Do Ho Suh in Austin

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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.

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courtesy of The Contemporary Austin

courtesy of The Contemporary Austin

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.

courtesy of The Contemporary Austin

courtesy of The Contemporary Austin


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.

courtesy of the Contemporary Austin

courtesy of the Contemporary Austin

Bright Lights, Big Building

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Maybe it’s my small-minded side talking, (or the oil-paint fumes) but I’m always a bit wary of art that has to be plugged in.  Of course, Flavin can be transcendent, and Bill Viola’s slow-motion revelations would be nothing without the miracle of electricity, but I’m generally skittish about art that has to “do” something.  Kids, including our very own resident two-year-old, like it a lot.  But it seems that viewers and artists alike can be caught up in the overall shininess of this kind of work without considering its long-term implications and staying power.  A new exhibition entitled Seeing the Light goes a long way towards allaying my fears by including a playful mixture of artists who reimagine the idea of being “plugged in.”  This is especially refreshing in the monolithic Williams Tower, whose imposing granite lobby is like Stonehenge reinterpreted by a 70s minimalist architect.  The breezy lightness of this show feels slightly irreverent in this space, and for the most part the works have the visual power necessary to seem substantial against this imposing backdrop.

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with Adela Andea

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The exhibition space is bisected, and curator Sally Sprout left the sparkliest things out front.  Adela Andea’s popular light sculptures usually feel like they were made by a cartoon mad scientist, with fluorescent color and water bubbling through tiny glass tubes.  For the Williams Tower show, she’s gone monochromatic in icy bluish gray. In this context, Andea’s piece is like a vein of some magical ore bursting from the stony wall.  Across the lobby are several works by late Houston artist Don Foster, whose neon and lead pieces slam together shimmering light and vivid color with densest opacity.  Although some date back to the early aughts, they feel very of-the-moment, and the two potentially dangerous materials comingle in unexpected and interesting ways.

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Dan Foster

In the far space, Sprout has chosen to interpret the concept of “light” in less literal ways.  Kristin Cliburn’s series of four acrylic paintings blend tints of saturated hues, indicating a light source through color alone.  They are quite beautiful, and Cliburn has struck an interesting balance.  Her hand is just evident enough that these canvases feel lovingly handmade rather than cold and airbrushed.  Slightly less successful are Barbara Jackson’s paintings of lights “in the dark.”  They look like aerial views of a city at night, but the color isn’t nuanced or transformative enough to communicate a unique perspective.

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Kristin Cliburn

On the other end of the value scale are Liz Ward’s meticulous line drawings.  They float above a slightly mottled background.  The drawings themselves are very still and precise with nary a misplaced mark, but the color of the background creates an interesting optical effect.  The very subtle hues used to create it are so close to one another that they seem to almost vibrate, adding a lot of action to the otherwise staid works.

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Liz Ward detail

The back room focuses primarily on the two dimensional, but Thomas Glassford’s garish neon plastics make a brief foray into sculptural territory.  I mean garish in the kindest way possible here, as his sleek minimal forms balance the material’s eye-popping tackiness.  It’s just that kind of balance that makes his work interesting and humorous; always a twist of kitsch in an otherwise pristine form.  In this way, Glassford’s pieces best exemplify the attitude of this exhibit about light.  It’s a simple, unifying theme, but I get the impression that both the curator and the artists have picked up that theme and examined it from every side, illuminating both the space and the viewers.

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Muddy Mural at Rice

This week we in the Artstroller clan came barreling down from the mountaintop of a successful art show into a dreary world of cough drops and bubblegum flavored antibiotics.  We’ve been sick as dogs. Sunday we were finally well enough to crawl out from under our piles of Kleenex and visit the new installation at Rice Gallery, where Yasuke Asai has slathered the gallery’s  walls and floor with a rollicking mural that equally references  neolithic cave-painting, cartoon animation, and elementary school science books.

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The joyful energy of Asai’s murals might have assaulted our bleary eyes had they not been painted in such subtle tones.  His limited palette derives from Houston’s own ‘natural color,’ because Asai uses strictly clay and mud mined from the area.  There is a deep bluish gray representing Sugarland,  a rosy terra-cotta from Buffalo Bayou, as well as thirteen browns and oranges from Conroe alone.  As with any restricted palette, our own perception of these distinctions is heightened.  The subtle undertones of green, blue, and orange become more evident in proximity to one another.

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The imagery of the mural reflects Asai’s interest in the relationship between terrestrial and subterranean.  His undulating waves at times reveal what look like cross-sections of the earth, or a body.  Within these cavities are delicate little deer-like or birdlike animals.  The whole thing practically writhes with the bodies, claws, and eyes of creatures.  This rich, organic tapestry oozes onto the floor, with openings for viewers to insert themselves into, so that we can literally see ourselves as part of this continuum.

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While Asai’s medium (Houston’s very own dirt) gives this mural a built-in specificity, the imagery doesn’t seem at all Houston-specific.  What we are instead seeing is Asai’s own personal mythology, a world of slithering and prancing organisms that seem as much a part of the earth as they are entities living on it.  What this variety and vivacity does is remind us of the indomitable power of the natural world.  It’s a magical use of mud, inhabiting that space between nature and human imposition, reminding us of our own inherent wildness.

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After the Fair

20140921_200218As an artist who also writes about art, I’m in a position to understand the staggering amount of time and unrecognized energy that goes into producing a piece of art. This can be excruciating when a work that is obviously labored-over just isn’t interesting or relevant. It’s equally frustrating to see the art-equivalent of Kim Kardashian, a gorgeously fabricated but vapid piece that seems to embody all of the most cynical aspects of art making. These second types are far more likely to travel to art fairs, of which Houston has just experienced two in three weeks. The second and smaller of the two, The Houston Fine Arts Fair closed up shop this very evening. We visited after closing hours, to help Tommy Gregory remove vinyl from the HAA booth, and it was my favorite fair experience to date.

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Tattooed art-handlers on boom lifts glided through the booths, ducking under track lighting. Gallerinas in form hugging dresses disassembled installations while funky-glasses-wearing owners oversaw. Replicas of midcentury furniture and lucite chairs provided respite for the stiletto-weary. All around the increasingly frantic tearing of industrial-sized plastic wrap provided a soundtrack.

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In the midst of this, art could be seen. It wasn’t properly lit anymore. Some of it was half-wrapped. Other pieces sat dejectedly in a dim corner, awaiting proper crates. It wasn’t propped up by all the fair-accoutrements, these whirlwind white cubes that pop up for purposes of selling guns or Christmas ornaments or any other niche-but-expensive item one might seek to purchase at a convention center. In this moment of transition each piece struck me as a fresh delight. When all of the shop-presentation was removed, I could again see them as their makers must have. So perhaps instead of going grumblingly to each flashy art affair, I’d do better to remember the audacity (and tenacity) it takes to make a piece of art in the first place.

This kid is an excellent vinyl-peeler, fyi.

This kid is an excellent vinyl-peeler, fyi.

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Robleto at the Menil

The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed, Dario Robleto’s latest exhibition at the Menil Collection fills one modestly sized room.  But in that single room, the artist manages to create an atmosphere that feels rarefied, almost holy.  Some artists play to the awe of their audience, creating works that are so large or heavy or phenomenally crafted that we can’t help but gawk.  Robleto is a magician, able to stir this sense of awe by combining equal parts yearning, mystery, and discovery.  I would consider him a conceptual artist, but he is particularly adept at giving concept corporeality, and his specific vernacular (he uses objects that hearken to the dawn of modern medical technology) is pitch perfect.  

 

courtesy of  Menil Facebook page

courtesy of Menil Facebook page

The central piece in the room is a massive walnut table, lit by the golden nostalgic light of Edison bulbs.  Their lovely, weak filaments gleam against the fine surfaces of the installation: domed glass, prematurely aging paper articles, and many oddly-shaped shells.  The “shells” are apparently vinyl albums that have spent years underwater, trading their auditory information for a kind of geometric dimensionality.  The paper articles refer to the events surrounding lost NASA space-probes .  In reading their chronology, we watch them go silent, swallowed by the enormity of the universe.  There are also references to the building of the first artificial heart.  

 

courtesy of Menil facebook page

courtesy of Menil facebook page

Exploration, loss, and the enduring mystery of life are constant themes in the entire exhibition.  Robleto shows us the groping nature of science, which for all its seeming mastery over death leaves a trail of bodies in its wake.  Rather than balking at these horrors, he presents them with the tenderness of religious ritual.  In one wall case, he presents books, daguerreotypes, and diagrams that map out scientist’s attempts to find the physical evidence of emotion and thought.

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Another display presents some of the earliest recordings of human hearts.  Through headphones we can listen to the muffled beats of the hearts of a mother and her babies as they are born in 1863, or the dronelike hum of the first artificial heart (which kept its user alive for five weeks) in 2013.  I must note here that this was Clementine’s favorite element.  Her eyes grew wide as she exclaimed, “oh…loud!”     

 

As information-packed as these displays are, we get the sense that they are carefully curated.  Robleto’s exhaustive research is paired with a visual sense of the marvelous.  Every detail serves to immerse us deeper in his narrative.  In this small room at the Menil we are struck with awe, not of the grandeur of objects but of the amazing fact of our own existence.  We are suspended in this weird space between past and present, between the glory of discovery and the vast mystery of the world.  In some ways, it is possible to feel smaller next to these objects than any room-filling sculpture.  

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We Don’t Need No Education…

tinyOne tricky thing about writing a blog is resisting the urge to begin with, “oh, and another thing…”  Constant ranting might be cathartic, but it doesn’t exactly make for the best reading experience. And after all, if a tree complains in the woods and there’s no one there to hear it…well, you get the idea.  I’ll bet you’re expecting a ‘but’ here, and there probably would be except that events this very week have transpired to calm my irksome inner whiner.

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Some time ago, I was giving an ‘artist talk,’ (no lecterns or AV equipment, just a sparsely attended gallery thing) when someone brought up the subject of ‘art education.’  This was in the context of a discussion on city-owned works, as in, “if the city is going to spend money on art, shouldn’t it be on art education?” Thankfully I suppressed my urge to scoff.  (Scoffing’s not recommended when addressing the few folks who are kind enough to show up to your little gallery thing).  My response was to turn the discussion fine-artwards.  After all, if the art these kids are being ‘educated’ on is purely historical, then how can it ever truly speak to their experience? That just perpetuates the idea that art is made by “other people,” not anyone you could ever know or interact with.  Cities should spend money on local contemporary art and artists because contemporary folks, (kids and grown ups alike) need the shock of pure pleasure that a good public piece can provide.  And people should know that artists are hardworking, normal people that live among them.

Troy Stanley's truck

Troy Stanley’s truck

So: back to this week’s spirit bolstering events.  On Wednesday, HAA quite literally rolled out the newest pieces in the city’s collection.  These were in the form of six recycle trucks, wrapped in vinyl designed by as many artists.  The trucks have already been roaming the streets for a few weeks now, so we’ve spotted a couple in transit.  Ariane Roesch’s looks almost quilted, and Troy Stanley’s like it’s carved out of a single block of milled wood.  Kia Neill’s digitally altered photograph adds a dimensional twistedness to the flank of one truck, and Aaron Munoz’ apocalyptic wry humor is evident in his mechanized bomber birds.  These trucks are pure fun, but what really stayed with me is their impact on the non-art folks.  Their drivers posed for pics with the artists, obvious pride undiminished by the August heat.  We heard stories of people in neighborhoods coming out to greet the trucks.  In a way this is the perfect public project,  these pieces will travel into neighborhoods that have very little in the way of public art, and hey transform an ordinary fact of daily life into a moment of reflection and fun.  

detail of Kia Neill's truck

detail of Kia Neill’s truck

What stuck with me was something HAA’s Matthew Lennon said about the importance of creating jobs for artists in this city.  This project easily could have veered into the territory of “art education,” by becoming a contest for schoolchildren or the like.  Of course that would be wonderful for the child who won the contest, even life-altering.  But what happens in giving contemporary artists these kinds of opportunities is that the entire city has potential to change.  And this is what public art should be about, not ‘education,’ in the dry, didactic, top-down way we tend to look at it.  I would even venture that encouraging people to look at the world differently is education, but it puts the tools in the hands of the learner.  Education, museums, art (even public art), shouldn’t be some medicine that we have to hold our noses and swallow down, they should be generative, self-perpetuating forces that transform our experience.  All of that starts with a little unexpected aesthetic pleasure.  

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Pablo-Gimenez Zappiola’s truck (left) and CORE design studio’s (right)

Kids and Art

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Recently Jake Chapman, famous for his controversial installation pieces with brother Dinos, stoked the perpetually seething flames of internet rage with his comments about children looking at art. His statements ranged, the most incendiary about a child looking at a Pollock. [It’s] “like saying… it’s as moronic as a child”, said Chapman, adding “children are not human yet.” Since children looking at art is kinda our bread and butter at the Artstroller, Chapman’s comments got me thinking. In a sense, he’s right. There is some futility in taking a child to an art gallery. Art (especially art like Chapman’s) is about raising the level of spectacle to the highest degree. Through spectacle, artists can elicit in adults that thing that children take for granted: wonder.

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It’s not that art is “too good” for kids, but the other way around. When you’re two, everything in the world holds fantastic possibility, there are no limits. If everyone around you is making art, there’s no reason to think it isn’t as natural as breathing or eating. Of course learning is a process of paring this endless possibility down, assigning a hierarchy to objects and people and thoughts. It’s both exhilarating and painful to watch a child learn, because knowledge unlocks some doors (reading, communicating) and slams others shut (falling, learning patience.) Wading through the Jesus Soto Houston Penetrable at the MFAH yesterday morning clarified this distinction for me. I thought about Latin American op-art, minimalism, the struggles of being a museum preparator who has to install this thing, or a guard who spends entire days untangling plastic tubes. But Clementine tried at least six different ways of walking through this installation. She “found” other bright-eyed kids inside and mimicked them or startled them or was startled by them.

Jay Shin at Barbara Davis

Jay Shin at Barbara Davis

Ed Wilson

Ed Wilson

So here’s the secret: when I lug Clementine through hushed galleries to look at art that is full of the best examples of adult “wonder,” it’s not so much for her absorption of those objects. I don’t see museums or galleries as a kind of medicine or health food; something to do because it’s good for you. Kids don’t need to have their minds cracked open by spectacle, because they’re already there. But in order to function normally in life, she’ll have to close a few of those doors…already has. It’s my hope that by making art a part of our “normal” experience, she’ll find that transcendent balance between knowledge and wonder. That’s a thrilling place to be, and for me the only essential qualification for being an artist.

Inside Paul Kittleson's whale

Inside Paul Kittleson’s whale

Special thanks to Anne Ferrer for sending me the link to Jake Chapman’s comments.