The current exhibition at the Barbara Walters Gallery, called Nueva Luz Photographs, reaffirms why I carry such a torch for this place. I have consistently returned to this show, before classes and after conferences and such, because my eye has been captivated by these photographer’s different visual histories, and because for me, it evokes keen examination of self-consciousness.
The show features works by six photographers, allowing for a dynamism of black and white portraits, C-print still life’s, family portraits with line drawing overlays, and photographic abstractions and collages. The photographs were originally published in En Foco’s Nueva Luz photographic journal, created in 1985 in order to promote photographers of Latino, African, Asian, and Native American backgrounds. Nearly 200 photographers have been highlighted, and their work comprises En Foco’s permanent–unrivaled–collection of around 700 photos.
Photographic portraiture by each artist is represented in unique, historic ways. For example, Max Aguilera-Hellweg’s photographs–from his series, La Frontera Sin Sonrisa (The Border without Smile) (1990)–is a series of street photography. Aguilera-Hellweg took photos while at a busy thoroughfare, his subjects rendered by the foot traffic around him. He strived to take “a picture of [their] soul” (Younger, wall label), and that is evident in these black and white prints. For example, in The Lovers, he captures a pure moment of romantic spirit. The effect of his photographs is soothing because he illuminates of his subjects as they are, in that moment in that space.
Three large scale digital C-print portraits, by Lola Flash as part of her [sur]passing series (2002), scale one entire wall. They deliver strong representations of identity and dignity, not only on account of the size of the prints, but the positioning of her subjects: the women’s gaze is straight on and in a monumental effect, her subjects are standing atop the roofs of buildings in London UK, New York City, and Johannesburg, South Africa. Flash is committed “to deconstructing racism, sexism and homophobia through her imagery” (Sirmans, wall label) and in her work she confronts the fallacious notions about race by exploring the variety of pigmentations among people of color.
In Jane Tam’s series Can I Come Home With You? (2011) are both photographic and illustrated, with “sophisticated yet cartoon-like” outlines of families drawn over her photos. The dynamic elements of the private sphere of the home, and the family portrait drawing, is demanding for us in our role as viewers. Viewing the photos, we are outsiders looking in, while at the same time our presence is welcomed, so that the photos “are at once window and wall,” (Jack, wall label).
Next, Justine Reyes’ still life C-prints, part of her Vanitas series (2009), are representations of life tinged by mortality, graced with possessions of her own. Reyes was inspired by the old Dutch vanitas masters of the (and hence the series name “Vanitas,” a genre representative of allegories of death or change as a reminder of inevitability), but she adapts this 17th century style into her own by incorporating personal elements and modern material goods. She symbolizes this notion of “birth, blossoming, death, and decay” (Mizota, wall label) by juxtaposing an assortment of items in her photographs, like a family photograph, with organic objects such as perishing flowers or a rotting melon. Reyes modernizes the traditional beautifully, rendering an eerie charm.
The photos by Bonnie Portelance, from her series Wavelengths of Light (2004), are manipulated x-ray negatives, and as such, honest abstractions of reality by way of structure. Her photos reveal the disquiet that rests inside the body, and of the body. She is intending to elicit an emotional response by literally and conceptually shining light on it. In making inner turmoil externally real to us, Portelance is communicating to “suffer[ing] and desir[ing] peace of mind,” (Sealy, wall label). What we see is simultaneously purely skeletal and abnormal, imparting an unnerving sense of suspicion on the viewer.
Lastly, Frank Gimpaya aims to express the people, places and objects in their environment that he experiences, but he does so ambiguously. Evidence of his search for the impregnable truth, his photos have an underlying abstract tone because of his play with the light sources–illuminating areas only to make them fuzzy. The effect is that his photos are enigmatic, but nonetheless appear completely flawless.
En Foco was initiated in 1975, originally as a Latino photographers’ group. Together, they challenged the notions of mainstream art, which was overshadowing their work. By exploring ways to incorporate art within the community, the group’s cultural histories have evolved over time, while embracing identity through the search for self-consciousness. Viewing the show evokes the process of examining the real, compelling us to be hesitant about our belief in what we think is really real. In this way, for the viewer, the show is unpredictable and engaging; ultimately though, the equivocal nature of these photographs cause us to become one.
The exhibit will close on March 7, 2012.
Photography by: Lucy Lunsford and Hugh Thornhill