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Globe review: Eyes on the prize

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  November 23, 2008 12:20 PM

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"Defiant" by Rania Matar, 2006, 24 x 36 in. / Courtesy of Gallery Kayafas, Boston

At the ICA, one Foster finalist focuses on photography

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff

I'm guessing that the James and Audrey Foster Prize, the Institute of Contemporary Art's local version of Britain's notorious Turner Prize, sees itself as a little more grown-up and subtle and a little less sensation-craving than the British award, whose winners over the years have included a guy who switched lights on and off in an empty room (Martin Creed), another who specializes in dead animals suspended in formaldehyde (Damien Hirst), and a third who combined paint with elephant dung (Chris Ofili).

Good for it. I'm all for subtlety and maturity. But in giving up on the potential for a bit of excitement, the selection panel for this year's Foster Prize has produced a show that is, unfortunately, less mature than insipid.

Let's face it, art prizes are inherently silly. The genius of the Turner Prize in its heyday was that it accepted the absurdity of treating art like a dog race and made a bit of fun with it.

The Foster Prize, which aims to "recognize the accomplishments of Greater Boston's artists of exceptional promise," is a more earnest affair. The winner will be announced in January; of the four finalists, each allotted one room at the ICA, three make work that is both conceptual and autobiographical - call it conceptual-narcissism.

One of those finalists, Rania Matar, is represented by a handful of photographs from Lebanon. Matar's work is artful and engaged with something outside of herself, making it a welcome antidote to the rest of the show.

"Newspapers" by Rania Matar, 2007, 24 x 36 in. / Courtesy Gallery Kayafas

Matar was born in Lebanon and took these photographs on travels back to her homeland. Her images feature many women wearing black headwear, although not all of them are Muslim; many are Christian Maronite nuns.

Rocket Hole
"Rocket Hole" by Rania Matar, 24 x 26 in. / Courtesy of Gallery Kayafas

As a collection of images, Matar's fairly small display argues for the human richness and complexity of Lebanese society even in a context of destruction (several images show battered buildings and rubble). But there are individual images that stand apart and have a genius all their own.

The best is a photograph taken this year in Beirut called "Three Nuns." It shows three Maronite nuns in black garb standing in front of a congregation praying with eyes closed. All face the same way, toward Matar's camera.

Three Nuns
"Three Nuns" by Rania Matar, Beirut, 2008 / Courtesy of Gallery Kayafas

The nun on the left regards the camera sourly, with pursed lips and contemptuous eyes. The middle nun looks at the camera, but with an expression of calm equilibrium, while the nun on the right has caught some of the mood of the congregation: Her tilted head suggests dreamy, divinely inspired detachment.

The photograph is the result of what looks like astonishing serendipity, but Matar obviously had to put herself in an awkward position before serendipity could strike. The photograph is the best in the room. But I was also impressed by a series of nine small images, arranged in a grid, showing close-ups of household detritus amid rubble and ash - the aftermath of bombing.

The series is called "Lost Memories," but the individual works have simple descriptive titles such as "Rubber Gloves" and "Plates," after the identifiable remnants of domesticity they show. With these titles, writes curator Carole Anne Meehan, "Matar does not minimize enormous devastation, but reveals how the human trace persists." Quite so.

Excerpt; you can read Sebastian's full review of the entire exhibit here. And you can contact him at ssmee@globe.com.

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