Black on White Walls

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The whitewashed stone floors of Avis Frank Gallery are somehow reminiscent of a resort.  The whole space feels like respite from the raucous street, including its own boisterously graffiti-ed exterior.  I’ve seen some interesting shows here, but nothing as striking as the contrast provided by Benito Huerta’s latest Crown of Creation.  These paintings, prints and drawings are dark, both in color and in concept.  Although there is some wry humor sprinkled throughout, the work is weighted by its blackness and the seriousness of its historical references.  But Houston is the home of the Rothko Chapel- we understand what kind of revelations await us in the darkness.

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Huerta’s strengths are not in creating entirely new images, but rather in re-framing iconic ones.  One powerful example of this is Intermission, a museum-sized painting of the tops of the twin towers in tonal grays and black.  Smoke curdles in menacing and complicated patterns around them.  Floating in a cinematic limbo atop this image is the word INTERMISSION.  This simple pairing of word and image opens a Pandora’s box of associations.  It refers to the World Trade Center attack relative to the events that preceded and followed it.  9/11 remains a kind of severing moment in our collective consciousness, a single event that brutally altered the trajectory of historical events.  But underneath this layer of meaning is another, even more interesting one (at least for me), which is the idea that most Americans experience these events through media.  What kind of connection, (and therefore responsibility) do we feel in relation to attacks on our or perpetrated by our country?  These pertinent and abiding questions are emphasized in different proportions throughout Crown of Creation.

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Huerta’s interest in icons and symbols delves appropriately into the history of art as well.  The most colorful piece in the show is a reworking of a famous Gaugin piece,  the demure nude native girl glancing over her shoulder.  Most historians  wax poetic about Gaugin’s use of color in these Tahitian paintings, but Huerta has boiled the color down to to a cartoon-like process palette of red with blue contour lines, entitled Shock and Awe.  He has adorned the girl with tattoos in the style of a biker chick.  Gaugin captured his subject during the heyday of colonialism, but Huerta’s piece links this thread with Bush’s slogan for the initial Iraq invasion.  You can choose to view this piece through the lens of hindsight or from Gaugin’s position, but neither vantage point is particularly comfortable.

 

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The breadth of this exhibition is a strength,  giving us a chance to see a sampling of some 20 years of Huerta’s work, a period in which he has collected icons and symbols, turning them over and around like another artist might repeat a brushstroke.  And like any artist whose accumulated experience lends the resulting work a certain effortlessness, Huerta’s at first disparate references (film, history, art, currency) have become finely tuned.  A simple word like Fin takes on a life of its own in this work.  It is the sum total of the imagery, the apocalyptic warning,  and the end.

 

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