Backstage at the Blaffer

Parenthood has the perhaps not-so-surprising side effect of making one so much less judgmental of other parents.  In the pre-kid era, it’s so much easier to roll your eyes at an operatic tantrum and say, “my kid will never…”   I guess that’s the thing about inside knowledge, suddenly black and white make room for myriad shades of gray, and a pesky thing called nuance creeps into your perspective.  But some parental decisions continue to boggle my mind, including the phenomenon of the “stage parent.”  An exhibition of video works at the Blaffer by Candice Breitz had me pondering this topic deeply, even though not  one spray-tanned harpy (ala Toddlers and Tiaras) makes an appearance.

courtesy of Blaffer website

courtesy of Blaffer website

Breitz has included three separate pieces in The Woods, an exhibition that reveal various complicated facets of the world of child acting.  World is an apt description, as the artist has chosen American child actors for the Audition,  Indian actors for The Rehearsal, and two former child-stars of Nollywood (Nigerian) fame for The Interview.  The presentation of the videos is visually flawless. The ultra-hi-def, perfectly syncopated video monitors switch on and off as Breitz conducts our attention.  We encounter The Audition first, a set of several roughly half life-sized screens against one wall, and a large triptych of screens adjacent.  On each screen is a different kid.  When Clementine and I entered the deeply black screening room, a child’s voice was sweetly lilting.  The prepubescent voice addressed a pop song’s generic “girl,” abstracting the concept of unrequited love.  In each featureless white frame, a child stood and looked at the camera, or danced, or wriggled happily but nervously.  After the song ended, they began alternately reciting lines.  Rather than any dramatic piece, Breitz has created a sort of monologue based on quotes from “industry insiders,”  the very people who decide which of these kids will sell the most cereal, or make the best Annie.  

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It’s this weird turn about that transforms the documentary leanings of this work into fine art.  The children literally become vehicles for adult opinions.  The knowing voice of the monologue exhorts the children to, “be themselves…know their strengths…not dress exactly like mom.”  It’s probably the reason that the far wall of the gallery shows alternating child actors (this time not speaking) in a sort of larger-than-life video portrait.  After a time, the “voice” of the adult speaker usurps the images of the cute kids.  We become painfully aware of the pressures placed on them by adults on both sides of the audition process.  It’s certainly subtler than the “Toddlers and Tiaras” approach, and I think much more powerful.  By physically removing the adults in the equation, but making us no less aware of their presence,  Breitz doesn’t allow us to easily dismiss them as some flawed caricature.  We see the direct evidence of their actions presented in the hopeful and beautifully un self-aware children.  And as an adult viewer, Breitz turns the onus on us, we become the elephant in the room.  

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As you can imagine, all this is particularly pointed with an almost two-year-old clinging to your hip.  She’s so unaware of film “convention” that a dark room is still just a scary place she doesn’t want to be alone in.  There’s no expectation of entertainment.         

20140718_133712Stay tuned for our review of the other equally interesting exhibition on the second floor of the Blaffer Museum…

Filling Up the Tank

The art world has a tendency to become a bit self-referential. If you’re not careful, you can find yourself making paintings about painting for other painters. With the”season” officially ended, we at Artstroller found it restorative to take a little break from openings, lectures, and the whole meta shebang and head out for a good old-fashioned road trip. For two days we toured the hill country, dropping in swimming holes, picnicking, and hiking. It was an excellent reminder that there is a whole universe outside of art’s comparatively miniscule one. We did cheat, just a little, on our art moratorium, stopping by Ken Little’s new public installation on Lady Bird Lake Boardwalk in Austin. Little (never been one to eschew a good pun), titled the series of stamped bronzed belts belting it out.

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Two Shows, Five Hundred Years, and a Whole Lotta Artists

enjoying the opening

enjoying the opening

It’s easy to forget that printmaking techniques were once cutting edge technology.  The ability to disseminate images on the scale of Instagram would no doubt leave Gutenberg aghast.  But Houston’s Print Matters exhibitions prove that there is still something enthralling and relevant in the hand-printed image.  Tinee and I have attended a couple of recent openings, with more or less interest on her part.  (Her measure of the success of an opening seems to be directly related to how much cheese and grapes she can sneak.) The Mariago Collective, a small but sleek new venue in Montrose, showcased prints by nine artists; some emerging, others household names.  Just down the road at the Houston Arts Alliance we saw an exhibition of prints that reveals a breathtaking historical arc of the medium, titled 1511-2014.

from 1511-2014

from 1511-2014, photo courtesy of Marc Newsome

 

Starting Gate, the Mariago show, features several artists who toy with the boundaries of printmaking.  Traditionally, printmakers strove to create editions in which each print was indistiguishable.  But Aaron Munoz, Gissette Padilla, and Brian Curling seem to use printmaking as a jumping-off point.  The mechanical processes of printmaking feature heavily in their work, but there is room for paint and collage as well.  Padilla’s subtle use of color and ambiguously figurative work is especially sophisticated.  Julie Speed and Tanja Softic are more entrenched in the history of the medium, working in highly traditional intaglio processes.  For Speed this seems particularly important, as her imagery is so tied to European painting.  A scowling, grotesque figure hacks away at a dead fish.  It could be a Flemish “daily life of the peasants” scene were it not for the character’s extra eyeball.

 

Gissette Padilla and Tanja Softic

Gissette Padilla and Tanja Softic

Brian Curling

Brian Curling

This sense of history is explored in all it’s postmodern electic-ness in HAA’s exhibition.  It’s a fabulous study in the proximity of disparate imagery.  Most of the work in this show comes from Gus Kopriva’s vast collection of prints, no doubt a curatorial goldmine.  On one wall, there’s a Mel Chin, an Ed Ruscha, and a Rembrandt, all similarly-sized but with obviously wide-ranging thematic concerns.  What is particularly interesting is the combination of necessarily religious work (due to patronage), and the much broader range of subject matter amongst the contemporary artists.  Earlier artists innovated with process because their conceptual concerns were dictated, and later ones pushed conceptual boundaries with less focus on new techniques.

Mel Chin, Ed Ruscha, Rembrandt...oh, and Albrecht Durer. Photo courtesy of Marc Newsome

Mel Chin, Ed Ruscha, Rembrandt…oh, and Albrecht Durer

 

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photo courtesy of Marc Newsome

Both of these exhibitions make the case that man (and woman) cannot live by jpeg alone.   In fact, I would argue (not that I have to, because these shows do it for me) that the mix of hand and machine-made that goes on in contemporary printmaking should ease any luddite’s fears (everything was technology at one point, right?)  But hopefully it can help the technophiles slow down just a bit, too.  There’s still no adequate substitute for the evidence of the human hand.

Not looking at art at the Mariago Collective

Not looking at art at the Mariago Collective

Book Mining

There is something that feels a bit like cheating in Anton Christian and Al Souza’s Edinburgh Connection.  The collaboration began with handsome old books, the kind with gleaming gilded edges, packed with ornate engravings of generals staring heroically into the distance.  These were objects already loaded with craft, so finding visual inspiration must’ve been a bit like those early days of the California Gold Rush-little nuggets of beauty there for the taking.  But rather than churning out the tired tropes of “book art,” (book as object or landscape or even archaic reading device) they’ve managed to imbue them with a delicate balance of humor and subversion.

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Christian picks apart the engravings’ contents, positioning his elegantly uniformed characters above blood-soaked battlefields.  The gore is splashed with painterly concern, but it’s stickiness is not at all muted.  The effect is not only a literal deconstruction of  well-composed images, but a conceptual dissection as well.  Individuals are unidentified and therefore generalized, becoming stand-ins for all 18th-century “men of means.” The torchbearers of the Enlightenment, they are too high-minded to wallow in the mire of their hypocrisy.  The viscera of the battles they created seems to pass unnoticed under their aquiline noses.  But Christian doesn’t indulge himself in too much finger-wagging, (hindsight being 20/20, etc). He tosses in some levity for balance. In one notable example, the artist focuses his collage solely on the beards of his subjects.  Their self-styled regal-ness becomes a parody.

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Christian’s collages are necessarily small, as it appears that he and Souza gutted the actual books for this endeavor. Souza’s similarly scaled sculptures occupy pedestals and vitrines near the wall-work.  He’s hacked apart the shining edges of the books, stuffing them into a variety of antique containers.  Each box or tin or wooden stump is jammed to its brim with dismembered book parts. The function of the containers is realized, but the books (at least their content) is entirely neutralized.

 

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We’ve all been warned that history is written by the “winning” side, but Edinburgh Connection reminds us of the possibility of artistic re-interpretation.  These books recorded history from a particular bias, but their visual language of heroic portraiture, gold and marbled inserts is exactly what gives Souza and Christian’s work it’s visual power.

 

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Walking in the Park One Day…

Hermann Park sure seems a lot bigger with a 23-pound passenger on your hip.  Thank goodness for the train, ahem, “chooo-chooo!!!”  We’ve visited a few times since the Art in the Park installation began.  It’s a celebration of Hermann Park’s centennial birthday.  I love imagining the founders of this park, with it’s grandly designed promenades, gasping at Louis Bourgeois’ spindly spider.  The late Bourgeois was a mere 3 years old when the park was built, which is a tidy little chronological tidbit.  This time we photographed the spider and Sharon Engelstein’s gloriously goofy pink blobs near the playground, but were unable to capture Trenton Doyle Hancock’s meticulous mural in the train tunnel.  It’s vibrant, cartoon-y figures whizzed by far too quickly.  Perhaps during Art in the Park the choo-chooo operators might consider slowing down for a longer look.  Does that thing have more than one speed?

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Louis Bourgeois’ spider

 

Sharon Engelstein from the train

Sharon Engelstein

 

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Black on White Walls

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The whitewashed stone floors of Avis Frank Gallery are somehow reminiscent of a resort.  The whole space feels like respite from the raucous street, including its own boisterously graffiti-ed exterior.  I’ve seen some interesting shows here, but nothing as striking as the contrast provided by Benito Huerta’s latest Crown of Creation.  These paintings, prints and drawings are dark, both in color and in concept.  Although there is some wry humor sprinkled throughout, the work is weighted by its blackness and the seriousness of its historical references.  But Houston is the home of the Rothko Chapel- we understand what kind of revelations await us in the darkness.

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Huerta’s strengths are not in creating entirely new images, but rather in re-framing iconic ones.  One powerful example of this is Intermission, a museum-sized painting of the tops of the twin towers in tonal grays and black.  Smoke curdles in menacing and complicated patterns around them.  Floating in a cinematic limbo atop this image is the word INTERMISSION.  This simple pairing of word and image opens a Pandora’s box of associations.  It refers to the World Trade Center attack relative to the events that preceded and followed it.  9/11 remains a kind of severing moment in our collective consciousness, a single event that brutally altered the trajectory of historical events.  But underneath this layer of meaning is another, even more interesting one (at least for me), which is the idea that most Americans experience these events through media.  What kind of connection, (and therefore responsibility) do we feel in relation to attacks on our or perpetrated by our country?  These pertinent and abiding questions are emphasized in different proportions throughout Crown of Creation.

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Huerta’s interest in icons and symbols delves appropriately into the history of art as well.  The most colorful piece in the show is a reworking of a famous Gaugin piece,  the demure nude native girl glancing over her shoulder.  Most historians  wax poetic about Gaugin’s use of color in these Tahitian paintings, but Huerta has boiled the color down to to a cartoon-like process palette of red with blue contour lines, entitled Shock and Awe.  He has adorned the girl with tattoos in the style of a biker chick.  Gaugin captured his subject during the heyday of colonialism, but Huerta’s piece links this thread with Bush’s slogan for the initial Iraq invasion.  You can choose to view this piece through the lens of hindsight or from Gaugin’s position, but neither vantage point is particularly comfortable.

 

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The breadth of this exhibition is a strength,  giving us a chance to see a sampling of some 20 years of Huerta’s work, a period in which he has collected icons and symbols, turning them over and around like another artist might repeat a brushstroke.  And like any artist whose accumulated experience lends the resulting work a certain effortlessness, Huerta’s at first disparate references (film, history, art, currency) have become finely tuned.  A simple word like Fin takes on a life of its own in this work.  It is the sum total of the imagery, the apocalyptic warning,  and the end.

 

Artstroller Turns 1!

 

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A little bunny told me there’s a big holiday happening, but what we’re really excited about today is the first anniversary of Artstroller.  Some people mark time in terms of gray hairs or inches grown, but for Clementine and me it’s the monthly turnover of art.  Installations, performances and preparator-built temporary walls transform the museums and galleries that make up our stomping grounds.  I’m not telling you anything revolutionary when I say how amazing it is to live in a city with such diverse and dynamic institutions, but gratitude never gets old.  So thanks Texas artists and art-places, and especially those who frequent this blog, whether for musings or just a cute baby photo or two.  I never forget how lucky I am to be doing what I love best.  Here’s to another year!

Paul Kittelson

Paul Kittelson

Patrick Doherty

Patrick Doherty

 

Menil in winter

Menil in winter

 

 

 

Menil in summer

Menil in summer

 

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with artists Alex Rubio, Juan de dios Mora, and Megan Harrison in San Antonio