It’s impossible to view the Japanese photography exhibit at Blue Star without thinking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the nearly quarter-million individuals who perished in those cities in August 1945, when the U.S. brought a decisive end to World War II in the Pacific and declared itself top dog for the remainder of the century. Emptiness and evaporation pervade the show, from Ohie Yasuda’s graceful photographs of museums and botanical gardens in picturesque states of entropy to Hiroko Inoue’s literal “Absence,” which captures the view from windows in mental institutions.
Tomoko Yoneda photographs rooms in the outside world after their residents have moved out, recording faded and darkened spots on wallpaper, the slight wear and tear of time, small scribbles maybe once hidden from a parent’s eyes. Printed large, silvery, and ghost-like, they seem spiritual, holy shrouds for those of us who won’t be resurrected or remembered long after we depart.
Tomoaki Ishihara’s enormous and visually arresting self-portraits record a different sort of absence and its agony. Out of focus against museum galleries, Western and Eastern, his celluloid self is obliterated by the weight of inherited culture, its obligations and regimentation of individuality.
The show was only partially installed when I previewed it, but Inoue’s images, taken with the consent of the residents of those mental prisons, stood out among the large-scale, well-made works — the cloth on which they’re printed distorting and fading the natural geometry of the bars on the windows, making the images feel like they were ripped from a mind-surveillance tape – sad and chilling.
It’s a lovely and visually satisfying show, and my only complaint is its title; most of the works here are a decade old, and some are much older. In this lightning-quick age, does that still make it “Japan’s Artists Today”? It’s like light from the sun, I guess; it must still bear some resemblance to the source.
Video artist and new-media professor Leslie Raymond is using Blue Star’s Gallery Four to further the long-running dialogue between digital image and painting with a series of landscape video loops. Like Sam Taylor-Wood’s time-lapse still life, this installation reminds us that art media, no matter how disparate or novel, are united by the common visual language of the viewers – the appeal of a nightime sliver of a city streetcorner, snow gently falling, relies not only on painting genres past, but the cinematography of Orson Welles’ The Third Man, and snow globes. Raymond engages one of the disputed distinctions between the camera and the brush head on, manipulating time and color to heighten differences in the natural world that might otherwise go unremarked. In two takes on the Los Angeles River, the first is a romanticized, euphoric view of a lively and still beautiful body of water, despite the highway spanning it. It’s not stormy enough to be a Turner, but the emotions aren’t far off. “Los Angeles River II” is a channeled, tamed, and gritty ribbon, it’s urban environment related through an abstracted moving geometry. Together, these two video landscapes tell one tale of modern painting’s response to an increasingly industrialized world.
For more prosaic uses of photography and video, step into the Project Room, which is filled with Patrick Zeller’s photo album from a 2006 motorcycle trip through Iran. Although he took only a small digital camera, not even set to the highest resolution, the bike gave him immediacy and access in a culture that our current administration and compliant media have worked overtime to present as hostile and strange. Pictures of smiling, if slightly wary, soldiers and civilians are just as mesmerizing as images of the reported tomb of Fifth Century BC Persian King Darius I.
Veronica Riedel’s show, The Making of a Mestiza, at Southwest School of Art & Craft is subversive not because of its subject, which is hammered home with some truly annoying text, but because of the way it undermines photography’s natural strength: the way in which it seems to capture the essence of whatever’s in its frame. Riedel shops the images of indigenous women into elaborate Western colonial-era costumes, or a hybrid of pre-Columbian and conquistador trappings, augmenting these composite portraits with beads, amulets, and feathers to illustrate their oppression and cooptation by the invading Spaniards. They’re lavish, beautiful, and intriguing – particularly two portraits centered in giant lace doilies, one titled “Silencio,” the other “Confianca.” But in case you’re tempted to read the wrong histories, emotions, and lessons into Riedel’s work, little biographies are provided for each portrait. “I have become a trading commodity, like cacao beans. I am not allowed to think. I just obey peform and procreate,” reads the caption for a topless woman with a simple feather coronet in her hair, positioned against a grim, sepia-toned Medieval pantheon of penitent sinners/saints and skeletons. The script for “Ixchel” reads like it was written for a History Channel recreation: “The foreigners think we should be ashamed of our ways and reject our customs, even though their desire is intensified by the exquisiteness of our ethnicity.”
Some of Riedel’s characters are complicit in their assimilation, in becoming the “Mestiza” of the show’s title — enjoying newfound luxury, not missing dried lizards at dinnertime — which gives the work some interesting narrative tension, and in the case of a woman contemplating her conquistador-fathered child “who will be a stranger to me, as I am to his father,” genuine pathos. But forcing post-colonial feminist ideology onto the viewer, rather than letting them puzzle it out, moves this show firmly into the realm of polemics.
Zoë Sheehan Saldaña’s aims are more elusive. In her series “Twelve Portrait Heads” and “America’s Most Dangerous” she takes apart found photographs, pixelating and partially abstracting them by hand, machine, or third-party craftsmen. The portraits are the virtually aged photographs of missing children, transferred to mechanical cross-stich, and framed in colorful laminated-wood circles, their deterioration through each iteration questioning the accuracy of what we think we see and know, while reminding us of the feelings of grief and hopelessness a parent must feel as the physical memory of a lost child recedes over time.
The two wall-size tapestries, “America’s Most Dangerous Intersection, 2001,” and “America’s Second Most Dangerous Intersection, 2001,” (produced by craftsmen in Mexico on haute-lisse looms) are gorgeous, abstract works of art in and of themselves, and something about the absurdity of the undertaking – the time, effort, and wool dedicated to memorializing something awful yet quotidian – elevates the tragedies that must have occurred largely unsung in these “most dangerous” places, and encourages us to take stock of the devil’s bargains we make for modern convenience.
The show also includes an installation from “Natural American Spirit (Yellow),” in which the artist grew and processed tobacco, substituted it for the commercially produced pack of American Spirits, and replaced the cigarette package in the store. Saldaña pulled a similar sleight of hand with clothes from Wal-Mart, but while in other artists’ hands similar projects have echoed as protests against mechanization or mass consumption, this project could just as well be asking how we label and value “real” versus “facsimile,” and whether our fetishization of handmade doesn’t have as many hidden costs as the fully automated assembly line. •
Counter-photography: Japan’s Artists Today
Through Oct 19
Through Sep 28
IRAN: Patrick Zeller Returns from his 2006 motorcycle journey
Through Oct 19
Blue Star Contemporary Art Center
116 Blue Star
Veronica Riedel: The Making of a Mestiza
9am-5pm Mon-Sat, 11am-4pm Sun
Through Oct 19
Southwest School of Art & Craft