New directions

By GREG COOK  |  July 14, 2010

See for yourself in "Crisis & Opportunity: Documenting the Global Recession," which is based on a contest run by SocialDocumentary. The first PRC exhibit organized under Ruga's auspices, it aims to record "ripples felt worldwide by individuals subject to overwhelming life changes due to unseen economic forces."

The most striking work is Khaled Hasan's shots of workers in long boats collecting river stones and tending them at a crushing plant in Bangladesh. Hasan achieves rich burnished tones in his black-and-white photos while also recording anxiety and fatigue in the wrinkled, sad-eyed face of a 67-year-old man who is making less and less from his stonework.

The other photographers struggle to achieve this level of empathy or technical skill. Michael McElroy offers a series of portraits of a man in the midst of losing his wife to cancer and his condo to foreclosure. He stoically holds his wife's hand as she lies exhausted in her hospital bed. He sits on his condo balcony, head in hand. He prays over his wife's grave. It's a heartbreaking story of loneliness and defeat. But the photos aren't heartbreaking — they're bland. And without captions, the story wouldn't be apparent.

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SOMETIMES IT’S HARD TO MOVE ON: Kirk Amaral Snow’s piece at the 808 could be a precursor of a trend.

Shiho Fukada records old Japanese construction workers struggling to get by on welfare. Men alternately play slots in a casino, get a charity haircut, wait in line for a free meal, or live in a tiny, grimy, disheveled welfare apartment. Tomasz Tomaszewski presents color photos of workers toiling in the dying steel mills and coal mines of Poland. Wall texts tell us that these factories are shuttering at a rapid rate, that many of these people could be out of work within a year. But you don't feel the tension, the defiance, the exhaustion, the anger, the fear. These could just as well be photos of thriving factories.

"Crisis & Opportunity" leaves you feeling despair in the face of tragic, seemingly intractable forces. But this feeling comes more from the written stories around the photos than from the images themselves. The work is all polished and professional, but except for Hasan, the photographers don't get close enough, deep enough, in the middle enough for the images themselves to break our hearts. You didn't need captions in order to "read" W. Eugene Smith's Life photo essays about the life of a country doctor, or about the effects of mercury poisoning on Japanese children.

While you're at Boston University, check out "2010 Boston Young Contemporaries," a round-up of about a million art students from across New England in the university's sprawling 808 Gallery that may serve as a barometer of where art is headed next. It's heavy on painting (reflecting BU's strength), light on video, and the photos are deadpan.

Painting highlights include Nicholas Shindell's reserved but solid abstraction of orange and black stripes, Margaux Ogden's bright, charming arrangement of green and yellow rectangle-ish shapes that vaguely suggests a floor plan, and John Gonzalez's painting of American soldiers cuddling women in burqas, a work rendered in a slickly sweet Playmobil style. Keith Spencer takes the prize for the best-of-"bad" painting with his The Ultimate Warrior Wins the Juarez Turf War, a sketchy, exuberant, 10-foot-high canvas of a wrestler striding across a river, a wooden contraption stuffed with cacti behind him.

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