Fiction, Sex, and Violence
By Hans Staartjes
Critical Fictions, an exhibition curated by Richard Hinson and including David F. Donovan, Frank Golden, Peter Harvey, Richard Hinson, Maggie Olvey, and Donna Rydlund, was shown at the Dishman Art Gallery, Lamar University, in Beaumont, Texas, November 6-25, 1992.
In a show that intended to be “critical of some aspect of the (contributing) artist’s life,” it is curious that these aspects are mainly sex and violence. Even more curious is the unwittingly putting of feminism as in the work of Maggie Olvey and Donna Rydlund against somewhat chauvinistic work of David F. Donovan and Frank Golden. Both Peter Harvey, with his comical video and Richard Hinson with his analysis of random violence, seem to stay well clear of this fracas.
When you say “crime scene photography,” you might expect bloody night scenes, body bags, flashing police lights, and jostling video cameramen providing visuals of the latest homicide for the “news.” Richard Hinson’s black-and-white photographs of convenience stores, bridges, street corners, and alleys in Houston, on the contrary, are disconcertingly normal and show no physical evidence of violence at all. The indifference of these images are an ironic reflection of the public indifference to the daily list of violent acts. This apathy seems only stirred by ever more bizarre and callous cruelty.
The only hints of disorder in Hinson’s images are in the text. A photograph of a “Stop ‘n Go” store tells of a man trying to get cash from an automatic teller machine, but he can’t because he’s overdrawn, and “as he walked out of the store, a thirteen year-old approached him and demanded his cash. He told him he didn’t have any money and the thirteen-year-old accused him of lying…the youth then pulled out a gun from his jacket and shot him three times. He was pronounced dead at the scene and was still holding on to his back receipt when he was loaded into the ambulance.” A photograph of a phone booth on a street corner reads: “A man stopped to use the telephone…two men got out of their car, walked up to him, and shot him repeatedly until he fell dead. They then calmly got back into their car and drove away.” The more cloistered life a citizen is forced to live, the less interest he will have in the suffering of others, permitting, perhaps, more callousness.
In contrast to the cool irony of Hinson’s photographs, Frank Golden presents us with perhaps the most intriguing and powerfully emotive work in this show. His original images are black-and-white negatives that are scraped on, painted on, and subsequently printed on color paper. The found frames chosen for this work add a feeling of “individual pieces of art” compared to more “straight” photography. The thematic content of this work, I can be said, is like Hinson’s, also about violence. But this is an anger that comes from within the artist and is not only evident by the heavy scratching technique on the emulsion, but also by the subject matter and the sardonic titles of the pieces: “Diazepam” (a tranquilizing drug) is an image of a winged female nude in a heavily mutilated surface. “Untitled” is a scratched orange shadow of a dead body in an alley with hypodermic needles and garbage cans scattered around. “Fear of AIDS” is a female nude with glowing blue eyes holding a mask to her face in a somber curtained scene, with a skull in the foreground. “Fear of Christmas” is a haunting image of a vulnerable child sitting next to a Christmas tree with gifts; a ghostlike human figure appears to be falling from them and through the tree; in the two corners of the frame appear the letters U and R. Golden’s work is a dark, laconic, and chauvinistic look at sex and Christianity, and its appeal lies in its unashamed personal voice.
David F. Donovan’s superbly printed black-and-white portraits of women, in contrast, seemed perhaps to fit the agenda of “critical fiction” least convincingly in this show. Donovan photographs female models in various rural or small town locations with the intention of giving “the viewer the idea that they are intruding into a very private portion of his subject’s lives and (making) us think we are being excluded from their secret.” The images have a sexually titillating a voyeuristic intent, as in the image of a girl pulling on her top revealing more of hr breasts, or the image of two young women: one wearing black negligee and drinking through a straw embraced from behind the other, also in black. Some of the other images are reminiscent of Arbus, such as the image of a girl pricking her finger with a needle and thread. A more successful and compelling image is of a girl in front of a water tower holding her hair back from a gust of wind and holding a book in the other hand.
While Donovan has a fetish with the female body, Donna Rydlund reacts in anger at the demands a male-dominant society and the media place on a woman’s physical appearance. Her intensely personal work is an installation of “scrolls”, even of which are images of a pin getting progressively larger while the text above gets progressively smaller. A center “scroll” has three pairs of red shorts with text around them, and three “scrolls,” on the right, decreasing in size, show photographs of the backside of a nude woman in a studio setting. The text above the pin images mentions the “goodness of thinness” and how it was believed in the Middle Ages tat “Fasting became associated with virtue and purity.” It was thought that “angels were so good, so pure, that they must be awfully thin. People…debated over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.” (This last text is barely legible above the head of a very enlarged pin.) Current expectations leave women with a “bitter contempt for the feminine nature of (their) own body,” writes Rydlund, “The sense of fullness and swelling of plenitude which filled me with disgust, (are) actually the qualities of a woman’s body.”
Similarly, Maggie Olvey’s work deals with the oppressive expectations often demanded of women in household and child rearing roles. Olvey’s “Mixed Messages” was an installation of six double-sided panels that were suspended from the gallery ceiling. The panels provide two views, one outside and one inside. The outside panels are living room intereiors showing, among others, chairs, windows, picture frames, and a dining room table. There is a warm inviting glow to these interiors provided by a late afternoon light coming through the windows. The familiarity of this living room is deliberate; it is meant to represent a generic living room in any house. These living rooms, however, provide only a superficial and “feel good” view of a house. The true interiors are on the inside panels. The inside views include a photograph of clothes dryer with text that reads: “lingerie, a look to keep your eye on,” a phrase with double meaning contrasting sexuality with the banality of the washing. Another interior includes a view of dishwasher reading, “Mabel, Mabel, strong and able, keep your elbows off the table.” One goes the feeling with this work, of witnessing a theatrical piece of the daily drama of domestically trapped life.
Peter Harvey’s video art is a pleasant, lighthearted addition to this show. “Verism” is a witty look at self-help books about personal image improvement. In it, Harvey follows his book’s suggestion of gaining a better self-esteem by getting a haircut and wearing a pair of glasses. Sporting a crew cut and nerd glasses, Harvey discovers it isn’t working. This hilarious fare is topped only by his piece “Verist,” which is an analysis of the visual cliché. In it he mentions all the things you should do to avoid making clichés “if you want to do anything remotely resembling art.” The piece is accompanied by a purposefully annoying sound of a loudly ticking clock. To avoid being a cliché, he explains pointing at his drawing on his blackboard, a picture should not be too central or too far to one side, it also shouldn’t look “too good or too bad.” He proceeds to erase the drawing because “it might be a cliché.”
A good definition of a photograph is that it is a “critical function” of a human experience, tainted by the selectivity of the artist’s experience and reinterpreted later by the viewer (who is, of course, also tainted). The stronger and more personal the artist’s expressions, the more likely the viewer will be drawn into the artist’s convictions. “critical Fictions” is at certain times, quite powerful in this regard.
Hans Staartjes is a Houston freelance photographer and writer.