Kid in the Council Room

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.

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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

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.

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Throwback at the Modern

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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.

Barbara Kruger courtesy of Fort Worth Modern

Barbara Kruger courtesy of Fort Worth Modern

 

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.”

Robert Mapelthorpe

Robert Mapelthorpe

Jeff Koons courtesy of Fort Worth Modern

Jeff Koons courtesy of Fort Worth Modern


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.

Kenny Scharf

Kenny Scharf

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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