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The People’s Critic: FotoFestivus

An Hong at FotoFest Heaquarters...“I am Jingang”

This year’s official FotoFestivus theme is Chinese photography, but I’m a gonna talk a little bit about the unofficial shows as well. Since I am the People’s Critic, it’s my job to write for the bubbas and the non-bubbas and all the little people who ain’t got no art learning. This would include most of you, since 99% of you probably got little or no art learnin’ in your woefully inadequate all-American educations. So for all you one percenters left out there who did go to art school, you can move it on over to some other more artful criticism of this year’s photo event extravaganza.

I have been on an extensive 40-venue tour and have provided this quick guide to help you navigate the rest of the Fest. The Art-o-Meter runs from one to five, from worst to best:

  1. Inadequate       
  2. Average      
  3. Good
  4. Excellent
  5. Changed my life 

Zoe Crosher at DiverseWorks...“Kristin” from the series “One Year Later”...2004-05

For the most part, what I’ve seen out there is what I like to call ploppers. Definition: a plopper is any photograph with, and/or especially without a background consisting of a single solitary object plopped into the middle of the picture plane. This object is usually a person, but can be anything – an apple, toilet, a tree and a horse, whatever. A plopper can incorporate an abstract, figurative, landscape or even still life format.

There are ploppers and double-ploppers, multi-ploppers and even a plooper (a plopper of poop). Mind you, I have nothing against a good plopper if it’s done well, but what ever happened to the use of composition, counterpoint and the fundamentals? Some artists would say that the use of the strategically-placed object in the middle of a page adds to a greater significance of the content, especially when dealing with the art of conceptualism. I don’t buy it. If a painter slapped an object down in the certain of the page and called it done, they’d get laughed out of town.

Lalla Essaydi at Anya Tish...“Les Femmes du Maroc”

I guess this plopper epidemic took over in the nineties, my case in point, the FotoFest show at Vine street, New Photo 1993-1996. I’m not gonna list all of the various artists here, I’m just gonna mention that they all seemed to be using that plopper theme ad nauseam. Could ya put a person in the corner of the frame just once, people? And unfortunately, none of the work is especially great, among the ploppers…

Zhao Liang
’s giant naked people wearing only clear plastic clothes and talking on the phone rated a 2. An Hong ’s naked double-dancing Balinese-esque people get a 3. I’d give the giant faces on a giant grid by somebody I can’t remember a 2. Qui Zhijie gets a 2 for his ploppers of Chinese guys dramatically holding umbrellas. Liu Zheng’s ancient erotic multi-plopper set-ups get a 3 for their good composition, use of the entire picture plane and what not.

Did I mention what a set-up was? That’s when you set up a scene. Some people might call this staging. This is an interesting concept, because most of the time you might ask yourself, is this real or a set-up? If it’s real, you go, “wow.” If it’s awkwardly staged, you go, “oooh, that’s just a set-up.” For example, Zheng Guogu had these supposedly unstaged photographs of Chinese kids as gang members just hanging out and chillin’ and signin’ and pointin’ guns at each other and all that stuff, but I got the feeling it was a sham. No posers please! What I would normally give a 3, I might drop down to a 2 for a bad set-up.

Andrés Sierra at the Station...From the series “Karma Sutra”...2007

Set-ups, like ploppers, are not necessarily all bad. If you got over to the MFAH this month you might have caught Nan Goldin: Stories Retold . If you see this work, ya don’t stand there wondering if it’s a set-up or not. You realize she is taking pictures of her intimate drug takin’ friends and acquaintances. You go, “wow, these are real people with real lives,” plus the work is really good. Although Nan might use the full-on-frontal plopper or the ubiquitous side plopper technique, she never just slaps the figure down in the middle of the picture and calls it quits. She uses her subjects and their surroundings to convey these personal stories. What a novel idea. Back to FotoFestivus.

I also saw an awful lot of ploppers at the other official and unofficial Festivus events. Here are some of my favorite plopper sightings in order of their ratings.
3 – Demetrius Oliver: Firmament at Inman Gallery
3 – William Christenberry at Moody Gallery
3 – Zoe Crosher1 Yr Later at DiverseWorks
3 – Chuy Benitez: Houston Cultura at Lawndale Art Center
2 – Chen Changfen: The Historical Wall at DeSantos
2 – Fernando Castro: Reasons of State at DeSantos
2 – Lalla Essaydi: Les Femmes du Maroc at Anya Tish
2 – The Northern Front, The Anti-Japanese War, 1937-1946 at One Allen Center
2 – Sun Guojuan: Sweetness Forever at the Art League Houston

Museums do it better…

Generally when I go out and see a slew of shows, the galleries usually have the best and most innovative work, but this go-round, the museums came up big by far. I viewed some of the best FotoFest work in Apertura-Columbia at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, a survey of Columbian photography and video. (They even have a few ploppers…) My favorite photographs are the amputee lovers of Andres Sierra’s Karma Sutra (3) and the images of crosses in the jungle by Juan Fernando Herrán (3). The death markers that Herrán photographs are made of simple sticks and are often hidden in the jungle, unlike the metal ones we are used to seeing here in town. You know, the ones on every corner with gobs of flowers marking all those drunken driver accidents and drive-by shootings. If you haven’t seen any lately it’s because they were outlawed and taken away by the city – an eyesore I suppose. (I can just imagine hundreds of cut-off-crosses stacked up like the dead bodies they represent hidden in some abandoned local warehouse.)

Jesús Abad Colorado at the Station...”Comuna 13, Medell¯n”...2002

My favorite artist and plopper is Libia Posada. She has taken a series of very traditional portraits of women dressed up in semi-colonial attire. All the women are victims of domestic violence and they were each made up to re-create the cuts and bruises on their faces. I wouldn’t exactly call these set-ups because the people in the portraits are portraying their own actual experiences. These life-sized women stare back at you with defiance and malice, shrouded by stark black backgrounds. Posada had originally walked into the Museo Nacional de Colombia and hung these portraits next to the museum’s all male portraits. These same works at the station are still very effective and haunting. On execution and content I give them a 4. My only wish is that I could have seen them in their original site-specific setting.

Miwa Yanagi
at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston probably has the largest and richest photographs to be seen. Her three series, Elevator Girls, My Grandmothers and Fairy Tales will not disappoint. My favorites were the creepy fairy tales, but the grandmother series is great too. She asked her subjects to imagine what they will be like when they are grandmothers. Yanagi dresses them up with makeup and wardrobe, staging and photographing their imagined futures. I give her a 4.

The Holocaust Museum is near the MFAH and you might want to catch the small show there, Darfur: Photojournalists Respond. There were nine artists with some really good photojournalistic documentary work as well as really well made photographs, 3.

Yanagi Miwa at the MFAH...“Elevator Girl House B4”... from the series “Elevator Girls” 1998...Chromogenic photograph mounted on Plexiglas...Image courtesy of Yanagi Miwa

Also try to catch Cang Xin’s multi-person set-ups at the New World Museum. I guess the technique doesn’t bother me here because I know they are set-ups. The photographs, clearly staged, do not try to cleverly fool the audience, but instead create a metaphor. These groups of torch-holding, water-standing figures are slightly reminiscent of the movie Apocalypse Now. Don’t ask me what any of this means. There were no gallery notes or gallery director or other gallery goers for that matter there to guide me though the process at the opening. They were all out back drinking mimosas! That’s fine with me; I like a good party and a good mystery, and quite frankly I don’t believe half the stuff they write in those artist statements anyway. I give it a 4. Oh yes, and there was a picture of twenty people sitting on toilets, I call that a plooper.

It’s not a museum, but the non-profit Houston Center for Photography also had one of the top offerings. Mined in China, with works from sixteen artists, documents all the horrible mining going on and the human and environmental toll it has taken in China’s new age of industrialization, 3. Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao’s Habitat 7 is by far one of the best series of photographs in FotoFest. Liao does an amazing job of recording everyday life from the #7 train line in Queens, New York. These elongated and vibrant tableaus are stunning in their complexity and saturated color. The content goes without saying. A must see, 4. Okay, maybe a couple of his photos are verging on a 5.

Film and Video…

Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao at HCP...From the series “Habitat 7”

Somehow FotoFest has stretched photography into a film section. I haven’t seen any of the official films yet, but you bubbas won’t like them anyway, because they are in Chinese with subtitles. I did, however, see several non-official English videos at some of the participating venues. At the Station Museum of Contemporary Art’s Apertura-Columbia I saw a video of an amputee trying to wipe off his camo makeup by dipping his stumps in a bowl of water, 3. At the Blaffer Gallery, Chantal Ackerman‘s five separate installations included huge banks of variously placed videos for your viewing enjoyment. I’d give the work a 3 for content and execution, maybe even a 4 on some of the pieces, but you need a hearing aid ‘cause the gallery setup stunk. One shouldn’t have to stand next to the screen to hear the sound. Kurt Stallmann & Alfred Guzzetti’s video installation Breaking Earth at DiverseWorks is presented on multiple screens, but the shots of nature, water and trees are too long and too boring, 2.

At Studio 314 I really loved this one video about these Chinese people making animal noises in trees at night. I thought it absolutely hilarious at first, but then realized how sad it really was. These ex-rural workers, now gone urban, have had to move to the cities for work and at night they go into the park trees and make animal and bird calls to one another, very sad and haunting, 4.

FotoFest runs until April 20 and there are many more shows to be seen. Perhaps there are a few more fours out there and maybe even a five. You also may be wondering why your favorite art gallery is not included here. Well, there are 135 participating shows and I’m only one guy. Sorry.

Dolan Smith, Critic of the People, is an artist and the director of the Museum of Weird in Houston.

Also check out: 

Dolan Smith’s

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2 Responses

  1. another tired cowboy

    The “Karma Sutra” series shot looks like a total
    Roger Ballen rip-off. Both look staged to high heaven.

  2. AppleBlossom

    You should check out Suk Kuhn Oh’s work at Erie City Ironworks. It was by far my favorite diamond in the rough. I think a lot of people overlook his work because of the small scale he used, but the content and quality of these set-up photographs are very unique and impactful. I am so glad Anne Tucker selected him for this Discoveries of the Meeting Place exhibition. I’d give him a 4, a 5 if he hadn’t presented them in such a small, stacked fashion.

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