hidden. What is left is the overall feeling that what is going on isn't that important anymore. •
Tex Kerschen is a curator at the Art Car Museum, the author of an upcoming collection of short stories, Dead Souls Looking for New Bodies, and a rock and roller with the band Japanic.