She exclaimed, 2010, dimensions variable, cast latex, approximately 36 x 100 inches, in situ at PH Designs offices.
She exclaimed, 2010, dimensions variable, cast latex, approximately 36 x 100 inches, in situ at PH Designs offices.
The Polski Fiat Prank: Damir
2017,Gouache on paper,
Donald Trump, cockroaches and bat guano — all part of David Snyder’s work on view at the Galveston Artist’s Residency. Trump’s voice is center stage in “Knock-off Oracle, Undecider’s -Anthem…And a Disaster, After,” Snyder’s sprawling installation in the main gallery, curated by the GAR in collaboration with Rice Gallery’s Joshua Fischer. The bat guano and roaches are part of Snyder’s video The Guano (2016) which, screened in the back gallery, presents an absurdist yet quasi-plausible repurposing of old Blockbuster video stores. Snyder has a penchant for American dreck.
Walking into the main gallery, you see a mass of haphazard wooden constructions while you hear the whirring of a motor and the clunking of wood. Underneath the sounds is an ominously distorted voice, the kind of electronic vocal camouflage news stations use when interviewing a hit man in silhouette. The voice is Donald Trump’s, emanating from an old boxy television suspended in the air from a wooden beam. Its screen points to the floor, displaying video that melds the molten orange surface of the sun with a glazed doughnut. Could that roiling orangey-ness and the nutrition-bereft fried food be a Trump reference? Surely not!
The video monitor is in the center of the gallery, moving up and down over a spider-like construction that appears to be made from scrap wood — one-by-twos and random chunks of plywood. Sticky-looking accretions of sawdust cling to the pieces. Strange robot-like figures surround the structure, with boxy “heads” and glowing eyes, turned down as if in reverent obeisance. Their bodies are made from old shutters and strips of wood plastered with blue-green shop towels. Their box heads are stuccoed and open-sided, revealing lit table or ceiling lights embedded within them. Their lights illuminate plastic bottles of soda in unnatural shades of blue, green and red that protrude from the boxes to create the “bulging eyes” of the creatures.
It feels like some postapocalyptic worship site, the materials looted from homes and scavenged from Home Depot and Family Dollar after the Trump nuclear holocaust. Behind the circle of “worshippers” are three old couches turned on end and reading like couch-potato versions of the megaliths of Stonehenge.
Snyder is definitely a proponent of the Rube Goldbergian school of sculpture. An old ice cream freezer motor creates the clunking sound of the wood. It moves a lever that knocks into articulated wood pieces connected to the beam from which the TV hangs. A grotty ceramic bathroom sink scavenged from a demolished crack house counterweights the TV. The ice cream freezer motor was apparently a garage sale find; old masking tape is still stuck to it with the Sharpie-scrawled message “Motor works, rust in container, as is, $5.00 ice cream.” There are other notations on the structures — carpenter measurements and notes-to-self scribbles from the artist that say things like “bad idea” and “big mistake.”
You can stand under the video, in the center of the spider-like hut structure, and view it by looking up through a plastic tray filled with circulating water. The ice cream motor mechanism moves it up and down overhead in a vaguely hypnotic manner, the sun burns, the glazed doughnut fades in and out and Trump’s voice intones, “I am the messenger.” And if that isn’t unsettling enough, a viewer has the vague feeling that Snyder’s structure isn’t especially structurally sound. The TV might just fall on your freaking face as you gaze transfixed at the fiery Trump-doughnut-orb. And maybe that’s a fitting fate.
As you move to the back gallery, don headphones and sit down to watch The Guano, the video’s defunct Blockbuster stores, bat guano and roaches feel like a variation on a theme. The 12-minute 44-second video opens like a cross between a political ad and a late-night get-rich-quick infomercial. The voice-over lays out grim statistics — seven million unemployed, deficits and waning industry. It notes that Blockbuster made $5.9 billion in profits in 2004 and shut down stores in 2014, leaving 1,700 vacant stores of 5,500 square feet each. The narrator dubs the stores the “waste product of a faster, lighter entertainment industry.”
As in all good infomercials, the terrible problem is presented and followed by the amazing solution — in this case, bat shit. The video proposes retrofitting the old Blockbusters into high-yield bat shit factories. With bat shit, i.e., guano fertilizer, retailing, as it does, at $8 a pound, the profit potential and job opportunities are amazing! The ecological advantages of bat shit versus industrial fertilizers are laid out. The feeding of the bats is described, and animations show proposed “roach cannons” to turn the symbiotic supply of cockroaches moving through the bat shit into “dynamic food bait” because apparently bats have to eat stuff that’s moving.
It’s a goofy-ass video with a lot of research, spiffy 3-D animation and found clips of things like American flags, bats peeing, people at business meetings, roach larvae, factories, old Blockbuster commercials, Mel Gibson in The Patriot and hyenas tearing apart a carcass. When the voice says, “There aren’t concerns about flooding the market with bat shit,” we see new footage of a woman wading through rushing brown floodwaters. It parodies the style of persuasive videos with an idea that sounds plausible and ridiculous at the same time.
The video wraps up by waxing lyrical about America and its resilience, giving as an example the Donner party’s “rebranding” for survival. It closes with that stilted video of Ted Cruz and his wife and children. Cruz’s wife, to quote Samantha Bee, looks as if she’s being held hostage. The ending image is a still of Paul Ryan in a muscle shirt, lifting weights. The announcer asks the question “As a nation can we afford not to go bat shit?”
Snyder takes the castoff, objectionable and absurd and turns it into witty and provocative work. Just like turning shit to gold…
Oscar Muñoz conjures up a mysterious figure in his masterful video installation, El Coleccionista (The Collector). On view at Sicardi Gallery, it is the first U.S. presentation of the 2016 work. In the downstairs exhibition space, videos projected over an entire wall give viewers the feeling they are leaving the gallery and entering the private room of an unknown collector of photos. Using elements that deceptively seem simple but are technically challenging, Muñoz combines three-dimensional objects with projected images. The artist gives us a wall-length shelf that appears to hold dozens of stacks of photographs of people. Periodically, a figure with dark hair appears and walks in front of them, changing one image for another, reorganizing, rearranging, adding and subtracting.
We only see the figure from behind. Clad in a shapeless black sweater and pants, it could be male or female; we don’t know for sure. The only sound is the crisp rustling of paper being rearranged. Muñoz has blended real-world objects with video projections to great effect in the past, and it works amazingly well here. The shallow, almost 40-foot-long shelf runs the length of the back wall of the gallery, and holds variously sized pieces of heavy white paper (2” x 3” to around 5” x 7”), leaned against the wall in stacks. The piece is realized with five separate projections that line up to create the illusion that the collector is actually walking back and forth, handling the photographs. Each projection of a photo is perfectly aligned with a similarly sized paper to create the illusion that the photo exists in the real world of the gallery space. There are even tiny bits of photos peeking out from beneath other photos.
The images are varied, but they are all portraits of one kind or another. All the images are black and white, which visually unifies them. Some faces you recognize, some faces you think you should recognize, and some faces make you ask questions, e.g., the one that appears to be a man’s fleshy severed head resting on a table.
There are images from art history: Caravaggio’s head of Medusa, Salome with the head of John the Baptist, Diane Arbus’s photo of spooky twins (also the inspiration for the ghostly sisters in The Shining) and Luc Tuymans’s equally creepy painting of Condoleezza Rice.
There are stills from films: Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange with his eyelids pried open, Yul Brynner as Ramses II in The Ten Commandments, and a woman who might be Vivian Leigh.
There are snapshots that look as if they are from the files of the disappeared: Is there a mother in Argentina still wondering what happened to that son or daughter?
There are photos of people who look like war criminals: Is that guy Pol Pot? Is that man a spy disguised with a fake beard?
There are indistinct photos of children: Who were they, why are they here? Did they live to grow up?
And there are photos of the dead. How and why did they die? Murder? Execution? Accident?
You try to get close enough to the photos to really scrutinize them, but when you get too close, you see the faint registration grid that underlies the images, and those images blur, becoming less clear than from a few feet away. It’s intriguing and frustrating at the same time. (There are also a couple of closely cropped images of faces near what look like fleshy shapes; you can’t tell if it’s some porn outtake, or a photographic equivalent of a Rorschach test and the full image is completely innocuous.)
I can’t quite figure out if the blur is intentional, a consequence of the technology or a glitch caused by focusing issues. There is a decent amount of light coming in from the two doorways into the gallery. I had a momentary urge to hang up a curtain to see if it made things more clear. The important thing is, however, that Muñoz is a master at drawing us into his world and making us want to know more.
A particularly interesting and unnerving aspect of the installation is that when you walk up to view the row of photos, you often find yourself looking over the shoulder of “the collector.” The shadow of your head is next to his, making you not just a viewer but also a participant. Sometimes he just walks past, startling you.
Beyond trying to identify the images, there is the urge to discern some system of organization. What is the rationale for placing these images next to each other? One category of photographs could be “people with their heads in their hands,” among them Susan Sontag, Oscar Wilde and the woman in Dorothea Lange’s iconic Migrant Mother.
In other groupings, you wonder, are these people victims? Are they perpetrators? Are they heroes? Are they villains? Out of all the images in the world, why did Muñoz select these and show them together — or is it purposely random?
El Coleccionista is 52 minutes long, and the more time you sit on the bench in the darkened gallery, listening to the scratchy sounds of the paper, the more you are drawn into Muñoz’s world. Is the collector a lone survivor in a postapocalyptic world, playing with and organizing images of people long dead and artworks long gone? Is he conducting a forensic analysis of what went wrong, or remembering what was lost? It reminds me of the incredible loneliness of the old man in the pristine Louis XVI bedroom at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, someone absolutely and eternally alone.
Or is “the collector” some omniscient and godlike figure, arranging, rearranging, and charting human history — this person appears at this time, disappears at this time? But if so, there is nothing cold and clinical about the collector. A feeling of empathy permeates all the work I have seen from Muñoz. El Coleccionista is filled with poignancy and compassion for what it is to be human.
I have seen too much art in recent years that runs to the sterile, purposely obscure and hermetic — expecting the viewer to work to divine something but without giving anything in return. What makes Muñoz such a powerful artist is that he makes visually generous art and yet leaves viewers to their own devices. Muñoz gives us a rich, well-crafted, evocative work and leaves us to it.
Thorsten Brinkmann collects random crap. A lot of artists collect random crap. Few, however, transform their gleanings so deftly and so evocatively. Brinkmann’s junk piles become a skewed world of decaying grandeur, opulence and nostalgia. His visual references run the gamut from the Renaissance to Dada. His photos, sculptures, videos and site-specific installation are on view at Rice Gallery in “The Great Cape Rinderhorn.”
For much of his work, Brinkmann costumes himself to create large photographs that at first glance read as Renaissance-era portraits. Then you realize that the “knight” is wearing a freaking coal bucket on his head, and the decorative plumes are really a grubby mop. His “doublet” incorporates a 1970s table runner, his gauntlet is an old ski glove and he’s clutching a chair leg instead of a sword. But the colors are so rich, the pose so perfect that it’s the illusion that stays with you as an afterimage even though you’ve already ID’d the anachronistic component parts.
The sumptuously patterned wallpaper that covers the gallery creates a similar illusion. Close inspection reveals that it is a photograph of objects arranged to create a pattern over a pink ground, with red/old canes, a white ceramic pipe, fragments of an enamel light fixture, a steak knife with a pearlescent handle, and part of a coat rack. The photograph was then digitally mirrored and repeated to create the wallpaper.
Other Brinkmann photos are hung on the gallery walls; there’s one that looks like an equestrian portrait. A chest of drawers serves as the “horse.” One assumes Brinkmann cut a hole in the top to sit inside it. A moss-green bedspread that looks like a decorative horse blanket surrounds him. Brinkmann holds a red coat rack as a lance. He has an affinity for artist studio videos, Bruce Nauman’s ’60s offerings in particular. But Brinkmann always covers his head in his photos (here with a red-and-white-striped trash can) to eliminate himself as a character. His body becomes just another prop.
You can see the origins of the artist’s work with objects in a 2003-04 video screened in the RG Cubicle Video Space around the corner from the gallery. The video, Gut Ding will es so (approximately “Good things want it this way”), only shows Brinkmann from the neck down, unless he bends into the camera. He physically interacts with his objects: He sits down in a cabinet and flips it backwards; he plays with mini-blinds that open and close as he raises and lowers them, his foot on the pull string. He “swims” in front of the camera on a carpet dolly, slowly inching himself forward by moving his arms and kicking his legs. He snakes his upper body through the open arms of a chair in the kind of stunt my kids would try, likely necessitating a call to the fire department. Brinkmann’s childlike openness and playfulness are on full display as he stands inside a big cardboard box and spins in circles until dizzy.
Rice Gallery is renowned for its site-specific installations, and Brinkmann’s allows you not just to view his world but to interact with it physically yourself. Back in the main gallery, a huge plywood shipping crate rests in the middle of the floor. (A giant fiberglass cow horn, locally sourced at General Supply and Equipment, rests on top.) You can enter it through a low door, not just the kind you duck through — it’s at a height that requires a deep knee bend for those of middling size or full-on crawling for the tall. Inside are rows of comfortable chairs and a video projection of Brinkmann in a Renaissance-esque getup striking various “royal” poses reminiscent of period portraiture. He’s got a dented white trash can on his head that he keeps adjusting as if straightening it. You know you are sitting in a plywood box, but the space feels very cozy, a feeling oddly enhanced by the musty smell of aged, moldering stuff. The ceiling is “paneled” with salvaged kitchen cabinet doors like some ancient palazzo. The walls are covered with layers of vintage and aged wallpaper. (Slopping things with coffee is one of Brinkmann’s patina-generating tactics.) Small Brinkmann photo portraits incorporating things like planters and tennis racket covers as head gear hang on the papered walls.
There is a cabinet in the back of the crate room that opens to reveal an even smaller door. It leads to a winding tunnel papered with striped wallpaper. You must crawl along the carpeted floor (pushing your laptop bag ahead of you if you happen to be reviewing the show) until you get to a room at the end of the tunnel. Here is the source of the 1930s fox-trot you have been hearing: It’s a bedroom that feels like a burrow. The floor is layered with fake “Oriental” rugs; there is a four-poster bed with a cheap tapestry bedspread that fills up most of the room. Opposite the bed is a dresser with a lamp and an old TV that is the source of the fox-trot music you began to hear as you crawled through the tunnel. It’s playing stop-motion video of different objects moving around the floor of the room and on shelves to a 1930s tune that Shazam tells me is Al Bowlly’s “Guilty.” It’s like a Ziegfeld Follies number but with random objects instead of showgirls: A towel bracket, a chain and a dish dance jerkily along in circles and lines.
Metal shelves stand against one wall, featuring an old toaster oven as well as the objects from the video and others, like a cat head ashtray. You wonder if they are going to start moving, keeping you company in the space. Random old clothes and cotton work shirts hang in a partially curtained closet. Next to it is one of those old butt-shaking exercise machines. A mannequin head rests atop it, altered into a Dadaist sculpture reminiscent of Raoul Hausmann, with Brinkmann’s additions of a bottle brush, a basket and a candle snuffer.
Brinkmann scavenged his installation materials here in Houston, but he homed in on dark colors and objects that evoke an early-20th-century Germanic vibe. Next to a record player and near a stack of albums is a gem titled Wir Bleiben Beim Bier, which roughly translates as “We stay with beer.”
Part of the ceiling is dropped — an upholstered panel with three round holes cut in it is suspended from the ceiling. You pop your head up through the holes and see there are various sculptural objects created from things like a mannequin foot, casts of fingers and small lampshades. It has a very surreal vibe. The walls are hung with more Brinkmann photos. It’s like a tiny private museum constructed by the occupant. You feel as if you’re in the lair of some genially mad eccentric, maybe an old art history professor gone off the rails. There is a palpable sense of nostalgia. It feels melancholic to the viewer, but you can imagine the character who lives here is content and safe in his little room of memories.
Someone back in my home state of Arkansas told me about a once well-known architect who just went off the deep end. He became homeless, and his family couldn’t get him back, but this person told me the guy lived in a wonderfully designed hut he had constructed for himself under a bridge in Little Rock. It is no doubt a tragic story, but there is an appealing element of freedom to it; it reminds you of constructing forts when you were a kid, of making your own worlds out of junk your parents didn’t want and that was therefore up for grabs.
The surname Brinkmann, according to a Dutch friend of mine with the same name, referred to people in northern Germany living on the edge of a settlement and also on the edge of society. The worlds Thorsten Brinkmann creates are those of someone at the edges of conventional society, someone who sees the true potential in things cast off by more ordinary citizens, someone happy to be living on the brink.
Running the gamut from wonky abstraction to goofy realism, the galleries of Houston’s Isabella Court have some pretty great paintings on view.
Inman Gallery presents the hard-won abstraction of David Aylsworth in “Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.” The artist’s forms have a kind of elegant, mid-century vibe — there’s a sparing swoosh of a dusty teal and an arc of reddish orange in Upon His Caterpillar Knee, 2015, an archway of mauve interrupted by an angled jade green shape in Big Cocoon, 2015. His compositions are set against predominantly white grounds, the edges are clean but the colors aren’t flat, and they’re slightly brushy, with other hues worked in or showing through. It gives them a richness and body.
Aylsworth interacts with a painting like a dog with a bone. He just won’t let it go until he’s gotten everything he can out of it. Every painting has the layers of those that came before, the ghosts of forms repeatedly altered or eradicated by another coat of paint.
The canvases, with their brush marks, lumps and slubs, remind me of the gunky layers of paint you find on old wooden houses — the kind nobody ever strips down, the kind where they just keep adding coats of paint in an attempt to cover up the flaws. This description may make the paintings sound awful, but they aren’t. They’re almost always wonderful. The texture of these surfaces works because they have integrity. Aylsworth isn’t just slopping something on for “textured effect”; the surfaces are the direct result of his creative process. And the residue of tried and rejected forms becomes a player in the final result. Of course, until a painting is out of his hands and in the home of its new owner, it may easily have a few more iterations, even after being exhibited. That is the work of an artist with high expectations, constantly trying to get it “right.”
There is a similar sense of labor underlying Clark Derbes’s exhibition “Square Dance” at Devin Borden Gallery. Derbes is showing wall pieces and sculptural objects that act like a kind of shaped canvas for his paintings. The works that strike you first are the skewed polyhedrons of wood placed on pedestals and plinths around the gallery. They have oddly faceted sides, blocks of wood roughly hewn with a chainsaw and then smoothed down at each angle with an orbital sander. The resulting objects are painted with irregular, multicolored grids as in Shake It Off, 2015. The visual interplay is quite amazing, these strangely loose geometric forms covered with more wonky geometry. It’s as if they’re meteorites from an artyMinecraft asteroid, one full of vivid color and skewed perspective.
The wall pieces are mainly slabs of wood with their thick edges cut at extreme angles, as if they were rectangular boxes squashed and distorted by some great weight. Derbes paints the slab edges out white, and sometimes, as in the 2015 Johnny Angel, creates a trompe l’oeil edge around the picture plane, conveying the illusion of another angle on what is actually a flat surface. The picture plane is filled with its own optically dynamic, warped pattern of colored geometric shapes. Derbes’s work is visually riveting, each piece drawing you in close to try to make sense of the space it occupies.
There are a few pieces that are less successful; these are the ones in which Derbes has left the surface rougher and the color paler and less defined. They feel kind of beachy and decorative; they lack the power of the more visually emphatic works. If there is an obvious new direction for Derbes to explore, it’s probably in scale. Everything seems to fall between ten inches and two feet in height. Seeing Derbes go really big once or twice would be interesting.
In “Simple Taste Is Popular” at Art Palace, Bill Willis and Bradley Kerl each solve the eternal “what to paint” question by selectively scavenging for found imagery. Willis culls most of his from vintage cookbooks or mid-century Italian food magazines. Kerl delves into flower photographs and girly playing cards. Their imagery and painting styles are different, but the work is close enough that showing them together may not be the best way to highlight either. The juxtaposition somehow mutes them both. This is especially true on the wall hung with Kerl’s brightly colored triptych of a naked girl playing cards on a tiger-striped patch of ground. Placed next to it are Willis’s fuzzily painted images of topless women with bouffant hair. You have to make an effort to view them separately in order to appreciate either.
But the wall that is hung salon-style with Willis’s untitled food paintings is fantastic. His images of carefully arranged meat products and molded gelatin are kitschy but also kind of loving and moody. They may spring from the artist’s wry sense of humor, but they’re ultimately more about making interesting paintings. Willis is tweaking his found images, playing with formal issues of composition, color and abstraction. The speckled cross sections of various pieces of salami become painted pattern rather than flecks of fat and flesh in a tube. The subjects are all softly rendered, as if viewed through a flattering lens. They’re often cropped abruptly off the canvas. The colors are wonderfully super-saturated — the rich red of pancetta stripes and tomatoes, the lurid phthalo green of an artichoke. The dishes are set against turquoise or hot pink grounds. Willis exaggerates the rich, unrestrained color of the mid-20th-century magazine printing.
In the 16th century, Netherlandish still life painters gave us images of newly discovered exotic foods. In the 21st century, Willis mines the dining aspirations of the 20th for these visually lush images, far removed from their original purpose.
In Kerl’s paintings, the colors are brighter and more pop than in Willis’s, and he sets his paint on the surface in thick, intentionally clunky strokes. His flower paintings (Four Florals, 2015, and the 2015 Floral Variant series) render the same image of flowering plants in various, slightly shifted color schemes. They are pretty great, the flowers and greenery so intensely hued and flatly rendered that they look like 1970s wallpaper.
Kerl’s girly images are less consistently successful. The small, clunky images of the playing cards on tiger ground are engagingly weird. The women’s faces are crudely rendered with a too-big brush, and the cards lean against some kind of specked fake stone ground. It’s a nice interplay of pattern and cheezy imagery.
A portrait of a topless woman hung in the gallery entry, Eight of Clubs, 2015, has intentionally goofy and badly painted eyes that are a little crossed. Kerl’s thick lines of paint make her dark hair look like yarn. It’s a solid, strange painting that makes us look more at the patterns Kerl creates with his highly textured strokes than at the cartoonishly rendered tatas.
Scale seems to be Kerl’s Achilles’ heel. His least successful painting is his largest. In King of Hearts (Two Peeks), 2015, a bare-breasted blond is set against a yellow and white striped umbrella. She pulls her neon-green bikini bottom to the side to reveal a landing strip of pubic hair. It’s as tacky as the rest of the images Kerl has selected, but this is the painting that feels like a high-school-boy art project. The paint is too thinly laid; it seems as if Kerl is just filling in projected images with color rather than making a painting. It lacks the surface appeal that makes the other paintings work in their strange, engagingly klutzy ways.
In Victoria Sambunaris’s 2015 photograph Untitled (Intracoastal Waterway with red barge), the color of the water is the pale tan of over-creamed coffee. The camera angle emphasizes the flatness of the landscape; it is as if you could see the curve of the Earth in the distance. The water stretches across the whole foreground and recedes into the distance, forming a wide triangle under a slender band of pale silvery-gray sky. The 39×55-inch image is almost all water; the banks of mottled green saltwater marsh barely encroach into the edges of the photo. It looks impossibly remote except for the broad red barge that seems to sit atop the smooth surface of the water. The Gulf Coast’s peculiar marriage of primeval coastal landscape and petrochemical industry is captured in Sambunaris’s exhibition “Shifting Baselines: Texas Gulf Coast | Victoria Sambunaris in Collaboration With Kristopher Benson,” on view at the Galveston Artist Residency Gallery.
Sambunaris creates her work through road trips in which she immerses herself in the landscape and culture of different parts of America. The GAR website explains that the artist sets out on her journeys “equipped with a 5×7 wooden field camera, camping gear, and a few months supply of canned sardines and crackers.” She researches and explores the nature and culture of the world she will photograph.
The Galveston Artist Residency invited Sambunaris down from New York for a project and gave her a stipend and housing. During her time in the area, she collaborated with Kristopher Benson, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Benson advised the artist about the ways in which the coastal environment of the region has been affected by man and industry and helped her get access to locations.
Two sets of untitled photographs are shown flat on shelves on the back wall of the gallery. They were taken at Virginia Point, located just at the tip of the mainland, right before you cross the bridge to Galveston. The photos capture hopper cars moving along tracks past the estuarial corridor, along the line of the horizon. In the foreground is the grassy marsh, interrupted by bands of silvery water. They are very elegant images; in the second set, a few barely noticeable pink-tinged roseate spoonbills stand in the water. The interplay between the railcars, which a viewer imagines laden with petrochemical product, and the tiny figures of the flamboyant birds is subtle. Sambunaris isn’t a polemicist. Her works are nuanced, relying on a visual tranquility that draws you in but keeps you slightly on edge. You know you can’t lose yourself in this landscape, even while you want to. The photographer gently reminds us that in the world today, most images of tranquil nature are an illusion created by careful editing.
Because of the large size of the 5×7-inch negative created with her field camera, the clarity and color of the photos are stunning. There is something so still and perfect about these images that they have the hyper-real feeling of maquettes for a film, tiny, exquisite models created to drop in digitally as a background.
The photo quality certainly makes the unwieldy camera worth the trouble. But working with a big 19th-century-looking wood-cased camera in the 21st century can result in more than just curious stares and comments. Sambunaris was photographing along the Ship Channel on a day when Vice President Joe Biden happened to be in the area. Port of Houston security pulled up to inform her a sniper had been watching her through his scope for the past few hours.
And, no matter what camera you are using, photographing near chemical plants and transit infrastructure in post 9-11 America often ends with someone coming up to ask you what exactly you’re doing. Private and public security officers confronted Sambunaris on more than two dozen occasions. She considered getting a police radio so she’d know when they were coming.
Saumbunaris’s images are almost exclusively unpeopled. We know that someone is piloting the barge in a photograph or driving the engine pulling the cars. We know that someone filled and stacked the shipping containers in a large untitled photograph, but they look like Legos left behind by a long-dead race of giants, an industrial Stonehenge. Who put them here and why?
But the artist’s photographs still have a portrait quality. Presented in an untitled grid of images on the front wall, 15 cargo ships are photographed like a series of people posing for the camera. Each has a name; each one is from a different place, displays a different color and hauls a different cargo. One is a vivid Yves Klein blue, another cerulean, another a rusted cadmium red.
In images like the barge on the Intracoastal Waterway or the shipping containers stacked in Houston, we can really appreciate the formal elegance of Sambunaris’s work. They’re beautifully composed and incredibly minimalist. Squint your eyes, and the shapes and flat areas of color simplify into the abstract forms of a masterful painting.
The rare appearances of people are restricted to a grid of 945 4×5-inch prints, a kind of sketchbook from Sambunaris’s time in Galveston and along the coast. There are a few scattered images of people standing in a boat, swimming or wading, or, in one instance, of a Channel 13 reporter reporting from a submerged road. But the photos are dominated by evidence of us, rather than us. Storm-battered buildings, humble and wooden or stone and formerly grand, pose for her camera. The seedy Ocean Cabaret building in one image is almost obscured by scrubby grasses and palms. Another captures the cabaret’s sign, “NUDE GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS 18 & UP WELCOME,” a fixture as you drive into Galveston. (I have been told it and the hillock it rests on are the only holdouts in the protected estuarial corridor.)
There is a distinctive, roughly hissing sound permeating the gallery as you walk through. It is the sound of flammable gas burnoff at a petrochemical refinery. Living along the Gulf Coast, we all know that sound and the sight of the accompanying flames. The back gallery of the GAR is painted black, and here is where the sound is originating. One wall is covered with a photomural of a tiny wooden bungalow surrounded by trees. A window-unit air conditioner pokes out of the structure’s asbestos siding. The only sign of life is the silhouette of a pickup truck parked next to the house. Behind it looms the burn-off tower of a refinery, its flare illuminating the backyard with a haunting and eternal light.
Sambunaris has given us a portrait of our region, its flat coastal plain, its nature, its history and its industry. It is a thoughtful, empathetic and sensitive response to what she encountered. It is a portrait filled with quiet beauty, melancholy and regret.
With only a lightbulb and a six-foot cube of laser-cut wood panels, Anila Quayyum Agha has commandeered Rice University Art Gallery. Her installation “Intersections” transforms the gallery into a haunting space of light, pattern and shadow. The geometric patterns cut out of the six sides of the cube were drawn from the Islamic decorative splendor of the Alhambra. Suspended in the middle of the gallery, with the light radiating from its center, the sculpture projects patterns of shadow over the volume of the gallery and its visitors.
What Agha has done is create a transcendent environment that evokes the spirituality of whatever religion the viewer may embrace, or simply a sense of tranquil contemplation. You may know that you are -sitting on a bench outside a clean, white-walled gallery, but the glowing light and patterned shadow Agha has created also conjure something beyond the visual. You can almost smell the peculiar musty scent of ancient places of worship, places where thousands of people have gone before you over hundreds of years to think, pray, plead and worship. This is the kind of power and quietude Agha’s work emanates.
“Intersections” is the work that took ArtPrize by storm in 2014. It won the Public Vote Grand Prize and tied for the Juried Grand Prize at the 2014 ArtPrize competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (That means Agha won $200,000 for the public prize and half of the $200,000 awarded for the juried prize.)
ArtPrize was begun in 2009 with funding from Grand Rapids native Rick DeVos, the grandson of Amway co-founder Richard DeVos. It was and remains a highly egalitarian endeavor; any property or business in the downtown area could host or organize an exhibition, and any artist who could find space could exhibit. The huge cash prizes, determined by public voting, drew artists from far and wide and garnered tremendous media attention. It was an amazing event for the community, but art world critics pointed out that it skewed toward spectacle, favoring works that would quickly and obviously gain public attention. The juried prize was added later, allowing art professionals to weigh in. That both the public and jurors recognized Agha speaks to the effectiveness of her work.
The experiences that inform “Intersections” evolved over time. In interviews, Agha explains that growing up in Pakistan, she was forbidden to worship in the mosque. The interior of the mosque was a place of worship and community for men, while women were relegated to worshipping at home. This is not universal in Islam, but was a result of Pakistani cultural mores.
Seeing the Alhambra was transformational for the artist. In 2011, Agha received a New Frontiers travel grant from Indiana University to visit Spain. While there, she first visited the Alhambra, the breathtaking secular complex showcasing the splendor of Islamic art. The palace’s construction began in the mid-13th century during Islamic rule of the Iberian Peninsula (711?1492). It is believed that during this period, Christians, Jews and Muslims coexisted relatively well. Christians and Jews, the other “peoples of the book,” had, if not equality, at least a fairly high degree of religious and social freedom under Muslim rule. In this context, the decorative glories of the Alhambra are also a symbol of religious tolerance.
Islamic religious art and architecture eschews human and animal depictions, and these constraints seem to be spiritually effective. Visually glorious geometric patterns and the lack of specific depictions result in something that feels universal. The Alhambra was constructed during the golden age of Islamic innovations in math and science, which surely fed such stunning decorative geometries.
Standing in the Rice Gallery space, looking at the filigree of shadows, you feel like you could soar within the volume of the room. Some of the most compelling places of worship combine theater, architecture and atmosphere. Even in this technologically saturated age, the simple magic of light and shadow still rivets people, in the same way it no doubt did our Paleolithic ancestors gathered around a fire. Visitors become part of the imagery in “Intersections,” as the patterns project over them. I saw a trio of young women holding their hands together to create a giant heart-shaped shadow on the wall while another of their group photographed the resulting image.
Walley Films (Mark and Angela Walley) shot a fantastic video about Agha and her installation for Rice Gallery, and it plays in the lobby outside. You can hear the electronic music Mark Walley created for the video from inside the gallery. It enhances rather than detracts from Agha’s installation. Suddenly the suspended cube becomes otherworldly, like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey but more decorative.
Agha was in Houston in 2005 with a residency as a fiber artist at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. Looking at her website, you see series of delicate, exploratory drawings evolving into cutout paper works. Early installations are subtle, using dangling threads and needles or bits of paper cut into the letters of the Latin, Hindu and Urdu alphabets suspended from metallic threads. In each of the earlier works, you see delicacy, references to the handicrafts of women and cultural interplay.
“Intersections” was a breakout piece for Agha. She got a big cash prize and lots of recognition, but it also pushed her work beyond what she had done before. With ridiculously simple elements, Agha created something visually striking and emotionally powerful. It wowed the masses at ArtPrize as well as the jurors, and it is just as striking at Rice Gallery. The gallery usually commissions site-specific installations, but this is one of several “site-adaptable” works Rice has shown. “Intersections” adjusts itself to the slightly different dimensions of each venue. But it’s also the kind of work that is a tough act for an artist to follow. When something is so successful and gains so much acclaim, what do you do next? It will definitely be interesting to see.