HCP Members: Diversity

By Lynn Foster

Expose: Fourth Annual Members’ Exhibition, Houston Center for Photography, April 4-May 12. Portfolios by Gay Block, Peter Brown, Doe Doherty, Jim Elmore, Gary Faye, Annette Fournet, Paula Goldman, Paul Hester, Sam McColloch, Pam Pitt, David Portz, Charles Schorre, and Barry Sturrock. Miscellaneous prints by Fred Baldin, Jim Caldwell, Keith Carter, David Crossley, Paula Fridkin, Sally Gall, Philip Holland, Ron Jones, Robert King, Margaret Moore, Wayne Narr, and Wendy Watriss.

When close to one hundred photographers of widely different levels of accomplishment get together with portfolios of their work, then vote on which groups of pictures should be included in an exhibition, we can expect some inconsistency, and, of course, the absence of any central theme. But the HCP’s Fourth Annual Members’ Exhibition is perhaps the most successful one to date (after a great deal of moaning and groaning over last year’s because of the very small number of entries).
There is a tremendous diversity in the current show. We find the work of established artists hanging along with those still attempting to express themselves clearly. There’s a mixture of 35mm and large format, color and black and white, hand colored photographs and collages, and various multiple images. There is also a variety of subject matter; portraits, landscapes, documentary, and still lifes. I think anyone viewing the show — and certainly the artists who participated — could learn a lot from this exhibit.
Peter Brown has taken the snapshot to a sophisticated level. His images seem very personal; Brown is showing us his family album.
Looking at the pictures, I feel like a voyeur allowed into his world: I’m in Jill’s bedroom where she’s taking a nap; I watch a stranger getting his hair cut; I’m in the middle of a family reunion. I feel the intruder, a little uncomfortable, but I can’t resist looking around before someone asks me to leave. Brown’s use of light, shadow, and color along with his willingness to share his personal involvement with us makes the images strongly engaging.
David Portz’s series Fresh Fish: The Houston School pretends to be an amusing commentary on the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s recent show, Fresh Paint: The Houston School, which has provoked much discussion about the whole question of the existence of a Houston “school.” Portz has used brightly painted fish placed in various ridiculous environments (trees, cars, mailboxes) coupled with titles such as “Narcissistic Intercoastal Pike,” “Pollockfish,” and “Rothko Grouper.” My fear is that Fresh Fish might suffer the same fate as any other good joke: a week later you can’t remember the punchline. But it’s Portz’s first portfolio exhibition, and it’s clear that a devious and witty intelligence has entered the arena.
In portraiture, getting the sitters to reveal themselves in a clear and simple manner is the most difficult challenge. Gay Block has collaborated well with her subjects to create a series of clearly seen, large portraits. With but one exception, Block has chosen to photograph older men and women who have been around long enough to have earned their faces. She’s framed them so the environment is of minimal interest and the people all make eye contact with the viewer. Block has found a sensitivity, a vulnerability in these people, particularly the women. Her subjects confront us so strongly, we’re hesitant to walk away from their pictures.
Paula Goldman has taken art as her subject, using still lifes by the seventeeth-century Dutch painters as her inspiration. She has constructed very formal still lifes with the traditional elements — fresh fruit, plates, drapery, table surfaces — and introduced common contemporary elements including Twinkies, Spam, Velveeta cheese, white bread, and plastic grapes. In one of the photographs, there is a peeled lemon taken directly from Wilem Kalf’s Still Life 1659, but as we look closer, we also see part of a Twinkie and its wrapper, a partially eaten orange and banana, and crumbs lying about. The visual games go on in each of the images. We’re allowed to see the pushpins holding up the drapery, Velveeta cheese in sort of cornucopia arrangement, a 1950s formica table top showing through. The prints themselves become art about art. Goldman masked of areas of the print them bleached and toned the rest of the image with sepia and finally soaked the whole print in selenium, which gave a pinkish tone to the sepia areas. As a result, Goldman is also speaking of the technical and material process of photography.
Annette Fournet’s hand-colored images reveal deft workmanship. The already romantic black-and-white images of gardens and landscapes around Europe become even more romanticized by the coloring. They somehow make us think of Atget — albeit with hand coloring — but not felt as intensely at the inception. Fournet’s work seems to be more about process and craft than anything else.
Jim Elmore showed a portfolio of color photographs from English seaside resorts, a continuation of a series he has been working on for many years. I found myself drawn into the densely populated beach scenes. In one, two young women in the foreground walk diagonally across the frame. They are seen first, but the compelling action is behind them, deeper into the picture. The background appears painted in, so when we come back to the two women, they now seem to be on a stage. In another image of a fairly large crowd, I found myself examining each individual because they are so oblivious to the crowd surrounding them. Slowly we discover a yellow truck, donkeys, a woman stretching, none of which is seen at first, when the pictures seem to be brightly colored mosaics. It’s Elmore’s handling of information in the middle and background that makes his work so interesting. Unfortunately, the continuity of the portfolio is broken by the inclusion of photographs of store fronts, which might be interesting because of the curious signs and so forth, but only minimally and only briefly.
Sam McColloch has produced a series of black-and-white diptychs, images of the Houston skyline juxtaposed with megaliths from Callanish, Scotland. McColloch is exploring the continuity of the need to create monumental structures, the glass curtain structures of the 20th century contrasting against the assembled giant stones from a primitive past. The six diptychs were very similar in their approach so the idea seemed a bit overstated but nonetheless well done.
One recurring aesthetic that always seems to appear in these group shows is about F/64 and the neverending search for more and sharper detail. Minor White and others attempted to use the large-format techniques to transform banal reality into abstractions. Gary Faye’s prints of light on sandstone formations, done with a large-format camera, are in the best F/64 tradition, but I think we need not plow that same field in 1985.
Pam Pitt’s infrared photographs of landscapes, old buildings, and trees all seem lost in space and time but still reflect that traditional photographic way of seeing, as do Barry Sturrock’s color prints of Mexican door fronts and street scenes. Sturrock’s pictures seem so similar to Geoff Winningham’s pictures of the same subject, shown not long ago at Harris Gallery, that it’s hard to imagine there’s no connection.
On my first trip to see the show I asked the person I was with what he thought of Paul Hester’s work. “Well, I’m pretty sure he’s not a Republican” was the response. Hester continues to make biting social and political comments, this time using collage of his photos and the pages of Time magazine covering the Presidential inauguration. The work is constructed around the use of nudes with the central character in a Ronald Reagan mask. The photographs are then stripped into the magazine pages and rephotographed. We see in one photo the cover of Time with the words “The Second Term,” “A Fresh Agenda,” “A New Lineup,” and “The President Being Sworn in on Sunday.” The accompanying photograph is of a nude male in a Reagan mask seated on the back o a nude female down on all fours and wearing a black hood. Because the images are rather small in relation to the total print area, the viewer is physically drawn closer to the work, which demands that the “message” be read. Hester’s strong and most obvious message is that behind the media hype there’s something very wrong in Washington. But what else is he trying to say? Some of the pictures are pretty raw (“Reagan” masturbating) and it seems Hester is simply trying to be offensive. The series comprise a strong personal statement, strongly felt.
Looking at Doe Doherty’s large color prints of plants and objects under water, I felt like I was standing before nineteenth-century impressionist paintings; the same visual stimulus to the retina. The film grain is allowed to show, and the prints are soft and warm, making them see more like lithographs than photographs. Rather than comment on art, as Goldman does, Doherty seems to copy art from another medium, another time. Still, what they are about is photographic seeing.
Many of the great world religions began in the desert, a place for soul searching, for deeper understanding, for mirages and mystery and visions. Charles Schorre has captured all of hat in his six collages from a series entitled Pages from Books Unpublished. He has mounted photographs and parts of photographs onto paper subtly covered with acrylic washes, symbols, and brush strokes.
There’s enough left in all of us from our ancestral days on the savannah, our wandering the canyons of our earliest beginnings, that allow us to identify with Schorre’s images. There’s still that little genetic memory in us that knows about ant hills and caves and clouds and sky and magic symbols.
There were several artists who were not represented by complete portfolios, and I think we would have been well served to see more of their work. Wendy Waitriss’s four images entitled “Interrogation” go far beyond the simple recording of an event. A black youth is being interrogated by a policeman. Watriss has caught the two men in gesture, and light, and shadow, and given us the feeling of tension, fear, and apprehension of this encounter.
David Crossley had four large black-and-white prints of children posing with an enormous Smith & Wesson .357 magnum pistol. Because of the scale of the pistol in relationship to the children a very disturbing psychological circumstance gets set up. I was very uncomfortable looking at a little girl cradling the big pistol as she would a doll. The young boy looking directly at me while holding the gun disturbed me. What seemed to let me off the hook, however, is the awareness that the photos were stages (although, apparently no instructions were given to the children), and that even though danger is implied, no immediate threat is apparent or intended.
The show was well worth the effort. If it was lacking in any area I would be the selection seemed a little too safe, perhaps a little easy. But the diversity of work being done, the variety of approaches to the medium, suggest that there is strong and serious photography being done in Houston.