Toppling Symbols Midweek

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The Houston “season” has commenced.  In the past week we’ve attended no less than six openings, some with and some without the youngest art stroller.  After last night’s HOMEcore opening of painter Nick Barbee, I’m firmly convinced that more kids should come to art shows, especially when they’re held in brightly lit, vibrantly graffitied spaces with a DJ spinning great dance music.  (I’m aware that this is a pretty specific set of circumstances, and as I was typing recalled a particularly gulp-inducing moment at the HFAF that proved three-year-olds and glass sculpture don’t belong in the same space.) So maybe this doesn’t apply across the board, but this show certainly had something for everyone.

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Barbee’s work was just casual and self-deprecating enough to work well in such a space.  It was serious content that didn’t take itself too seriously. The small(ish) installation of black, white and gray paintings was a quiet exercise in subversion, surprisingly poignant against the formerly-rebellious-now-mainstream graffiti letters.  The straightforward compositions depict a range of historical monument-type statues: equestrians and proud, middle-distance-focused generals.  These timely subjects (in the wake of this summer’s confederate flag debate, and closer to home, the removal of confederate-related statues from UT’s public commons) are treated to Barbee’s biting wit in the form of re-imagined inscriptions on their pedestals.  They’re degraded symbols of a fallen empire.  What keeps them from being one-liners is their subtly awkward style, a formal choice that allows for the tiniest bit of empathy with their fall from grace.

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When Nick Barbee inscribes, “Tough Titties” at the base of some 19th century statue, it’s a funny reference to way many people react to the debasement of their heroes.  But these paintings are also a reminder that reimagining the symbols and images of a former regime is the simplest part of the task. (I can’t forget the relatively easy dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad, but it certainly didn’t usher in an era free from repression)  We can’t simply tell history to take a walk and remake the world from scratch like painters (and three-year-olds) can, but symbols are a good place to start.

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Hello Old Friend

In the 90s there was a skit on SNL about a bunch of big-haired southern ladies visiting the Louvre.  My sisters and I referred to these types as “Q-tip heads,” since their hair was so firmly lacquered and cottony.  They were a type we knew all too well, having spent the majority of our non-school hours in a big southern baptist church halfway between Fort Worth and Dallas.  My favorite joke in this skit is drawled by Cheri O’Teri, “Why would I come all the way to Paris to see these paintings when I have them on my placemats at ho-ome?”  It was a reminder that consumerism (especially that particularly tasteless brand of consumerism vaunted in the suburbs) had replaced culture in America, and it was funny. I’m sure it was especially so to the art-historically educated, whose second-favorite pastime (after reading mind-numbingly dense academic texts) is scoffing at the kitsch appropriation of famous paintings for reproduction on any number of household items.

(click if you want to see the SNL southern gals visit NYC)

The only problem with the joke is that it ignores the idea of ‘visual resonance,’ which is one of my personal favorite art-theory word mashups.  It brings to mind the resonance of sound, the physical vibration of a booming drum that lingers both in the ears and in the body long after the striking of the instrument.  In art, it’s the reason why symbols are so effective.  They become like a visual echo, a shorthand for some idea gong that was previously struck in our brains.

Visual resonance is especially important when it comes to viewing famous works of art; we pay special attention to a work that has been reproduced over and over again.  (Hence the long lines to see a tiny portrait of a certain Italian noblewoman at the afore-mentioned Louvre)  If it’s on our placemats, or our coffee mug, we know it in it’s shorthand form- as a symbol for what is culturally important.  Which brings me to the present exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, and a special moment of “visual resonance” for me.

courtesy Kimbell website

courtesy Kimbell website

As a little girl, John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Lady Agnew Lochnaw stared with intensity from the cover of a perfumed book of poetry owned by my mother.  Her face was both straightforward and mysterious, and her clothes were a gauzy contrast to her unquestioning, serious gaze.  I spent a lot of time trying to disentangle the love poems inside the book, but not one line remains in my memory.  And yet when I saw Lady Agnew Lochnaw from a Metroplex billboard advertising the exhibition, it was like bumping into an old friend.  In person, I learned details of the painting that were incapable of being reproduced: like the electric blue that pinpoints the color of light reflected on diamonds, and the exact murky shade of Lochnaw’s intelligent eyes.  It was soul-shaking proof of the power of visual resonance.  The echo of that image in my mind had created a unique pathway for me to experience the piece, both as a cultural symbol and a personal one.  Instead of encountering it without background, I had the luxury of being surprised by the physical beauty and mastery of Sargent’s painting.

This isn’t to say that we can’t fully experience art without a foundation of visual resonance of course, but rather that we are especially attuned to these often reproduced images; we know their rhythms and can better suss out nuances in the physical works.  This is a special kind of pleasure, even though it takes a bit of the fun out of scoffing at the kitsch.

She loved the audio gallery guide

She loved the audio gallery guide

It Takes Everything

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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.

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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)

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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.

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It’s not art, but…

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.

HMNS blog

HMNS blog

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.

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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

All tuckered out

I Texas Art Car

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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.

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This was my favorite.  A kind of steam-punk underwater alien theme which spouted bubbles

This was my favorite. A kind of steam-punk underwater alien theme which spouted bubbles

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Houston Grand Opera's car

Houston Grand Opera’s car

An end-of-parade popscicle

An end-of-parade popscicle

Small Miracles

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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.

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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.

FullSizeRenderFor 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

Beth Wray, Liza Littlefield, Casey Gregory, and the irrepressible Clementine Gregory

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A Brief Visit to Infinity

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.

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image from Houston Public Media

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.

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This post is dedicated to the memory of my Abuela, Berenice Sanchez (1936-2015)

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Friday Night Lights

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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.

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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

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

photo courtesy of HAS/John Bowling

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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