On the Inside

Marla Sweeney

Pro-Jex Gallery
through October

When I saw Marla Sweeney's compelling photos at Laughing at the Sun's "Extreme Exposure" show a couple of months back, I hoped to see more of her work soon. Well, I got my chance, and it didn't disappoint.

Sweeney, a transplant from New York, spent six months taking pictures of residents of an in-patient psychiatric hospital, and the results are very intense. These color photos give a glimpse into the lives of folks most of us either forget about or fear, a glimpse that is glaringly real and a little disquieting.

Sweeney notes, "We generally fear insanity -- we are shocked when we learn they are like us." And that's exactly what these works do: remind us that these people are people, not monsters or relics or criminals. Some photos are spontaneous, some posed, but all reflect the residents with intimacy. Whether the subject is fishing for apples, smoking a cigarette, clutching a baby doll, or staring into space, we are exposed to an intensely personal moment.

Sweeney shows a true ability to catch a moment, both technically and emotionally. On each face, every crease is clear; smiles, frowns, and looks of bewilderment come out with stark reality. Most of the subjects convey confusion, indifference, or something incomprehensible -- a true "out there" look. In "Myra," we can see this woman's long, hard life. It is evident in her blotchy skin, her rumpled clothes, the lost look on her weathered face.

This is perhaps photography's greatest ability as an art form: to show us something real and allow the subject's own beauty and/or ugliness to convey a message. For Sweeney, photography is "confrontation, psychology, and intimacy"; possibly the three best words to describe this collection. -- Cari Marshall

Hand Not Hand

Hills Snyder

Austin Museum of Art at Laguna Gloria
through October 27

A fortuitous collaboration between ArtPace, a foundation for contemporary art in San Antonio, and Austin Museum of Art brings an exhibit of work by Hills Snyder to town. Laurence Miller, former director of Laguna Gloria Art Museum (before it became AMOA) and current director of ArtPace, offered the show (and a grant from the foundation) to AMOA, which happened to have a break in its schedule. It is a reunion for Snyder -- he worked with the Austin museum in the Eighties -- marked by cultural icons, represented and joyfully magnified by the artist.

The galleries look like playrooms for grown-ups, with not too many objects -- just enough. The day after the opening in Austin, the artist was smiling. His is a small-mouthed smile, impish and quick, not the broad grin of the happy face he's used so well and so often in his work. His happy faces -- yes, those perfect circles wearing wide grins and polka dot eyes -- bunnies, handgun, peace sign, and multi-part line drawings interact with the walls, the floors, the doorway, and are energized by museum lighting. One piece is bathed in a recessed green neon glow, marking the exact position in the gallery, says Snyder, where his work has been exhibited before. Light completes a happy face lying on the floor and activates a peace sign. One drawing gives new meaning to the phrase "stretch" limo. "How big is your love?" asks the title and the work answers, big as a Cadillac, with a nod to Buddy Holly. But how do you quantify love, asks the artist. Can you?

I love this show, I can tell you that. Each object is well-crafted, takes charge of its position in the gallery, makes me smile. They wink good-naturedly at each other, perfectly filling the space. A limited palette of friendly colors and simple shapes provide pleasure for viewers of all ages, although I suspect their appeal is especially strong for us baby boomers and our successors. For better or worse, the iconography belongs to us. The artist uses it to provide intellectual, visual, and emotional pleasure -- at least that is his intent. Mission accomplished, I say. A simple black exclamation mark installed in the upstairs hallway and visible from the gallery below, has the last word. "!" -- Rebecca S. Cohen

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