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The arts' Olympic marathon: A FotoFest adventure

News-Nancy Wozny-columnist
News_Nancy Wozny_FotoFest_Matthew Brandt_Wilma Lake CA
Matthew Brandt, "Wilma Lake CA 1," 2008, from the series, "Lakes and Reservoirs, 2008" Courtesy of the artist
News_FotoFest 2010_Medianation_Leslie Hall_How We Go Out Version 2_2007
Leslie Hall, "How We Go Out Version 2," 2007, from the FotoFest 2010 Biennial exhibition, "Medianation: Performing for the Screen" Courtesy of the artist
News_Nancy Wozny_FotoFest_Joey Lehman Morris_George Mallory's Cradle
Joey Lehman Morris, "George Mallory's Cradle (Waxing Gibbous)," 2007 Courtesy of the artist
News_Nancy Wozny_FotoFest_Richard Mosse_Pool at Uday's Palace
Richard Mosse, "Pool at Uday's Palace, Jebel Makhoul Mountains, Iraq," from the series "Breach, 2009" Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery
News_Nancy Wozny_FotoFest_Laura Letinsky_Ice Cream Dish_Tulip_from Hardly More Than Ever
Laura Letinsky, "Ice Cream Dish, Tulip," 2002, from "Hardly More than Ever" Courtesy of the artist

I know, you are training for the MS 150 or some other athletic feat of stamina. Good for you. I have my own marathon going on.

I call it, "Have map, will FotoFest."

Chances are, I have yours too, I've swiped a few along the path. I keep one in the car, one in my purse, one by my desk, and several scattered about the house. If I have been late for a meeting, forgive me, an irresistible red or yellow pole beckoned.

I am just a hopeless FotoFest fan.

What's a dance/theater, or as we say in the biz, "time-base" writer doing hanging around several thousand photographs you wonder? Well, every now and then, my eyes need to look at things that stand still. Or one better, something in motion that has been made to stand still by a click of a camera. All that said, there are performative themes scattered throughout  the marvel that is FotoFest.

Iowa lust

"Medianation: Performing for the Screen," curated by Gilbert Vicario, spreads out over the Art League, Isabella Court and New World Museum. Leslie Hall's wacky work made me want to move to Ames, Iowa, to devote myself to gem sweaters, perhaps don some gold stretch pants too.  Watch her wildness here. I first saw Kalup Linzy's hilarious send up of the art world video at MASS MoCA, but it's great to see a larger body of his work. No wonder he's been named one of the Nifty 50 by the New York Times T-Magazine.

Sometimes the performance happens all by itself as in Jeff Shore and Jon Fisher's "Cliff Hanger" at McClain Gallery. It's no surprise the team made Artadia's 15 finalist list.

The California refugee in me made "Assembly: Eight Emerging Photographers from Southern California," curated by a team from the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, all the more potent. Joey Lehman Morris' work is full of promise, skepticism and puzzlement, much like California. A photo of a car in a cage/gate makes me wonder, is the car being held captive? Another photo shows two empty park benches facing each other. If you were sitting in either one you would miss the view.

"There's a visual irritant in your work," I tell Morris. "Exactly," he smiles mischievously. Morris' sculpture background also manifests in the object quality of his work. People almost tripped over the gold-framed tribute to explorer George Mallory, which sits on the floor. "They never found Mallory's camera, " Morris adds. "So this is like a gift."

A little breast milk art

Matthew Brandt, another SoCal artist, takes putting the subject into the photograph a step further. His curious portraits are dipped in the subject's fluids, vomit, breast milk, tears or mucus. A photo of Wilma Lake, soaked in Wilma Lake water exemplified the idea of bringing the essence of something right on the page.

"It took a lot of soakings to get a photo I liked," says Brandt, a self-described photography history geek.

I found a bunch of dance lovers gathered around Nicole Belle's work. It's got performance all over it. "I was influenced by the archives of performance art, more than the actual performance," says Belle. I understood exactly what she was talking about at "Leaps into the Void Documents of Nouveau Realist Performance" at The Menil Collection. The photo of Yves Klein flying through the air just has to surpass the actual event.

Leave a good hour or more to sift through the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's "Ruptures and Continuities: Photography made after 1960 from the MFAH Collection," especially the Directorial Mode and Constructed Environments section. Could photographers be frustrated theater directors?

Reality's a hard look

FotoFest is not without some difficult viewing. The images of "The Road To Nowhere," curated by Natasha Egan, concerned an eroding America. I was taken by Eirik Johnson's somber images of the shifting landscape of the great Northwest. Brian Ulrich's abandoned stores looked all too familiar. In "Whatever Was Splendid: New American Photographs", curated by Aaron Schuman, Richard Mosse's photos of the military hanging out in Uday Hussein's Palace in Iraq created a sharp juxtaposition, mixing weapons and empty swimming pools.

You can't entirely understand FotoFest without spending time in the Meeting Place, the pulsing heart of the operation. Read the Wall Street Journal's A Place for Snap Judgments and yet another WSJ capsule review here. Photographers (520 of them to be exact)  from all over the world descend to the Doubletree Hotel in four-day sessions to meet with curators. A session can bring a photographer's work in front of 16 museum directors and curators, more if you count the roving reviewers.

To stand amid the flurry of artists carrying their black-boxed portfolios is nothing short of incredible. The excitement is not just in the reviewing room either, informal showings happen all the time, in the off and in-between hours. It's like a beehive of photo energy. Paired with Ricardo Viera, director of Lehigh University Art Galleries, I had a chance to experience the review process firsthand.

I was most taken with Chris Harrison's noble portraits of young men and his straightforward photos of World War I monuments, unfancy and honest.

The thrilling finish

"Discoveries of the Meeting Place," selected by 10 curators from the last Meeting Place, took me to an imagined world. Liz Hickok's jello urbanscapes cast an eerie spell, while Judy Haberl's sculptural ice purses possess a fragile, just-here-for-an-instant quality.

It's been great to share a tiny bit of all that has passed through my optic nerve over these past few weeks. Know that  there is more much. I've been slowed down by returning to exhibits that I need to see again or show to friends. The resident gallerina at Peel has a "You again" bubble over her head every time I pop in to see Laura Letinsky's "Hardly More than Ever." With every visit, these painterly images reveal more.

I recommend the blitz technique. Spend a few hours seeing work until your brain starts thinking in pictures. Make your eyes cameras. Dig deep into FotoFest, it's huge and it's right here in Houston. Bless pioneers Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss, the patron saints of this art form, for growing this international festival in our beloved city.

You still have time to run over to Winter Street Studios for a curatorial tour from 6-9 tonight to see "The Road to Nowhere." Next Thursday, on April 22, the tour is at New World Museum for "Medianation: Performing for the Screen."

There's more than 100 participating spaces. As you can imagine, I have more to see and only 10 days left to do it, so I have to go now. At the MFAH, screenings of films An American Journey and Fire in the East: A Portrait of Robert Frank start any minute. I'll have to talk to you later.

Where's my map?

See Leslie Hall in action:

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