This one is for the artists. Or maybe you just love an artist and are struggling to understand why that person is dumping so much of their time and money into an enterprise that seems so futile. It’s one of the few careers where the cost/benefit analysis of a project necessarily includes such confusing, non-quantifiable things such as “exposure.” And cost is more than just financial, because “it takes everything.” That can be read two ways. Success (another widely variable and shifting term) in this field takes nothing less than an obsessive, seemingly single-minded pursuit of a career which the overwhelming stack of rejection letters and no-thank-yous and “we’re not accepting submissions right now” seem to be telling you is never going to happen. But also IT (the larger construct of the “art world”) takes everything. It depletes you as a physical and financial body.
If you’re an artist, of course you already know these things. So the next question is “why?” and I have a little anecdote that explains it… at least to me, so hopefully to you too. This weekend was the opening for my first solo exhibition, at Sala Diaz in San Antonio. In conversation with fellow painter, Mira Hnatyshyn (a really smart lady whose art you should get to know if you don’t already), we started comparing some recent thoughts. Her daughter is studying at a prestigious university and volunteering in Rwanda this summer. I was ruminating about my incredible sisters, one a nurse, the other a counselor. It was obvious that all of these women were doing transformative and helpful work, but each of us had questioned our own careers relative to theirs. Secretly, I’ve always felt that art just involves too much pleasure to rank among the larger humanitarian endeavors. (Refer to first paragraph if you want in on my “duh” moment. Of course it’s not all pleasure, but when I think about art outside of the “art world” and “exhibitions planning” and “openings” it’s all pure intellectual heaven)
Back to the story: Mira pointed out that when her daughter was small she’d made a series of paintings about the then-concurrent Rwandan genocide. And here’s where my slow-moving brain cogs caught up: a lot of times it’s exposure to art that makes people sensitive to the sufferings of others. It reveals unfamiliar beauty, and it gives us the fuel to have our own awakenings. Literature, painting, and film all allow us a mental doorway into the life of another person or group of people we could otherwise never access. Someone has to do that work. And if we get a modicum of pleasure out of it, no one will begrudge us, because many times that’s the biggest part of our paycheck.
Access to world class museums is one of the major advantages of living in the fourth largest city in the country. I guess you mind the traffic less if there’s a truly amazing destination at the end of it. We decided to become members at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. It would be easy to let entire afternoons slip by among the exhibits there, but these days we have to contend with the legendary attention span (or lack thereof) of a two-year-old. We’ve revised our museum-going habits, merely “dropping in” for a few minutes every now and then, just to check on the dinosaurs or the mineral collection or the butterflies. I’ve grown quite fond of this method: little moments of wonder are interspersed with visits to the grocery store or post office. It’s a very humane way to temper the raucous energy of the museum’s weekday field trip crowd as well, which tears through its hallowed halls in color-coded t-shirts. Divided into insular and over-stimulated packs, a group of second graders has little regard for the pace of a solo mom and toddler, making a forty-minute visit just enough for both of us.
Also, it’s not art, but the HMNS is an incredible object lesson in museum display. The paleontology hall is organized against a backdrop of dramatically lit white planes. It’s simple and instructive, but also extremely pleasant to look at. The layout encourages a certain chronological viewing experience (so that the trilobites get a fair shake in terms of real-estate), but you can also cut straight across to view the most intact specimen of a Triceratops in the world, if for instance, Triceratops happen to be your favorite dinosaur and you know a great song about them.
Institutions from the Menil to commercial galleries have been questioning the austere white cube, acknowledging it as it’s own “coded” space. In many ways, contemporary curators and artists are returning to the original conception of the museum: the wunderkammer (cabinet of curiousities). This is evident in the work of artists like Dario Robleto, Darren Waterston, Jo Ann Fleischhauer and Megan Harrison. These artists are borrowing heavily from displays like those found in the HMNS, playing around with low levels of light and incorporating objects that blur the line between art, science and history. The most interesting part of this is that it seems to indicate a full-circle revolution in the thinking of artists and scientists. The fields are of course very different, but have the potential to be mutually beneficial. In the effort to build the perfect “white cube” in which to experience art, we seem to have forgotten the power of cross-pollination, and I’m excited to see those boundaries loosening again, this time not from a vague sense of wonder, but from a pointed effort to strengthen the field of human knowledge.
All tuckered out
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.
This was my favorite. A kind of steam-punk underwater alien theme which spouted bubbles
Houston Grand Opera’s car
An end-of-parade popscicle
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.
Beth Wray, Liza Littlefield, Casey Gregory, and the irrepressible Clementine Gregory
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.
image from Houston Public Media
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.
photo courtesy of HAS/John Bowling
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.
photo courtesy of HAS/John Bowling
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.
Artists are people
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.