Ian Teh. Miners. Datong, Shanxi, 2006- 2008. From the series Dark Clouds

FotoFest Discoveries
Thru Sep 27
Mon–Fri 7–6
Free
One Allen Center (500 Dallas St.)
Two Allen Center (1200 Smith St.)
Three Allen Center (333 Clay St.)
1600 Smith Gallery (1600 Smith St.) 
713-223-5522
fotofest.org 

FotoFest Discoveries, which recently opened downtown, is one of the best art shows of the summer—if you can find it, that is. Unless you work in a downtown office building, it may take time to locate the exhibition, which is divided into four parts spread among as many office buildings—1600 Smith and One, Two, and Three Allen Center. And once you’ve finally reached the exhibition spaces, you’ll find viewing conditions less than ideal: since the shows are all set up in building lobbies, the visitor is constantly distracted by office workers passing by, talking amongst themselves or on their cell phones. (The show is co-sponsored by Brookfield Office Properties, the largest owner of commercial real estate in downtown Houston, which explains the choice of exhibition space.) It’s hardly the monastic atmosphere we’ve come to expect from museums and art galleries.

But maybe that’s okay. Photography has always been one of the most populist of art forms, a medium that engages with the world in a more direct, unmediated way than sculpture or painting. Engagement is certainly on the minds of the 15 international photographers showcased in Discoveries, from the South Korean Kim Tae Dong, whose Daybreak series features solitary individuals in eerily empty urban landscapes, to Mexican Marcela Rico, whose photographs of staged explosions in empty desert landscapes evoke the failed Mexican drug war. 

“My philosophy is that good art is very deeply connected with the issues of life,” says FotoFest senior curator and co-founder Wendy Watriss. “Some of them happen to be political issues, and some of them happen to be personal issues. The strongest art often—not always, but often—is connected to those kinds of idea and issues that shape our lives, collectively and individually.”

Some of the sharpest social criticism comes from the exhibition’s two Chinese photographers, He Xiao Hua and Ian Teh. Teh creates monumental panoramas of environmental and human degradation in the coal mining region of Shanxi Province. The photographs are both beautiful and horrifying—technically expert compositions that expose the consequences of China’s rapid economic growth. He Xiao Hua shows the sunnier side of China—beautiful landscapes, ancient architecture, bustling storefronts—but defaces them with hand-written messages advertising fake goods and illegal services, along with a partially occluded phone number. Hua seems to be suggesting that behind the postcard-perfect image of China propagated by the government lies a seamy underworld of hustlers and hucksters. 

Watriss says the exhibition’s 15 photographers were chosen in the course of her visits to photography exhibitions and studios around the world: “One of our principal goals is to show international work that’s not readily available to audiences or art professionals in the United States. Even museums don’t have large travel budgets. In the process, we find people who are particularly interesting and talented, but who haven’t been shown widely in the United States.”

To attract downtown office workers to the show, FotoFest is offering 10-minute “Really Short Tours” during the lunch hour on August 1 (Two Allen Center), August 15 (Three Allen Center), August 29 (1600 Smith), and September 5 (1600 Smith). The tours start promptly at noon and last exactly 10 minutes (a timer is employed).

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