The Self As Subject

By April Rapier

Self Image: The 1985 Show. The Firehouse Gallery, Houston, April 4 – May 10.
This small exhibit was part of a larger project of the Houston Women’s Caucus for Art. Photographs and video were shown at the Caucus’s Firehouse Gallery, and an exhibition of paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings was presented by the Caucus, under the same title, at Midtown Art Center.
A self-portrait may be unexciting, introverted, conceptual, or just plain difficult to penetrate as long as it is ultimately honest; unrevealing is unforgivable. The overall weakness of this group of portraits was evasiveness. However, a few images merit discussion.
George Krause, in a black and white photograph drawn from the I Nudi series, seems somewhat befuddled by the disarray and potential chaos of a naked woman sprawled across his lap — almost a gesture of hiding, and peeking around for a look. The setting is a studio space; the table behind the pair is cluttered with photographic paraphernalia. Krause looks puzzled and a bit sheepish. He is fully clothed; his grip on her waist is neither tentative nor aggressive, a further sign of bewilderment. She assumes a classic pose — gaze aloof, away from the camera, as neutral and oblivious as the inflatable “women” which Krause has also photographed. Her arms are behind her (and therefore Krause’s) head. Although he looks vaguely ready to take flight, they are entangled. The picture is a great merger between humor and emotional complexity, without a hint of compromise.
Gay Block’s piece is two black and white photographs, mounted back to back between sheets of Plexiglas, and hung from the ceiling so that it slowly revolves. One image shows a young girl smiling quite securely, holding (with both her hands) the hand of a man in a suit. It is sweet but unrecognizable beyond generalities (the piece is untitled). The second ostensibly sweeps us forward in time to a woman (identifiable this time as Ms. Block) in a bedroom, her nude reflection, seen in a mirror on a closet door. The objects in the room are far more revealing than the distant (albeit brave) portrait; she doesn’t look at herself as the shutter opens. There is a ghostly image, probably reflection, in the television screen, and the bedcovers are neatly thrown back, as though she’s just awakened. Fully one side of the bed is unmade. There is order to the room and powerful implications to be drawn from these references to control. That she is nude almost seems superfluous. Together, the two photographs create strong symbols of love and loss.
Debra Rueb has undertaken the difficult project of photographing herself every day of her thirtieth year, in an effort to “record, remember, and confront” this major event. Some days are easier than others, but the images here represent a smooth involvement, free of redundancy, a hazard inherent to the project. Some are impassioned and dramatic, other classically stylized. The most compelling image was Rueb reclining nude on a couch, feet to a window. Seen from the waist down, the vantage seems modest and conservative. A beautiful tree fills the window frame, echoing other organic elements; on the upholstered pillows that support her, geese take flight. That elementally it works so well must have been a lovely surprise, for that sort of image is best unplanned.
The photo booth shots that visitors were encouraged to take and leave as part of the exhibit was a great idea, a light-hearted opportunity for some casual to high-camp mugging. Laurie McDonald’s very special video installation, “Filling the Boxes of Joseph Cornell” should be noted as well. It is a thoroughly enjoyable and provocative piece that, in addition to being about self-examination, took an incisive look at coping with a modern, not-so-honest world.