Collage con tenerezza

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

This exhibition presents a selection of photographs from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston inspired by Houston Grand Opera's world premiere "The House Without a Christmas Tree." Like the opera, "Collage con tenerezza" ("Collage with Tenderness") explores themes of family, loss, and tradition, particularly relevant in the wake of HGO's own experience of displacement and rebuilding after Hurricane Harvey.

Collage con tenerezza (Collage with Tenderness)
Inspired by the themes of Houston Grand Opera’s “The House Without a Christmas Tree," this exhibition brings together artists who explore relationships between family, tradition, and loss in diverse and often abstract ways. In "Collage con tenerezza" (Italian for "Collage with Tenderness"), the element of collage becomes a tool for recalling and gathering memories; stitching together histories; and celebrating family. Utilizing collage, assemblage, and repetition, the artists transform archives into landscapes, memories into kaleidoscopes, and photographs into monuments.

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1946, photographer Joaquim Paiva is a collector of contemporary Brazilian and international photography. As a child, Paiva regularly sifted through family photographs, which ingrained in him an understanding of the relationship between memory and photography.

In the series "Family Portraits," Joaquim Paiva formulates powerful tributes to family memory and reflects upon his own identity by re-photographing images of his parents as newlyweds. In this way, Paiva combines fragments of his own memories with actual images from his family's past.

The red dirt framing each photograph is reminiscent of the soil of Brazil's capital, Brasília, where Joaquim Paiva lived for much of his life. Paiva’s images blend family time lines and geographies, situating the fleeting moments of his family photographs in an ancient, historical landscape. The careful arrangement of these elements creates a distinctly personal and imaginative archival landscape.

Joaquim Paiva recalls that when he was 4 years old, his mother would show him pictures of his recently deceased father. This image integrates one such photograph.

“Photography as memory, as self-portrait, as a souvenir, as one’s experiences in life—like the people you’ve met, places where you lived, feelings you tried to express in images—are an integral part of my relationship to photography.” —Joaquim Paiva

This work, depicting the back of newlywed's portrait, shows a dedication from Joaquim Paiva's grandparents that is lovingly addressed to his parents.

Since the late 1970s, José Manuel Fors (born 1956) has been significant among contemporary artists raised and educated in post-revolutionary Cuba.

Merging his work in photography with a background in sculpture, José Manuel Fors creates books that feature collaged photographs within grids. Faded, scratched, and browned by coffee, bundled family photographs cover the surface of this book. Acting as relics of personal and collective memories, the sacred packages are imbued with fragmented histories.

Kathy Vargas (born 1950) is an internationally praised Chicana photographer and artist from San Antonio, Texas.

Her work often draws influences from Mexican and Pre-Columbian myths and literature; Catholicism; Aztec iconography; her grandmother's ghost stories; and her father's retellings of Pre-Columbian history.

Vargas is perhaps best known for her lush, complex assemblages of text and images. Her composite hand-colored photographs bring themes of loss, hope, life, and death into abstraction.

Using the techniques of double exposure and triple exposure, Kathy Vargas meticulously layers film negatives on top of one another before exposing and developing photographs in the darkroom.

After printing the photographs, she uses colored pencils and oil pastels to tint the pictures by hand, sometimes adding objects like lace and string into her compositions.

In her series "I Was Little," Kathy Vargas reconfigures photographs of chairs belonging to her parents and herself, elevating these ordinary objects to the status of relic and monument. Though the chairs in "I Was Little" and "They Were Big" vary in color and form, Vargas uses contrasts in this shared imagery and the process of assemblage to denote the aging process and domestic spaces.

Recalling the nostalgia of floral upholstery and wallpaper, the details of each chair charge the objects with personality and mood. In this way, Kathy Vargas humanizes the figureless portraits.

Rusty Scruby (born 1964) weaves rhythm into surfaces saturated with vibrating, lyrical images. His work often references the childhood years this Texas-based artist spent on Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands.

By physically cutting and interlacing multiple layers of photographs into complex “photographic reconstructions,” Rusty Scruby creates a kaleidoscopic vision of shifting tides, windswept sand, and fidgeting figures that alludes to a meticulous—and playful—recollection and reconstruction of memory.

Ko Yamada is based in his native Japan, where he was born in 1964. With a practice at the intersections of photography, sound installation, artist books, and performance, he creates photographic work that addresses layers of identity within one’s self, as well as relationships with others.

“Father” is part of the series "Fundamental Fragments," in which Yamada reconfigures the picture plane by photographing the image seen in the reflection of an eye. What seems to be in front of the viewer—a distorted image of the artist’s father—is actually positioned behind the camera and photographer. By literally placing an additional “lens” in the photograph, Yamada complicates the position of the viewer, whose gaze is magnified and focused on a mirrored image.

Ko Yamada uses the distorted and obscured forms in his photographs to suggest fragmented and ambiguous memories—especially the fuzzy, dynamic memories associated with childhood.

Recognized as an early and highly innovative practitioner of Conceptual photography, Detroit native Kenneth Josephson (born 1932) is best known for black-and-white images that layer pictures within pictures.

Focusing on the action of image-making, Josephson invites playful commentary on photographic truth and illusion. In using the photograph itself to examine the veracity of the medium, he invariably raises questions about what is real, and what it means to be a human observing the world.

Like Ko Yamada, Kenneth Josephson uses photography to explore the camera's shifting roles as archivist, mirror, and eyes. In “Anissa,” the image of a mother taking a picture of her infant daughter is inverted and collaged onto the surface of the photograph.

The fleeting click of a shutter; the momentary, soft gaze of a child; and the nostalgic, homemade quality of photo corners all converge. This action of extending and re-assembling a memory through image-making transforms a photograph into a monument, where family history is carefully preserved and displayed.

American artist Enrique Martínez Celaya (born in Cuba in 1964) uses photography to formulate fantastical and lyrical environments where painting, sculpture, and collage converge. Focusing on themes of memory, familiarity, and longing, he creates narratives about people and their relationships to nature and time.

In Enrique Martínez Celaya's layered spaces, fragments of human figures exist alongside plants, animals, shells, and architecture. In effect, these photographs present the viewer with illusions and visual discrepancies in nature that complicate—and perhaps erase—the space between individual and collective memory.

Cameraman, photographer, and artist Stanislav Benc was born in Prague in 1935. Weaving and layering photographs of his mother, from childhood to old age, Benc uses collage to simultaneously produce an intimate homage and an imagined mapping of his family history.

By weaving and distorting the composition of his mother's photographs, Stanislav Benc creates a collage that seems to vibrate in an undulating rhythm and gridlike pattern. These rearranged compositions result from layering multiple copies of each image in vertical cuts.

The work of photographer and storyteller Esther Parada (1938–2005) was heavily informed by her experiences as a political and social activist in Chicago, where she taught at the University of Illinois School of Art and Design from 1974 to 2005. Often working with photographs and text found in her family's archive, Parada used these artifacts to recall and explore narratives of loss, hope, life, and death.

In "Past Recovery," Esther Parada creates a history of her immediate and extended family. She transforms a small photograph from the wedding anniversary of her great aunt and great uncle into a giant, 12-foot-wide family scrapbook. Pictures of family members from various periods in their lives are superimposed on their images at the banquet.

Simultaneously a collection, a reconstruction, and a mapping of personal and collective memory, “Past Recovery“ is a powerful suturing of past, present, and future. The complex layering of powerful imagery exemplifies the use of collage and assemblage for revisiting and reimagining family histories.

“My sister’s face at age 2 is juxtaposed with her own image 30 years later and with that of a great aunt whom we never met, although family legend has it that they were cast in the same mold. Similarly, I see other members of that family gathering through the filter of my own cumulative experience.” —Esther Parada

Credits: Story

Celia Shaheen
The Andrew W. Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellow in Photography
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

This selection of photographs was inspired by the multidisciplinary Houston Grand Opera initiative “Seeking the Human Spirit,” designed to highlight opera’s universal spiritual themes and to expand Houstonians’ connections to opera and visual art.

As part of the initiative, the MFAH is making connections between its art collections and exhibitions and HGO's operas through in-gallery talks, online exhibitions, and more.

HGO's world-premier opera “A House Without a Christmas Tree” runs November 30-December 17, 2017. Visit for more information.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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