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.

Blaffer Part II

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Francesca Dimattio’s ceramic sculptures and paintings give a merry nod to abstract expressionism, especially such clunky medium-fetishists as Peter Voulkos and Philip Guston.  But she’s too aware of the vast history of her medium(s) to fret over that boys’ club for too long.  The sculptures offer lively riffs on ceramic tropes: there’s a quirky little Wedgwood blue teapot-like form, and sinewy animal and human figures curl as graciously as any Han dynasty dragon along the edges of several of the sculptures.  But it’s her simultaneous mastery of these historical bits and her wacky irreverance that make these works so breathtakingly contemporary.         

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Two pairs of overweight, overwrought sculptures balance daintily in the main upstairs gallery: a bit like Disney’s tutu-ed hippopotomi frozen in place.  The lovingly sculpted figurines on their surface are in some places so globbed with multiple glazes as to be barely recognizable.  (I have to admit it was Clementine who pointed out a small  “doggy” to me)  

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The largest single work in the show is a three-thousand-pound chandelier hoisted in the middle of the smaller upstairs gallery.  Like Dimattio’s tiny teapots, the chandelier winks at the idea of “function,” a deeply fraught issue among all ceramicists/potters/ceramists/academics with a focus on ceramics.  We know she knows about all that malarkey, (she shows us by perching single Edison bulbs on the end of each impossibly heavy arm of the chandelier) but she’s commiserating slyly us. Sure, this “light fixture” alleviates the dimness in the room, but the primary function of those piddly bulbs is to illuminate the splashy, gorgeous ceramics on which they are perched.  There are candy-cane striped ropes, delicate chinoiserie, and brutally chunky slabs mingling in the golden light.

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Dimattio’s paintings are really good, too, but don’t embrace the wild abandon as freely as her three-dimensional works.  The patterns and references just aren’t as twistedly specific as the ceramic pieces.  Her real strength is letting loose the staid conventions of a medium that’s possibly older than painting.  It’s as if Dimattio were throwing a really great party,  and all the grumpy set-in-their-ways opposing camps finally let loose and ended up dancing with lampshades on their heads.  

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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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