Review: Andres Serrana, Torture

Andres Serrana, Torture (2017)
Station Contemporary Art Museum
Houston, TX
June – November 19, 2017

Serrana’s Torture is socially responsible and responsive artwork that, one may hope, can provoke people into being civically engaged. Serrana’s work depicts the victims and places of torture through enormous photographs. He presents them alongside its history and cultural contexts in Christian theology, Medieval Europe, WWII, and its contemporaneous use under the guise of “enhanced interrogation.”

I recognized the journalistic overtones to Serrana’s exhibit immediately, and decided just as quickly to call my wife and tell her to come to the gallery. We walked around the gallery separately, then again together. Her first question was why I asked her to come. She was upset by the topic; Serrana’s photographs are presented at such an extreme scale that their impact is inescapable. But the show was meant to be upsetting, and that was the reason I asked her to join me. We gawked, and with nervous smiles, we tried not to cry. Even in the photographs of empty rooms, Serrana makes us feel a portion of the pain of those who went through those places and may never have justice. He gives us glimpses of context through politics and place, and a distinct lack of all context but the emotional and physical abuse in suffered by those in his portraits. We decompressed on a long walk, deciding that it was worth seeing and seeing together. My wife and I are both steeped in journalism — her, still an active participant in the profession while I use it to direct and resolve my art and critical studies.

Telling upsetting stories, especially as Serrana has, isn’t just a necessary discomfort for us. It is an ethical responsibility. Serrana is a journalist in the truest sense. He isn’t taking advantage of the excitement of a crime story, or participating in the media circus around a tragedy, his photography forces us to empathize with people who have had atrocities meted out against them. To reflect and understand a portion of their experiences. To look at its context, pseudo-justification and contrast in war and in religion.

And this is upsetting. But it is also worth being upset.

uh, you draw it

A growing annoyance for me are subreddits for design and graphic software. They don’t live up to the potential that subreddits for other disciplines have, and most of the graphic design ones have turned into tutorial forums where people discuss various means of creating effects — never an aesthetic or methodology, pure mimicry of an exact effect in isolation.

The question is always along the lines of “how can I do this?” And the answer is, uh, you draw it. That’s it. You draw it. What are you not getting?

I see this as indicative of two things. That the mixed and undefined use of the term graphic design has steered people into misguided understandings of what graphic designers do, and that digital media have compartmentalized how these people are thinking about the visual arts into tool-based domains, rather than ones for their conceptual or qualitative domains.

 

The most recent example I’ve seen was regarding the above poster — they wanted to know how to warp text this way. This is a really simple type treatment, which makes the answer — drawing — a really unsatisfying one.

Presumably, this person sees that the warping is working and looks cool on this poster, which they want to replicate. However, they don’t understand that this “effect” only works because of the repetition of similar forms in the poster.

It is far better to pose questions on the methodology for relating text with the rest of the artwork. The zigzag warping, on its own, is honestly uninteresting and commonplace, but it works here because of its well-considered use.

Mimicry of such a surface-level detail like this will never work as effectively as duplicating the methodology of using a visual quality from the image to inform how the type is distorted.

Go Away Harvey!

Becca and I were lucky when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston. We were fine. Completely fine, and surrounded by people who were not.

In a combination of stupidity, morbid curiosity, and journalistic duty, we ventured out multiple times during the storm. On foot and by car, when the roads and even our parking lot drained enough to be passable. We saw some terrifying things — flooded and abandoned cars in the middle of the street, the rapid flow of flood waters through Brays Bayou. But mostly what we saw was otherworldly blandness, which is dangerous in its own right.  Without seeking out the experiences and perspectives of those worse off, we risk allowing urban development to continue on the path that has made Houston’s flooding regular and unmanageable.