For one sublime afternoon every spring, Allen Parkway is closed to all ‘average’ vehicles. Drivers of shiny ‘Beamers’ and well-tended SUV’s are met with orange detour signs and told to make way for the Art Car Parade: just about the most delightful bit of organized eccentricity that this city has to offer. With a nominal entry fee of $35, you’re as likely to see a dude chugging Busch Lite on his low-rider bike as a glorious drivable sculpture that took the Houston Opera props department 750 man-hours to build. It’s about as non-commercial as a parade can get these days (even the St Arnold’s Brewery car kept their logo demure on a colorfully-patterned convertible), and offers the perfect blend of just-because kookiness and real artistic skill. It was also a first for all three of us in the Artstroller clan, and I know at least one of us is wondering why, like Christmas, the Art Car Parade can’t happen every day. But Tommy will just have to wait until next year.
Liza Littlefield’s Milagros and Landscapes is a series of jewel-like works filling the blood-colored walls of Redbud Gallery. The larger works, still relatively small in a city of many Rothko’s, are arched on the top like devotional paintings. The scale and preciousness of these pieces, in combination with those vivid walls, is reminiscent of the endless vaults of Byzantine and Medieval art in any Major Museum. But rather than personal devotional images of graceful madonnas, Littlefield presents simmering landscapes rife with texture and pattern.
Figures leap and flip gymnastically across these spaces, wearing jeans or tennis shoes. They’re icons, but they won’t stay in one place, defining the new and unfamiliar laws of gravity in their self-contained worlds. My favorite is a woman performing an impossible arabesque over a fence that undulates back into the painting’s distance. There are tracks, either from the fence or from a vehicle, that add another layer of tenuousness to this image. As solidly depicted as they are, neither seems quite committed to staying on the page.
For all the catholic reference evident in the form of the work, the spirituality in these pieces is not reinforced by genuflecting babes, but by Littlefield’s obsessive observation and repetition of patterns found in the natural world. She’s included many small and lovely observational landscapes that inform her more conceptual pieces. It’s an homage to the teeming unknown we call “nature” that’s as worshipful as any prayer.
When teaching any beginner level studio class, I try to steer students clear of what I might deem “obvious” materials and symbols. Anything with mirrors, skulls and anatomical hearts, and things that “do something” (light up or move) usually get the professorial boot in the early planning stages. These kinds of symbols and visual tricks can easily become trite, but the Menil’s Infinity Machine proves that in the hands of the professionals, they can be imbued with new and strange life. Just to be clear, artist team Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller left the skulls and anatomical hearts to the undergrad crowd.
Stepping from the brisk but sun-drenched stone exterior of the Byzantine Fresco chapel into it’s vault-like interior takes some visual adjustment, and further is required before entering the installation. Expectancy like this is nothing short of magical with a two-year-old clinging to your arm. If I am mildly intimidated by the disconcerting space, she is completely thrown off kilter, her reactions reflecting and magnifying my own trepidation. Infinity Machine is a whirling carousel of suspended antique mirrors of all shapes and sizes. In the darkened chapel they spin, set to the whooshing music of electromagnetic fields transmitted from the Voyager I and II. We are led to a black bench to watch the spectacle. Light glances off of the mirrors, and as they are never in one place long enough to transmit a static image, what begins to unfold is the spaces between them. As my eyes adjust and readjust to the changing light, strange shadows fill the voids. It’s beautiful, but not entirely pleasant, as I’m reminded when Clementine pleads, “mama, let’s get outta here.” It’s a brief, but soon to be repeated visit, which is just as well. As lovely and thought-provoking as it is, too much infinity can be a little overwhelming.
This post is dedicated to the memory of my Abuela, Berenice Sanchez (1936-2015)
At 7:46 on Friday evening, the dense-looking skies over George Bush Intercontinental Airport made good on their threat and let loose the kind of torrential rain that turns Houston into the Bayou City. But at 7:40, our little threesome was happily jaywalking the airport’s unofficial Autobahn (JFK Blvd) to view Dennis Oppenheim’s final public work, which is best appreciated under shroud of darkness. As it turns out, the little drama of the impending rain was the perfect circumstance for viewing this work, which is meant to mimic giant drops of rain exploding upon hitting the earth.
As a traveler and sometimes supplier of airport ‘rides’ I’ve seen this piece many times, but in daylight it reads simply as a series of formal structures. The dynamic quality provided by the racing LED’s is lost, and the structures, in spite of their bloom-like shape, are rather static. At night they come alive- stationary fireworks exploding over and over again in a spectrum of hues. Every vehicle in the mucky cell phone lot was turned to face them, the idling motorists partaking in the unexpected delight.
My favorite theory on public art is that it’s primary goal should be visual pleasure when you least expect it: on a gray evening, in a banal parking lot, or with jostling, anonymous company. Additionally, that delightfulness should be populist- as able to generate a spark in the passing oil-worker as art-collector. The myriad Kafka-esque miseries of the airport add a special level of contrast to that idea of out-of-the-blue pleasure, making it an ideal venue if executed correctly. (I know I’m not the only one who finds the requisite shoe-removal somehow degrading) In the case of the airport’s Oppenheim, it has the scale and dynamism capable of capturing an audience on a drizzly, dank evening, but gets a bit lost in the shuffle during the day. Perhaps his focus was those who needed a jolt of delight the most, those on the red-eye or their ‘ride’ purveyors.
On Tuesday, as I buckled Clementine into her carseat, she asked me, “where we goin’ mama?” and my answer was “City Hall.” We went to hear artist Troy Stanley address the city council, as well as Ed Wilson’s lawyer/artist, Tracey Conwell. It seems lately that a lot of us in the Houston art community have been learning more about the functions of government and power as it relates to artists than we might have ever wished to. (It’s reminiscent of those ugly days back in 2008-9 when we had to learn words like traunch, or what a NINA loan was.) The precipitating factor in all of this was the dubious revocation of artist Ed Wilson’s high profile George R Brown commission. If you want an education on the details, Glasstire and the Houston Chronicle have reported on this story; it was even picked up by Brooklyn-based Hyperallergic and the Associated Press.
The specifics of this situation aside, Mr Stanley did pose an interesting question in that gorgeous deco-paneled chamber. Why aren’t there more artists on the Civic Art Committee? Made up of 15 representatives, the overwhelming majority are collectors and art consultants. In fact, only one artist participates. Of course, collectors and art consultants are important members of the community, but they don’t usually have first hand knowledge of what it takes to create and maintain a piece of art. In the best case, collectors support artists because they truly love the alchemical marriage of idea and form that happens in a truly great work. They see themselves as protectors of culture, not arbiters. But in the worst case, (and this can be seen at almost any art fair in the country) art and artists become property to be bought and sold, a commodity whose value is not just in dollars but also cachet.
Of course I don’t know if that’s what happened here, but it seems to me that there is a vast range of “arts professionals” to pull from for a committee like this. Artists could provide the context and real-world knowledge, academics and historians could offer long-term or philosophical points of-view, and collectors and art consultants the market aspect. Above all, artists should be able to trust this committee, and HAA, too. If I have to go to city hall with a two-year-old I will, but I’d rather leave the politics to the politicians.
By the time I began studying their work in the early aughts, artists like Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Jeff Koons and Julian Schnabel were already history book material. Not in the dead and dusty way, but in the way that their very names seemed written into the genetic material of the art world. Their work, so revolutionary at its inception, to me seemed like a forgone conclusion. I suppose that’s tempting (and also dangerous and tricky) to make assumptions about any part of history- to see the evolution of movements as an elegant and linear expansion and ignore the massive quantities of complete dumb luck that are required for anything new (good or bad) to happen. Which is why it’s nice to see many of these seminal works together in one show: Urban Theater: New York in the 1980s at the Fort Worth Modern. Together and in context it’s possible to feel the energy and urgency of this era, and the concerns of the artists at the moment when what they were saying was more of a posed question than a confirmed answer.
The show is ushered in with Warhol’s self-portrait in electric green, which is appropriate in that it sets a foundation for these works in the older school of pop-art. The curator, Michael Auping, begins with the more formal works of Schnabel and Mapplethorpe (say what you will about content, but Mapplethorpe loved a classically balanced formal composition), and moves more gradually into issues of celebrity and consumer culture orchestrated by Koons and Kruger, finishing with the overtly political genius of the Guerrilla Girls. It’s an unfolding of all of the pressing issues of the 1980s, from the bacchanalia of consumerism and the making of so-called “art stars,” to the nightmarish AIDS crisis and second-wave feminism. There’s an entire half-room dedicated to be-bopping Keith Harings, and an installation by Allan McCollum of cast resin frames that hints at the impending let-me-out-of-this-white-box movement known as “institutional critique.”
Toward the back end of the show is a Kenny Scharf installation behind a neon curtain. Hip-hop music blasts into the small space which is filled with blacklit party ephemera. Once the curtain closes, the installation and music feel without end or beginning. The accumulation of all these glaring objects and music feel almost aggressive. Placed as it is, adjacent to a room full of Nan Golding portraits, it’s like an assertion that the attitudes and ideas in this exhibition are alive and well. Maybe the sense of urgency here lies not so much in the art itself but the fact that it feels like many of the issues relevant to artists in the 80s have metastasized rather than fading. These artists, whose eclectic attitudes about what art should look like, what it should discuss, and who it should address signaled the end of the “art manifesto,” but it’s not clear that art has become more inclusive as a result. Perhaps that’s our job.
There is nothing homey about Do Ho Suh’s houses. Like a child taking apart the pieces of a favorite toy, the artist dissects the nostalgia surrounding the idea of home, his diaphanous sculptures more like specimens in a lab (in fact some are called Specimens) than fond, hazy recollections. For an artist, it’s dangerous territory, because these works seem to underline the temporality of objects, the fact that as much as we often feel otherwise, no wall or radiator or medicine cabinet can be imbued with memories. At the same time, these are immensely beautiful and desirable pieces of art, finely crafted and immaculately presented. In Austin, a town of many transplants and temporary residents (students), it’s an especially germane avenue of investigation.
The lower floor of the Contemporary is occupied by an installation of backlit fabric sculptures. A toilet and a refrigerator are among the filmy apparitions, each mundane detail stitched with painstaking accuracy. The stiff armatures that hold them are barely visible, belying the flimsiness of the material. It’s pristine and untouchable yet vaguely familiar, a bit like stumbling into someone else’s dream. In a rare moment of levity, the artist has also included a model of a traditional Korean home and garden mounted on a tiny 18-wheeler complete with painted flames on the cab. This piece corresponds to a video animation of the same sculpture traveling cross-continent from Korea to Manhattan. In a sort of choose-your-own-adventure moment, there are two separate endings to this film. When the house and garden finally park in New York City, they either bloom and flourish or wither and decay. I can only assume that this is Do Ho Suh’s way of rewriting his own history. The artist has often cited his early days in New York as the impetus for his ‘house’ imagery, but in the video we see that his moment of artistic blossoming could have easily gone in another direction.
The second floor contains a massive installation rimmed by the artist’s drawings, and although I spent half of the time walking through with heart in my throat (holding on to a tiny tot who loves to run full-bore through impossibly delicate art installations), it was here that I finally found a window into Do Hoh Suh’s thoughts. The petri-dish presentation from the lower floor falls away, and we can enter the artist’s rooms. Each section of the house is rendered in a different color, and in some places the multiple layers build something close to opacity. It’s a far more slippery image, much closer to the built-on-sand quality of actual memory. The drawings reveal an artist whose thoughts are far less linear as well. In some he uses expressive thread or collage, while others are almost mathematical in precision. Here it’s possible to connect to the artist’s sense of longing, and to understand why he’s spent a career turning it over like an endlessly fascinating prism.