The Dallas Six

by Cara De Busk

“The Dallas Six” exhibition was part of a unique exchange organized by the directors of the Houston Center for Photography (HCP) and Allen Street Gallery in Dallas. Its goal was to acquaint Houston audiences to the work of Dallas artists and Dallas audiences to Houston artists.

Six Dallas artists were chosen from slide submissions by nearly thirty photographers for exhibition at HCP by Executive Director Jean Caslin, Administrative Director Michael DeVoll, and Hans Staarjes, a Houston photographer and HCP programming chair. These artists were selected to represent current trends in photography-based art coming out of the Dallas area. Their work emphasized hand-manipulated photography that, according to DeVoll, is characteristic of the strongest work Dallas artists have to offer. The artists were Robin Dru Germany, Mark Luttrell, Kendra North, Glenys Quick, John Neal Phillips, and Rose Marcus Tobey.

Robin Dru Germany is a familiar artist to HCP members and visitors. Germany has participated in several HCP exhibitions and is a regular contributor to the annual HCP Members’ Exhibition. Her work consists of dark, quiet images of aged, low-tech machinery into which other images – often human body parts – are subtly collaged. Germany is exploring a popular issue: the relationship of humans to machines. Through the discreet quality of her craft, she generates an alternative to the usual approach to this issue. Due to a cultural prejudice that encourages polarized thinking, many North Americans (artists or not) approach “technology” as the “other,” as an uncontrollable force outside themselves. By being outside and other, technology is bad to them. Philosophies that describe machines as “dehumanizing” and use the word “mechanized” as a negative description of human behavior, demonstrate the psychological distance many Americans draw between themselves and these tools they describe as “technology.”

Germany explores the truly interdependent relationship between man and technology by depicting an intimacy between the human parts and the machine parts in her images. By anthropomorphizing the machines at the same time as mechanizing machines, Germany challenges notions that describe technology as outside us. We are technology and technology is us; therefore, we are responsible for what technology does. Germany’s unique experience of working with printing presses has created a relationship of mutual respect and connection with the machines, and that refreshing insight is revealed in her work.

Mark Luttrell has expressed a strong interest in technology and how humans relate to and use the tools they develop. Yet, his interest is much less evident in his work, which consists of small, finely made platinum prints of still lifes containing fruit, flowers, and dead animals. Luttrell’s images, given such loaded titles as Persistent Stereotype, carry many elements that are used by this culture to characterize the notion of the “feminine:” lushness, decay, food, delicacy, emotion, intuition, quietness, passivity, and death. Like Germany, Luttrell rewards the viewer who takes the time to look closely at these small, textural images; however, the very subtle political conflicts, which Luttrell almost hides within the images, are unclear. The sense that these images are attempting to be critical is there, but Luttrell is very averse to letting the viewer know exactly what his position is regarding gender issues of the “decadence” of North American societies that he has said are his interest and symbolized by the objects he chooses to photograph.

Kendra North takes a much more straight, relatively manipulated approach to her work. Presented in pairs consisting of one black and white and one color print, North’s images are a clever exploration of the acts of looking and being looked at, which she has titled A Sport of Spectators. Surprisingly powerful in their simplicity, these pairs of images depict young men and women engaged in the highly gender stereotyped activities of the California beaches: girl watching, bikini contests, muscle competitions, watching and being watched. By pairing similar color images with black and white images in a skewed mirroring, North allows the viewer room for distance and a critical eye when engaging these “documents.” The slickness of the prints and of her presentation reiterate this quality and focus on appearance that seem to be the major focus of energy for North’s subjects.

The beautifully rough and soft hand-colored montages by Glenys Quick are probably the most intriguing images in the exhibition. The juxtaposition of softly colored, degenerated images of trees, sky, and small appropriated photos, which appear to be old family snapshots of women, create a map to the concerns of this artist: finding an alternative to the popular representations of women and of “nature,” and of intertwining personal history with the “great” issues of art – love, truth, beauty, and the nature of man.

The unofficial exhibit theme of hand manipulation continues with the marked portraits by John Neal Phillips. Using scratches on his negatives and marks on his prints, he demonstrates another popular approach to manipulated photography, yet the evidence of the artist’s hand in this case seems to be motivated purely by anger and disrespect for his subject. Phillips shoots (or as he phrases it, “sticking cameras in people’s faces”) grainy, contrasty portraits that are creepy, urban, and supposedly on-the-street, then scratches and marks out the faces of his models. What Phillips fails to communicate is why he needs to perform this rageful act on his images.

The obscuring of faces and identity can be a powerful effect. Artists have explored issues of gender, class, race, and representation in general by using variations on the obliteration of identity. Phillip’s work lacks the intellectual direction found in work such as that of John Baldessari. (In particular, Baldessari’s use of solid, colored circles to obscure parts of his images, usually these circles are used to delete the individual features of the subject’s face or head; therefore, transforming the persons represented into symbols.) By keeping the emotional qualities evident in this work and expanding on the dry intellectualism of artists such as Baldessari, Phillips could have made a strong contribution to the exploration of identity. But, he has chosen not to commit himself in this way, and the result is that he appears to be no more than a basic misanthrope with a camera and darkroom.

The final artist that comprises “The Dallas Six” is Rose Marcus Tobey. Her mixed media box is very far from the quality of the other work. A hodge-podge of slick, color magazine images combined with toy soldiers and other objects inserted into a small diorama of Parisian party life, this piece is an interesting effort, but seems lacking of real direction or meaning.

The most unfortunate quality of “The Dallas Six” exhibition is the inclusion of work that is not up to HCP’s standards of quality in craft and meaning. Gallery X is intended to be a space for work that takes risks, either aesthetic or philosophical, yet some of the work chosen for the exhibition in this show lacks the strength, rebelliousness, and emotion usually found here.

Cara De Busk is a photo-artist working in Houston.