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“Mechanical Perception” at FotoFest

Eileen Maxson...UNKNOWN+++...Video, 2008

Walking into FotoFest’s 1113 Vine Street building felt like entering a minimalist’s conception of a haunted house. There was an ominous drone coming from somewhere, briefly interrupted by a short, sudden blast of feedback. I looked toward the source of the noise and saw a big video projection of a man who looked like he’d just been shot; blood was bursting from his chest. And I could hear footsteps everywhere — the place creaks!

The video is Unknown +++ by Eileen Maxson, and it’s a menacing progression of images centered on a young man’s fateful court testimony. Part of a video series of “lost broadcasts,” a few of which can be viewed at Maxson’s YouTube page. Unknown +++ uses a television template to construct cryptic narratives out of what Maxson imagines to be lost snippets of video; little video ghosts in the machine.

Maxson sets the scene with some text: “Halloween 1986. The television is on, bleeding cartoon colors across the carpet and a half-eaten Happy Meal.” She imagines her Halloween candy is tainted with poison and needles. Similarly, in Maxson’s video, consumer culture seems to nefariously influence an assassination on CourtTV. It’s a nice counterpoint to her video Tonite Reprise, another “live” broadcast (available on YouTube) in which Maxson, looking like a lawyer, appears to speak at a press conference, camera shutters clicking away. She opens her mouth and out come the lyrics to a Smashing Pumpkins song. I wish that were on display here as well.

Mei-Mei Dillard...The Yellow Canary...2006

Unknown +++ is easily my favorite part of Mechanical Perception, the current group show at FotoFest. Curated by Toby Kamps, senior curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Stephan Hillerbrand, an assistant professor at the University of Houston, and Ariane Roesch, an artist and UH alumnus, the exhibition delves into the transformation of the photographic medium, as well as changes in how photography is taught in academia. That’s what the press release says, anyway. The processes on display range from silver gelatin to digital prints, and the photographic reference is manifested not only in print and video, but also in mixed media and sculpture. All five artists are UH grads, so if that says anything about how photography is taught in the UH Photo/Digital Media program… well I don’t know what it says. To me, they may as well have called the show “UH Photo/Digital Media Program Alumni,” or maybe just “Camera Pictures.”

One of the subjects of Mei-Mei Dillard’s photographs is a dead fish and that, unfortunately, was my general impression of her “still-life” imagery. It’s kind of lifeless. In homage to 17th-century Dutch paintings, the photos depict composed conglomerations of objects, perhaps with vague narratives and hidden references, but no hint of action. The objects are beautifully photographed and printed nice and big, but I generally prefer a soul in the frame, something elemental, some sense of movement. Of course, Dillard is riffing on a theme here and her photo, An Imaginative Woman, is interesting in a photographic-exploration-of-still-life kind of way. It’s a photo of photos of people.

Anderson Wrangle...Reforestation #6, 2007

Whether he’s injecting the wilderness into civilization or civilization into the wilderness, Anderson Wrangle seems pretty locked into that juxtaposition. His black-and-white photographs, made using the most old-school process on display (silver gelatin), and video pieces represent man’s interaction with nature.  In Hunter/Deer, a double self-portrait (two prints), Wrangle hunts himself. On the left he aims a bow and arrow; on the right, he holds deer antlers on his head. Magnolia branches and leaves have invaded a library bookshelf in Reforestation #5, and a living room is reforested in Reforestation #6—the zebra rug’s a nice touch.

Wrangle’s video Woodland: Run/Climb, Smoke Loop and Moment Breaking Ice is, at turns, enthralling and boring. It’s all about messin’ with nature when Wrangle sets up his video camera. He runs and walks through the woods. He climbs a vine. I don’t know how he videotaped himself climbing while holding the camera. He must be a pretty good climber.  Then there are some shots where Wrangle set up the camera, in the woods or on a mountainside, pressed “record,” lit some smoke bombs and threw them into the frame. Aside from being different colors, though, the smoke pretty much behaves like smoke—nothing surprising there. What’s amazing is the footage captured of a frozen pond at the moment Wrangle (I assume) chucks a rock and breaks the thin surface. Air bubbles become trapped underneath the ice and slowly creep, like amoebas, toward a nearby opening, where the air is released. The chain of events runs like a mechanism.

Soody Sharifi...Mr. & Mrs., 2005

Soody Sharifi’s installation Outside/Inside creates tension between the public and private faces of Iran. A series of hanging prints document the propaganda murals seen on Iranian buildings portraying military martyrs who died during the long Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988. Many of the images contain depictions of soaring fighter jets and a female figure, wearing a burka, cradling the martyr’s dead body. The photos have been made to look like posters plastered on a brick wall.

The “inside” section is decorated like a typical Iranian living room: Persian rug, floor pillows, lamps, family photos and decorations. A slideshow called One Day/Nine Minutes is projected on one wall, documenting everyday life (in Tehran, perhaps?), accompanied by music. There are photos of family gatherings, street life, and even a punk-rock concert at a smoky, sweaty club, which gives the slideshow a fleeting Nan Goldin vibe. The images challenge the prevailing perception of Iranian culture. An interesting touch is the basket of booties at the entrance, like the booties you wear over your shoes to protect floors. It is customary to remove your shoes in Iranian homes. It’s a sign of respect; your home is your sanctuary, etc. — plus it keeps the place from getting dirty.

Brian Piana...Building a Better America (Two Plans), 2008

Politics and the Internet are the subjects of Brian Piana’s three contributions. Piana deconstructs websites into abstract compositions and reconstructs them into offline narratives. Here, he uses Barack Obama and John McCain’s MySpace and Facebook pages to create colorful, geometric and seemingly abstract wooden sculptures that are actually representations of both candidates’ Internet campaigns. When I suddenly realized what they were it was an “Oh, shit” moment.

Also on display are two enlarged 3-D representations of Obama and McCain’s official “favicons,” 16×16-pixel logos that appear in the Internet bar of a browser. It’s powerful work. Artwork inspired by the Web doesn’t generally interest me. Even though it’s a tool I use daily, and I whine incessantly when for some reason it’s unavailable, I like to think of the Internet as insignificant and trivial, like cell phones. As an inspirational element in art, I imagine it to carry little weight, but Piana’s work reinforces the actual impact technology has on our lives and its capacity to influence the world. Maxson’s weird video, Sharifi’s gently interactive installation and Piana’s “digital sculpture” have the ability to alter our perceptions.

Mechanical Perception
September 6 through October 19 at Fotofest

Troy Schulze
is an acclaimed performer, theater director and writer working in Houston. He can be seen in Catastrophic Theatre‘s upcoming production of Mickle Maher‘s The Strangerer, running October 17 – November 8 at DiverseWorks. He lives in Houston with his wife Windy.

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