Focusing on FotoFocus

Art writer Maria Seda-Reeder reviews four FotoFocus shows she visited during the first full week of the 2016 lens-based art biennial.

click to enlarge "D*Face (England), London" by Søren Solkær
"D*Face (England), London" by Søren Solkær
(Editor’s note – As part of CityBeat’s coverage of the many exhibitions and activities that comprise the October-long FotoFocus Biennial, art writers Maria Seda-Reeder and Kathy Schwartz will be contributing online stories about their experiences attending events. Seda-Reeder will be writing during the first two weeks of October; Schwartz the last two.)

With so many shows on the docket for the next several weeks of FotoFocus, one could spend much of the week visiting galleries, attending lectures and witnessing performances associated with the photographic biennial. I was impressed with both the local turnout as well as the larger audience, which included members of the press and arts administrators from around the globe.

Here is some of what I attended during the first full week of the lens-based art biennial:

HudsonJones Gallery in Camp Washington is observing its first FotoFocus (the exhibition space just opened this year) with a small show of a dozen of Connie Sullivan’s brightly colored, lenticular photographs, displayed on small mobile walls throughout the sunny gallery.  

The photographs that Sullivan made for the show Ripples Through Time are constructed compositions of glowing color on a black background – many of them are abstracted still lifes; some look as if the photographer was painting with light. They simultaneously beg for and resist documentation, but the act of viewing such work IRL is perhaps the point, as Sullivan’s corresponding exhibition materials explain that “she utilizes light and color to re-create the evolution of the universe with its multiplicity of forms.”

Covington, Ky.’s BLDG Gallery has a showing of Danish photographer Søren Solkær’s portraits of street artists — an apt location for such a show, given the design firm/arts organization’s history championing street artists.

It’s a fun premise to see images of artists who largely like to remain anonymous, but it may come as no surprise to hear that many of the subjects’ faces are covered or obscured so as to hide their true identities (and no, there’s no portrait of Banksy, in case you foolishly had your hopes up).  

Solkær’s portraits seem to reflect each artist’s aesthetic approach – including not just his subjects within each portrait, but also the view of their own work (and thus, the public sites which they typically inhabit), the tools of their trade and the use of the same visual language as his artists to express similar attitudes.  

The ultimate result of this can range from quite interesting (Pixote from Miami, for example, in a tumbledown shell of a building and squatting on lookout, peering through the neck of a white T-shirt that covers most of his face) to somewhat of a regurgitation, (Solkær’s miniaturist portrait of London-based Slinkachu, whose work already typically is photographic documentation of his own tiny insect-sized “street installations”).

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is hosting the photographic work of South African artist Zanele Muholi and U.S.-born Jackie Nickerson in two separate shows, along with a selection of three short films from Berlin-based South African multimedia artist Robin Rhode. 

Muholi, in her overall exhibition Personae, has two powerful bodies of work on view: Her series of portraits of black queer and trans persons called Faces and Phases and her Somnyama Ngonyama, a series of self-portraits in which she heightens the contrast in each photograph, emphasizing “as high a glossy darkness to her skin as the silver gelatin technology will permit,” in order to — according to the materials handed out at Muholi’s artist lecture on Oct. 9 — allow her to participate in a kind of  “performative blackness.” 

Other FotoFocus events around town likewise demonstrate the ways in which contemporary photographers are engaging with issues of race and visibility as those topics currently challenge American systems of inequality.  

On the afternoon of Oct. 9, 21c Museum Hotel hosted (among several other lectures) a thoughtful conversation regarding “American Civil Rights Then and Now” between Julian Cox, chief curator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and Atlanta-based photographer Sheila Pree Bright, who in recent years has documented public responses to police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Their chat seemed brief, and I wished that there was some kind of corresponding exhibition of Bright's work curated by Cox, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see just such a thing forthcoming — either at the 2018 FotoFocus Biennial or perhaps at a future 21c show.

The group exhibition of work currently on view at 21c, Shifting Coordinates, co-curated by FotoFocus Artistic Director and Curator Kevin Moore and 21c Chief Curator Alice Gray Stites, investigates globalism as a political and economic force with the (ostensible) capacity to shrink the world’s geography and minimize differences. 

Works like the oversized “Portrait of Qusuquzah” by Mickalene Thomas and Spanish artist Germán Gómez’s large-scale mixed media photo collage use the figure as a site of politicized representation (much like Muholi’s portraits, and perhaps even Solkær’s work, do).

For her part, Thomas celebrates black female identity and plays upon art history tropes as much as contemporary visual culture, while Gómez layers together ambiguous representations of maleness based on his portraits of anonymous subjects. 

Such work seems apt for a time when the collective conscious has finally been forced to acknowledge the vulnerabilities of non-white, heteronormative bodies in the public sphere.

CONTACT MARIA SEDA-REEDER: [email protected]

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