Paul Hester: Belief and Action

By April Rapier

Paul Hester is a three-time NEA Fellow who lives and works in Houston. The following is a discus­sion of his most recent work, which was included m the HCP's 1984 Members' Exhibition.
The politics of 1934, of sex and sexuality, of repression, imposition of will, and death as a power play, of racism and hatred — in short, the persuasion of volition against conscience and desire -lead ultimately to an ineffectual end. a cry for help that has no voice. There is intelligence and concern in Paul Hester’s sequence of images. "We Are Seduced By ... /Su Vota Es la Differencia" The nine categories he structures the pictures around seem neutral enough at first, yet are loaded politically and emotionally. One gradually begins to sense his out­rage a conceptual mayhem born of the absurdity of hopelessness. How can anyone be fooled by all of this — be seduced by the repellent - we wonder, as the question echoes over and over. Hester's premise, if it can be condensed so readily, is that once aware of the seduction, one is empowered to act against it. The vote is the symbol of power even though that, too, necessitates a compromise. The pictures tell of a now-predictable pattern of horror from which wisdom must be extracted; otherwise, civilization's atrocities will be con­demned to being forgotten.
To do business with world pol­itics on a symbolic rather than documentary level is no less effective when the horror acted out is dreamlike, recognizable. The met­aphor for seduction/repression can be drawn from many arenas but most often from the dynamic between people. The use of male and female nudes, calling again and again upon the tension that nudity creates, can be seen in two ways: nudity as vulnerability, or the release from taboo, the strength that comes when a concept is no longer a red flag. This intensity draws attention to every detail within the frame — we question props, veins bulging, scratches on the floor, light di­rected toward genitals, as well as the principals themselves, with the same objective scrutiny that is traditionally followed by an em­barrassed laugh. Physical evidence within the pictures can be found in mirrors and reflections. Reagan masks, surprise and distraction, sleeping bag cocoons, entrap ment, bondage and blindfolds (the tools of the interrogator and executioner), and showmanship — devices that make us question our assumptions. In spite of a certain absurdity to the gestures, poses, masks, and wrappings, we are engrossed in the absolute se­riousness of the message. The im­ages are terribly complex and powerful: many interpretations are available and encouraged by the interplay between the myth of a collective history of political horror, and the reality of what seems all too familiar yet remains unintelligible.
Paul Hester and his work are virtually inseparable. He is an anomaly in Houston, a city of noise and confusion: he maintains a quiet profile, yet has an acti­vist’s sensibility. The political over­tones of his pictures, once rather raw and cruel, have grown refined and sophisticated. The intent re­mains dear. Once a photoeducator, attention is naturally drawn to him as a resource, someone with a solution, not an excuse. His commercial work is primarily architectural: he has bridged the gap between his commercial and fine art photography, in that neither suffers in excuse of the other. One senses his regard for the historical aspect of photog­raphy; he once organized a dis­play of city archive pictures, and often uses a panorama camera, a relic of great beauty from the more cumbersome days of pack mules and glass plates and portable studios. All aspects of his photography are labors of love. He has achieved and continues to maintain a fine reputation in the art world, and is published and exhibited regularly (he was re­cently included in an exhibition entitled “Exposed and Developed Photography Sponsored by the Na­tional Endowment for the Arts”, at the Smithsonian Institution’s Na­tional Museum of American Art), He was awarded the Thomas Watson grant, and is a three time NEA Fellowship recipient. Yet the focus of his interest and out­put is local, his sense of com­munity strong.
For many years, his work was experimental and more personal, a private statement open to in­terpretation. He recently made a more definitive political declar­ation in the form of an exhibition he coordinated at the Houston Center for Photography regarding nuclear disarmament. His work in that show evoked enormous in­ternal controversy at the HCP. His was a courageous move, one that further politicized his stance. One hopes that there is no turn­ing back. The force of a goal thus became crystallized in this most recent portfolio: whereas many rally behind causes with footwork and words, pictures backed by ideas prove to be powerful in the allegiance of belief and action.