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.
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.
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.