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Freedom art: Photography exhibits by Jean-Christian Rostagni and Scott Hazard

A new show looks askance at America, while another reconfigures the mundane

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Life on Mars, Part I
Through This Lens
303 E. Chapel Hill St., 687-0250
Through Dec. 23

Topographies
Durham Arts Council
120 Morris St., 560-ARTS, www.durhamarts.org
Through Dec. 10

"Cuba Contra La Guerra" (2003), 31 1/2 x 12 in. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JEAN-CHRISTIAN ROSTAGNI

Two photography exhibits are on display in downtown Durham: Life on Mars, Part I: A Photo-Critique of America at Through This Lens Photo Gallery and Topographies at the Durham Arts Council. Both shows feature perspectives on well-documented topics. Neither show is an unqualified success, but one is a particular disappointment since it fails to live up to pre-opening promotion.

It's unfortunate that Through This Lens' exhibition of Jean-Christian Rostagni's Life on Mars has been billed as a "photo-critique of America." Those expecting an incisive slap-down of the culture that spawned the "freedom fry" will be dissatisfied with the show's overall lack of critical continuity—and even more regrettably, the fact that few of the individual photographs rise above the level of competent but uninspired newspaper photojournalism.

Rostagni is an established French photographer living in Durham. Looking at his portfolio, one realizes that the best of his older work displays a command of nuance that is sorely missing from the more recent photography in Life on Mars. "Welcome to Mars" (2005), a photograph of a child in Batman regalia standing atop a kitschy flying saucer statue in Mars, Pa., is the image used prominently in this show's promotional material. Its slightly humorous jab at Americana hints at a subtlety of critique that is for the most part lacking in any of the other displayed prints.

"Bush is a Terrorist" (2004), 47 1/2 x 51 in. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JEAN-CHRISTIAN ROSTAGNI

Most of the exhibit's overtly political work simply documents the existence of grassroots American opposition to the disaster that is the Bush administration. A more successful use of the medium might have involved an attempt to probe beneath the surface and surprise us with a new perspective. The real trouble with Life on Mars' attempted critique is that too often Rostagni doesn't actually deliver photographic commentary—only protesters' shirtsleeve sentiment. In "The Three Musketeers" (2003) we learn that a group of Hasidic Jews want the United States to "dismantle Zionism and avoid war." How do we learn this? The large sign filling the center of the frame tells us so. Marginally better, in "Bush is a Terrorist" (2004) we learn what's on the mind of military family anti-war protesters. Here, an older man in a wheelchair, presumably a veteran, holds the sign which gives the work its title.

Unlike Mary Ellen Mark, who created potent photographs of jingoism in the Vietnam War era (see, for example, her 1968 "Pro-Vietnam War Parade, NYC"), Rostagni doesn't effectively turn his lens toward the warmongers who are almost always in attendance at the social dance that is the ineffective American anti-war protest. Rostagni's only attempt to show his yang's yin is "The American Way" (1999). Alas, here again, we find the protest sign used as a blunt vehicle of discourse, this time in an unimaginative rendering of local crank Rex Quinn holding two placards: "NUKE IRAQ" and "NUKE CASTRO."

Other works in the exhibition completely abandon the show's purported premise (remember: critique of America). It's ironic that the only truly exciting image, "Dans les Moments de Vérité" (1993), succeeds on its own terms, independent of the show's stated raison d'etre. This saucy color composition shows us a container of severed deer heads in a butcher shop. Where's the beef? This photograph was taken in Paris, France, far from the belly of the beast in question. Only from Rostagni's artist's statement, which is posted on the wall beside this piece, do we learn why the photograph is present: Rostagni is attempting to show a metaphoric difference between the two cultures' ability to take responsibility for their actions. He writes: "I observed my wife (who is American), disgusted after seeing some dead deer heads.... I have to say that the scene was a little unusual even for a Frenchman.... Yet I doubt that any French citizen would really pay too much attention, other than to wonder, 'What kind of paté can this become?'" It's a shame that in visual terms this work overshadows all the other dishes at the table.

"Introjection: Detroit, Michigan—Doors" (2006) by Scott Hazard. Sculpture/photography (wood, layers of photos, glass), 17 x 15 x 2 in. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SCOTT HAZARD
  • Photo courtesy of Scott Hazard
  • "Introjection: Detroit, Michigan—Doors" (2006) by Scott Hazard. Sculpture/photography (wood, layers of photos, glass), 17 x 15 x 2 in.

The Durham Arts Council's exhibition of Scott Hazard's Topographies immediately calls to mind Georges Rousse, another French photographer who recently visited the same downtown. A viewer of both men's work might wonder if the artists are conversant in the parlance of BBC sci-fi television, and in particular the term TARDIS, an acronym for "time and relative dimensions in space."

Like Rousse, Hazard attempts to warp photography out of the second dimension and into the whimsical. Hazard's assemblages are shallow frame-boxes that house layers of flat media torn and cored-out to suggest depth, and possibly, metaphor. At his Roussean best, Hazard is obviously developing a voice, but regrettably, the overall effect of the show is diminished by the inclusion of lesser works lacking equivalent substance.

Topographies' most successful assemblages show stone facades being punctured by mysterious ruptures in space/time. Shockwaves are blasted through the entrances of aging edifices bearing such Olympian titles as "LABOR BUILDING," "AMERICA INC" and "EDUCATION." "Introjection: Durham, North Carolina—Sealed Door" (2006) admits entrance through a bricked-up doorway. This piece is reminiscent of Duchamp's final work, the posthumously exhibited 3-D construction "Etant donnes." The only bouncer to be found is your preconception.

Also of interest are a thoughtful pair of pieces titled "Introjection: Raleigh, North Carolina—Exhaust" and "Introjection: Raleigh, North Carolina—Chimney." Hazard uses his dimensional distortion to conjure serene smokestacks wafting imaginary smoke. The premise is slightly hokey, but a fanciful viewer may appreciate Hazard's meditation on post-industrial America. The images might seem idyllic, but an unstated irony is that the manufacturing base—and the attendant air pollution—has gone overseas, leaving only quaint vacant factories and a voracious consumerist culture alienated from the immediate ecological impact of production.

Hazard's major misstep is to include "Introjection: Durham, North Carolina—Truck" (2006), which shows us the decaying detail of an aging International Harvester. The effect of this work is to tell us, once again, that things fall apart. Does our visual culture really need another generation of photographers intently perched above the hoods of rusting automobiles? This is a stock photographic standby, and Hazard doesn't bring anything new or exciting with his multi-layered rendering of it. His great revelation seems to be that it's possible to stick a finger (or other appendage) into a rusty radiator grill. File under technical exercise.

Topographies suffers from unevenness in conception, but when Hazard is on target his so-called interjections function in laying down a mischievous 2-D/3-D matrix of history-meets-possibility. Such works can excite the imagination of those who were exposed to 1970s Dr. Who at an early age. And perhaps those who weren't.

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Those who missed the Transom Gallery's exhibition Evidence: The Life & Death of Gilbert Barber, An Art Show Examining Police Brutality in N.C. now have a second chance to catch it at the Community Collective Space, located above the Flying Anvil at 219 W. Lewis St. in Greensboro. Revolving around the questionable circumstances of the police shooting of the 22-year-old High Point native Gil Barber, Evidence is a powerful and incendiary multi-media mixture. The show will be on exhibition through Nov. 26. For more information, see www.myspace.com/evidenceartshow.

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