Like the opening band that upstages the headliner, occasionally a runner-up in an art competition outshines the winner. I'd argue that's the case at Silver Eye's 2009 Fellowship Award Exhibition, which closes this Saturday (www.silvereye.org).
The winning collection is Katrina M. d'Autremont's Si Dios Quiere (What God Wants), a series of 26 color images of her mother's family, in Argentina. All the photos were made inside what seems to be a single large apartment -- that of her grandparents -- or perhaps a couple such apartments.
The photos are wonderfully intimate; my first thought on seeing them was, "How did d'Autremont get into my grandparents' house from 1978?" (And my grandparents lived in Northeast Philadelphia.) There's the group family dinner shot ("La Mesa") but also subtle still lifes, like "Taza," with its familiarly chipped coffee cup resting on a patterned cotton tablecloth that still bears the imprint of water glasses.
Other images capture the overstuffed furniture (including a cupcake-shaped ottoman), the plush but worn carpet, the ceramic tchotchkes lovingly displayed. More formal portraits of individuals hint at the power of tradition, even as interior "landscapes," like a detail of a doorway in a shadowy hall, tell of loneliness.
Best of all, I think, is "Martin y Sofia." A teen-age girl and a toddler sit on adjacent armchairs, both facing the camera but heads turned to meet each other's gaze easily yet unsmilingly -- as only people very comfortable with each other might
Still, the familiarity in Si Dios Quiere can feel fetishized. There is nothing remarkable about the opened refrigerator, or the half-curtained view out a window, except that we know that it resonates for the artist, and that it happens to hang in a gallery. I was especially nonplussed by a shot of a disturbance in the nap of the carpeting, like something you'd notice during a dull moment in a family gathering. I doubt that was the artist's intent, but it emphasize a weakness in a generally solid show.
Meanwhile, I found more interest in a couple of the sequences of honorable-mention work playing on a flat-screen TV in the gallery. That's how Silver Eye generously exhibits the 10 honorable-mention artists' work.
If you're intrigued by a particular artists' work, it's a little inconvenient to wait through nine other artists' work for it to roll around again. But it's well worth the trouble in a few cases, in particular, Maureen Drennan's "Meet Me in the Green Glen."
The Brooklyn-based photographer documented the life of a pot farmer in California; her artists statement suggests that "Ben" and his associates live on the edge of the law and beyond the pale of social respectability. Drennan is working at a very high level of photojournalism here. Drennan deftly evokes the natural beauty of the rural surroundings with a powerful sense of socioeconomic insight, intimations of isolation, and clear-eyed character study. The subject matter and the intimacy she achieves, along with the curation of this imagery, should knock your socks off.
Through Sat., March 20, Silver Eye also has a couple worthy smaller exhibits in its New Works gallery. Be sure espeically to catch Angela Buenning Filo's vivid, analytical images of rapidly changing urban India (like barefoot laboreres laying fiber optic cable).