Friday, April 8, 2011

Nowhere Near Here at Fotofest

Nowhere Near Here is a an exhibition of new photographic work by Texas artists held concurrently at Fotofest and Houston Center for Photography. The artists, selected by Menil Collection curators Toby Kamps and Michelle White, all currently live and work in Texas, although the work on display is often set outside of the Lone Star State.

I have visited the Fotofest portion of the exhibit – presenting the work off 11 artists – on two occasions. When Fotofest fills it's exhibition space to capacity, which includes a second floor, there's a lot of work to take in. Thankfully, I believe this exhibition is worth a repeat visit, and I found myself returning to the work of three artists in particular.

Houston photographer Chris Akin presents inkjet prints of photographs taken in California and New York. His very keen eye finds moments of visual harmony in often very unexpected places, such as the appearance of a fluorescent light tube leaning out of a trash can in front of a crosswalk. These photographs are formal studies, and if you allow yourself to look past the literal objects presented, there's a wonderful chorus of line, shape, color, and space.

Chris Akin, For Dan Flavin, from the series New York, 2010. (Photo by BP)

Akin's images are the closest to abstraction in the exhibition, and I'm sure that's why I respond to them as well as I do. The painter in me sees the shapes and pattern in his photos and thinks about Ellsworth Kelly and the trapeze swings (and this subsequent Red Blue Green painting). Those more knowledgeable in photography – and the artist himself – reference the work of William Eggleston as an obvious influence. I fully admit to not knowing much about Eggleston, so after viewing the show I did some internet research and found this wide-ranging interview with the photographer. At one point, he declares that you can't teach composition, and that's exactly the strength of Akin's images.

The exhibition literature reveals that Akin also draws and paints, and his photographs certainly reference an abstract painter's strategy in composing a canvas. I was caught off guard by my own enthusiasm towards these photographs, but I came to realize that if I worked more with traditional photography, these are the types of images I would try to make.

Chris Akin, Sink Behind Dominic's Fresh Produce, Moss Landing, California, from the series Who's Afraid of California, 2009. (Photo by BP)

During my first visit to Nowhere Near Here, I ventured upstairs using the back stairwell, which led me directly into Austin artist Mike Osborne's oversized photographs of Houston streets. They're really big for photographs – 44" x 55" – and are presented in a rather unique fashion. Rather than framing these inkjet prints (which would clearly cost a hefty sum), Fotofest and Osborne have mounted them directly to the wall thanks to four small magnets and some strategically placed screws embedded into the drywall. Osborne took these images with a tripod-mounted, large-format view camera, which allows for greater control over perspective issues and a higher amount of detail (and thus larger prints).

There is clearly some bravado in this work, with the prints being as large as they are and presented in an unprotected manner. I like that bravado, but for all the effort that must go into to capturing these images with a large format camera, I'm not sure the subject matter always warrants the oversized treatment. For instance, there's a photo of a group of policemen standing around a car. It's a familiar type of image to anyone who watches a local news program or reads a local paper, except here the image is nearly 4 x 5 feet. It reads a bit like a snapshot, and I struggle to find the advantage of having this image printed so large. Is it simply big for big's sake?

Installation view of Mike Osborne. Left: HPD, 2010. Right: Pennzoil Place, 2010. (Photo by BP)

Hanging directly right of the policemen image, however, is a striking photo of the entrance to Philip Johnson and John Burgee's Pennzoil Place towers. Here, devoid of figures and a narrative, the focus is squarely on the patterns created by the architecture and Osborne's framing. This image works at this larger size, and I found myself thinking of Sarah Morris' geometric paintings, which often take their cues from skyscrapers and the urban grid. Here again, my subconscious traces an aesthetic of a photograph back to abstract painting, but at least in this case – as opposed to with Akin's images downstairs – the scale of the work makes for a more immediate comparison to painting.

Mike Osborne, Weed Wacker on Gray Street, 2010. (Photo by BP)

Pennzoil Place is my favorite image from Osborne, but there are others that largely shift away from figurative representation and focus more on pattern and shape. Weed Wacker on Grey Street does have a figure in it, but the stark building facade and accompanying cast shadows make for a really interesting formal study of pattern and line. Yet for all of the interest I have in that piece, Osborne also offers up Man from the Back, which is a huge print of the back of a man's head. Perhaps the lines in his hair are visually interesting, but I'm not convinced it's a photo warranting an oversized reproduction.

The final work I encountered on my visit was that of Japanese-born, San Antonio artist Mimi Kato, whose One Ordinary Day of an Ordinary Town is a visual tour de force and unlike anything else in Nowhere Near Here. For this massive piece, Kato has blended hundreds of photographs of individual characters into a brightly-colored, illustrated cityscape. Comprised of 3 scenes (of three panels each), the piece portrays the bustling activities of a town in morning, afternoon, and evening. Each of the nine individual panels is quite large – 43"w x 74"h – and the scale of the work, combined with Kato's illustrative style and composition strategies, promotes an aesthetic of a modern-day japanese tapestry. Unfortunately, Fotofest lacks the 32 uninterrupted feet necessary to hang them all together, so Scene 3: Rosy Tomorrow is hung separate from the first six panels.

Installation view of Mimi Kato's One Ordinary Day of an Ordinary Town, 2010. (Photo by BP)

Aside from the interesting contrast between the photographic figures and the rather flatly illustrated backgrounds, what a viewer quickly realizes is that all of the characters in these scenes are played by the same person. My assumption was this was the artist (and that turned out to be correct), but such assumptions are not always wise to make. In this case, however, the woman seen getting dressed in the apartment above the restaurant, the group of people brawling in the street at the vegetable stand, and even the rabbit stealing a carrot from the garden are all played by Kato. Such role-playing immediately recalls the work of Cindy Sherman, while the compositing of a figure into a fictional landscape reminded me of French photographer Gilbert Garcin, who recently showed at Fotofest as part of Matter of Wit.

Mimi Kato, Scene 1: Golden Sky, Golden Start (detail), 2010. (Photo by BP)

Kato's statement gives further insight into her characters and the physical spaces represented in One Ordinary Day in an Ordinary Town, but the piece is engrossing even without the backstory. Her self-described "one-person performance" is unique, humorous, and captivating. I was actually happy to have seen Kato's work last while visiting Nowhere Near Here, as it provided an unexpected and memorable finish.

There are many more artists in the exhibition than I have singled out here, and I would encourage anyone to take in this latest installment of the Talent in Texas series. Nowhere Near Here continues at both Fotofest and Houston Center for Photography through April 23rd.

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