Nowhere Near Here: New Photographic
Work by Texas Artists

Fotofest and Houston Center for Photography

Logan Sebastian Beck

Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Two (still), 2010; digital video, 1 minutes 5 seconds; courtesy of artist and Sonseree Gibson

Kelly Sears, The Body Besieged (still), 2009; digital video; 4 minutes 30 seconds; courtesy the artist

Spanning the galleries of both Fotofest and the Houston Center for Photography, Nowhere Near Here: New Photographic Work by Texas Artists features fourteen artists from Austin, Dallas, Houston, Georgetown, Marfa and San Antonio who make lens-based work. The majority of the still photographers shoot film and use photography in a documentary mode to examine issues of place by compellingly transforming the depicted location into a larger and more general “everyplace.” For example, Adam Boley’s photographs documenting the everyday life on his family’s farm can be seen as encapsulating the downturn of all small farmers everywhere. However, this work is disrupted by several video works that employ digital manipulation techniques and end up inverting the curatorial thesis of documenting place and time that permeates the rest of the show. Instead of addressing these issues of location by transforming the specific into the universal, these video works by Kelly Sears and Wura-Natasha Ogunji take the specific and make it even more particular by creating unique worlds with limited referents, transporting the viewer away from an “everyplace” to a digitally created “no-place.”

Sears’ and Ogunji’s video works at Fotofest complicate the language of seeming objectivity used throughout the rest of the show by making evident the construction of representation and the possibility of manipulation. Both artists use collage, appropriation and editing techniques that highlight the malleable nature of lens-based representation.

Sears’ single-channel video Body Besieged (2009) appropriates still images from 1970s Jane Fonda-esque workout books and edits them into stop-motion animations set against backgrounds composed of television static. Rhythmic audio combined with the robot-like movements of the figures achieves a hypnotic dance that pulls the viewer close. Rather than evoke nostalgia for the dated ’70s outfits and hairdos shown, Sears’ appropriation feels generic if not antiseptic, cleaning away the temporal and historical fixing proposed by documentary photography. The video disrupts the sense of time and place in these highly recognizable images by moving them into a cultural and literal void.

Ogunji’s The Epic Crossings of an Ife Head (2009), one of three videos by the artist exhibited side by side that explore the African Ife head relic,* is a continuously looped video of the artist masked with Ife-like face paint hovering across a foggy field at night. Essentially, the artist recorded herself leapfrogging across the field and then edited out the parts where her feet were touching the ground. The result is jarring and disjointed, a floating alien movement towards the camera, which underscores the absence created by the editing process and puts forth a new reality—a new place—through the use of photographic representation. The desire to reimagine the Ife head in new terms is perhaps a reaction to the art-historical burden it carries.

Most viewers must approach the Ife Head from the standpoint of the outsider; after all, the heads are relics of a distant culture. Perhaps the best-known group of Ife heads was discovered in southwest Nigeria in 1938, whereupon they were quickly sold to many of the world’s most prestigious (and non-African) museums. Ogunji doubles this gesture of appropriation and subsequently exposes the complex and controversial cultural colonization performed by those who dominate the discourses of visual history. However, Ogunji fails to transfer this critique into the body of the work; instead, this African form acts more as a Hitchcockian “MacGuffin”—an element that drives “plot”—rather than as a cultural talking point in her video.

Mike Osborne, HPD, 2010; archival inkjet print; 44 x 55 inches; courtesy the artist

Walker Pickering, Hole, from the series Nearly West, 2010; pigment print; 30 x 30 inches; courtesy the artist

While the videos destabilize the majority of the still photographic work on view, they also accentuate exactly what several of the selected photographers do well. Shooting in film, and continuing the dialogue of straight documentary photography, the best of these artists—such as standouts Walker Pickering and Mike Osborne—produce clear, concise images with poetic compositions. However, the majority of the rest of the photographs feel more like studies than fully fleshed-out ideas. For example, Chris Akin’s photographs, heavily informed by William Eggleston, simply show their hand—and their inspiration—too frequently to be viewed as anything more than well-practiced pastiche. Although there is a romantic quality inherent in moving through the world with a camera and capturing strange juxtapositions and small visual pleasures, this mode of working doesn’t readily result in boundary-pushing art. It does, however, contribute to an equally worthwhile desire to encourage “active” looking.

Walker Pickering’s spectacular medium-format prints on display at HCP are seductive while maintaining a clarity and simplicity of vision. Pickering echoes subject matter from the road-trip photographs of Garry Winogrand and Stephen Shore—the motel parking lot, the lonely road, the fast-food stop—the et cetera of Americana. Like Winogrand and Shore, Pickering’s project is to transform the banal into the beautiful. He invites the viewer through his lens into a state of lucidity in which something is revealed that seemingly wasn’t there before the shutter clicked. Pickering’s Hole (2009) monumentalizes the transient: A gaping hole in a river seems to expand the longer you look at it, slowly yet steadily swallowing up more and more of the water’s—and the image’s—mirror-like surface. This picture and others like it, such as Camaro, Meal and Overlook (all 2009), urge the viewer to reengage in something that may be a dying practice in our era of the ubiquitous screen—the practice of really looking.

Logan Sebastian Beck is a sculptor and photographer based in Houston and Art Lies’ editorial assistant.

This show is on view through April 23, 2011.

*See Kimberli Gant, “Wura-Natasha Ogunji: The epic crossings of an Ife head,” Art Lies No. 67 (Fall/Winter 2010).

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