Category: Glasstire

Tierney Malone and Robert Hodge at Galveston Arts Center | Jul 2017

When the pirate Jean Lafitte captured slave ships in the 1800s, he brought them back to his headquarters in Campeche, as the island of Galveston was then known.  The “hero of the Alamo” Jim Bowie and his brothers acted as intermediaries for Lafitte and sold the slaves onward, making a fortune in the process. Galveston would go on to become the largest slave market west of New Orleans. And it was on Galveston island on June 19th, 1865, that slavery in America is popularly considered to have come to an end*, two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, when Union General Gordon Granger stood on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa and read aloud General Order Number 3, which stated:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freed are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” **

Thus, Galveston is the home of Juneteenth, the holiday that sprang from that June 19th announcement. And that’s the reason for the title of the Galveston Arts Center show, Two & ½ Years: A Visual Celebration to the Spirit of Juneteenth, a collaborative project by artists Tierney Malone and Robert Hodge.

The seeds of the duo’s collaboration were planted four years ago when Hodge listened to Malone’s 90.1 KPFT radio show “Jazz Spotlight” and heard the Juneteenth history in a segment about slavery in Texas that Malone created and narrated. Hodge loved the jazz-filled piece and thought it would be interesting to do a version using contemporary hip-hop artists to engage and educate a younger audience. Hodge and Malone’s album debuted last year on June 19th featuring quintessential Houston hip-hop pioneers like Lil’ Keke and Z-Ro, as well as newer Houston talent. They see the project as ongoing; a piece by 2010 MacArthur Fellow Jason Moran will be added in the next few weeks. You can listen to the album here.

The Galveston Arts Center is presenting the visual component of the 2 ½ Years project. Malone and Hodge are generationally different artists, but both use imagery from popular culture. Malone riffs on history and jazz with cool, elegant paintings carrying fragments of text and cropped graphic images culled from album covers, books, and signs. He uses bold areas of color and spare and dramatic forms with his artfully selective text.

Malone’s Third Ward Jubilee, 2016, fills the back wall of the gallery. He uses the dramatic silhouette of an African wood sculpture and pairs it with the cropped word “Monk,” in what may or may not be cover art from an old Thelonious Monk album. The text and the sculpture’s shape are both formal abstract elements and signifiers of African and African American culture. Rectangles of color and cropped text from logos and signs include Houston icons like “The Shrine of the Black Madonna” and “Zina Garrison” (the “I” is topped with a tennis ball). A dusty blue semicircle is a giant version of the label for the Houston-recorded 7” LP MacGregor Park by The LA Rapper. (Zina Garrison began playing tennis at a free clinic at MacGregor Park.) There is a cropped image of one of Blast Records and Tapes iconic mix tapes. All of these elements are masterfully combined into this large-scale painting which functions as a powerful work of abstraction while simultaneously conjuring memories and associations for people both familiar and unfamiliar with its roots.

Hodge has a much more raw aesthetic as he creates collages of frenetically layered figures from culture—pop and otherwise—running the gamut from MC Hammer to Pope John Paul II. He visually samples iconic African-American artists like Aretha Franklin and white artists like Elvis who ripped off African-American culture. He arranges them in politically and culturally charged combinations. Hodge builds up jagged layers of painted and sometimes “gilded” cardboard scraps to create a substrate for these collaged images. Their irregular shape and thickness make them almost sculptural; they look like giant chunks of bark pried off some mammoth East Texas pine.

Between the Devil and the Deep, 2017, after the Ella Fitzgerald song, is a swirling vortex of predominately ‘70s figures from pop culture, cut out and glued and stitched down. There’s a shirtless man from the Bar-Kays, his eyes painted out. There’s Flip Wilson dressed up as Geraldine, Richard Roundtree as Shaft, and an unrecognizably young Neil Diamond. Across the top of the piece is a glittery word that reads “Praise.” In the center is a gospel singer in blue and white robes and below him is an upside down image of Pope John Paul II, the two stitched together at the waist.

It’s like those flip dolls they used to sell in plantation gift shops, two connected torsos with a skirt in between that would change them from black to white, but the white doll would have blond hair and a pretty dress, and the black doll would have a red and white gingham headscarf, presenting as a “mammy”. Viewers can pull a multitude of meanings from Hodge’s juxtapositions, but the Catholic church doesn’t have a great record on slavery—in 1866, just after the Civil War, Pope Pius pronounced: “It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given.” In Hodge’s work, Pius’s hierarchy is reversed.

Malone lays out some powerful work by bluntly addressing slavery’s consequences. His 2017 Queen Mother is a blue-toned photographic image presented like an LP label. The title is written across the bottom in large yellow block letters like the title of an album. The blue toning makes the image harder to see but when it registers you realize it’s a 19th-century portrait of a black woman, her breasts bare as she nurses a white baby. Enslaved mothers were forced to become wet nurses for white children to the detriment of their own children. Those babies would grow up to own and oppress the women who had nurtured them.

Another photo-based work, My Connection to Slavery, 2017, is an enlargement of old portraits of a bearded man in a dark suit and a woman in a white dress with their names printed at the bottom, Prince Albert Cowan and Eliza Lang Cowan. Over the images Malone has painted “Slave Master’s Son” and “Enslaved African”.

For Ain’t Never Goin’ Back, 2017 Malone cropped an advertisement for the return of a runaway slave. There is a partial figure rendered from an engraving of a black man with a hobo bag on a stick. Words from the snippet of the ad include: “boy,” “copper color,” “Houston” and “reward.”

Part of Malone’s goal with the Juneteenth project is to stress the active role black people took in their own emancipation. In addition to myriad acts of resistance and escape, several hundred thousand black men served in the Union Army. Freedom Sound, 2017 is a large black-and-white reproduction of a period photograph showing black soldiers in Union uniform. They stand with their hands on their rifles and look straight at the camera with a mixture of gravitas and vengeance. The words “colored soldiers in droves” are outlined across the photo. The quote is from the slave narrative of Harriet Smith describing seeing black troops as a child. The men in that image are the ancestors of Black Lives Matter, early travelers on the long and seemingly endless journey to freedom and equality. If white people today are freaked out by peaceful Black Lives protesters, one can only imagine the hysteria of slave owners when confronted with these soldiers.

Very often politically engaged art ends up preaching to the choir, but the location of the Galveston Arts Center on the tourist-clogged Strand makes it possible for people to accidentally encounter art. The Center’s shop is visible from the street and acts as a lure; a tourist fresh from purchasing a fidget spinner or a “Hillary for Prison” t-shirt down the block can easily wander in. And tourists drive by Ashton Villa today, admiring the building. Most are unaware of what took place there on June 19, 1865 or that the elegant home was constructed by a man named Alek, an enslaved brick mason purchased specially for the job.

Two & 1/2 Years: A Visual Celebration to the Spirit of Juneteenth’ runs through July 9 at the Galveston Arts Center, 2127 Strand, Galveston, TX 77550. Photos by Ronald L. Jones.

*The real end of slavery came when 13th amendment was ratified. Georgia gave it the ¾ majority on December 6, 1865. Mississippi, the final hold out, didn’t ratify the amendment until 1995 and then failed to make it official until 2013 when they finally notified the U.S. Archivist.

**Naturally the order ends by admonishing people who have toiled their whole lives in servitude to be sure to keep themselves busy.

Source: Tierney Malone and Robert Hodge at Galveston Arts Center – Glasstire

Habsburg Splendor: Great Art and Inbreeding at the MFAH | Jul 2015

“Habsburg Splendor: Masterpieces from Vienna’s Imperial Collections” at the MFAH has everything: armor, a carriage, a sleigh, crucifixes, paintings of naked women, a painting of a hairy kid with werewolf syndrome, tapestries, walrus tusk and rhino horn tchotchkes, Roman statuary, ball gowns… . But then the Habsburgs had pretty much everything including a large chunk of Europe. They were a force on the continent for over 600 years. In addition to present-day Austria, at one time or another, Habsburgs controlled part or the whole of modern-day countries like Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland and Ukraine.

The exhibition is drawn from the imperial collections of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The best way to view the show, which is somewhat awkwardly organized, is as a grand rummage through the Habsburg attics. Otherwise, you’ll end up mentally lurching back and forth through time trying to make connections between a Roman bust and a 17th-century painting, and a 19th-century field marshal uniform. It’s best just to enjoy the ride. There are spectacular things on view, among them works that have never left Vienna before, much less been shown in the states.

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The show opens with a tableau of jousting knights on horseback and a lot of ornate armor, as fighting was a tried-and-true way to get and keep power. The helmet of the 1543 suit of armor for Charles V was specially designed to accommodate the prominent “Habsburg Jaw” that ran in the family. A 1553-55 bronze bust of Charles V by Leone Leoni evidences considerable mandibular excess even with probable artist flattery.

Amusingly, all of the suits of armor are placed on vivid red mannequin forms that have extremely pronounced, grapefruit-sized red codpieces. I am sure this is historically accurate in terms of fashion but it is a little distracting. (I kept wondering if there was a Habsburg Dick in addition to the Habsburg Jaw.)

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More Habsburg jaws are on view in Jan Thomas’s bizarre 1667 wedding portraits of Emperor Leopold I and Infanta Margaret Theresa. A belated FYI to the Habsburgs, if one were trying to diminish the freakishly large chin of one’s family line: marrying one’s niece would not be the way to do it. The portraits were executed during their weeklong wedding festivities and the couple is clad in the absurd plumed costumes they wore when they appeared together in the musical drama, La Galatea. (The roots of the Viennese opera run deep.)unnamed

And speaking of absurd plumage, check out Jan Thomas’s 1667 painting Gundakar, Prince Dietrichstein in which the Prince is costumed for the “equestrian ballet” he led as part of the wedding festivities. He looks like a mardi gras float from a gay Krewe.

In addition to their matching orange, white and gold costumes, the newlyweds have matching jaws. Margaret Theresa was 14. She was not only Leopold’s niece, but also his first cousin. Her parents were uncle and niece as well. Gregor Mendel’s genetic research may have been a couple hundred years in the future but you would think basic animal husbandry should have been enough to clue these people in.

All this intermarriage may have been to consolidate power but inbreeding killed off the Spanish branch of the Habsburgs with King Charles II of Spain (1661-1700). His parents had been niece and uncle as well. Charles was apparently born with a host of disabilities. His jaw was so large he could barely chew, his tongue so thick he could barely speak and he didn’t talk until the age of four or walk until he was eight. He was mentally disabled and sterile. That didn’t stop the French king Louis XIV from marrying his niece Marie Louise off to him, the girl reportedly pleaded with her uncle to spare her.

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But the Austria branch of the Habsburgs continued on and thrived, following the maxim, “Let others wage wars: you, fortunate Austria, marry.” Marrying to acquire lands and solidify alliances or familial intermarriage that recombined wealth and assets did allow the Empire more peace, stability and prosperity than more warlike empires. Empress Maria Theresa (1717-1780) was an extreme example. Andreas Möller’s portrait Maria Theresa as a Child shows the future ruler as a very poised ten-year-old. She was allowed to assume the title of Empress when there was no male heir available, and went on to rule for decades and give birth to 16 children, 13 of whom survived infancy. She married them all off advantageously, although things didn’t work out so well for her 15th child, Marie Antoinette.

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Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) was one of the major collectors and patrons of the Habsburg dynasty, and his tastes ran to the surreal and the erotic. Barthomeus Spranger’s 1596 painting of Jupiter and Antiope is the kind of mythological scene that today would have its own fetish site. The misty paintwork looks like a soft-focus shot, as the nymph Antiope wraps her arm around the hairy goat-leg of randy Jupiter as he makes his move in the form of a faun. Her hand is just below his junk; you can almost hear the ‘70s porn-groove soundtrack in your head. Also in Rudolf’s collection is the misty eroticism of Corregio’s painting of Jupiter disguised as a cloud to seduce the nymph Io.

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Rudolf II’s father, Maximillian II, commissioned a series of paintings from Guiseppe Arcimboldo of the four elements. On view at the MFAH is Fire, 1566. The endlessly inventive Arcimboldo is known for crafting portraits from painted objects relating to a theme. Fire includes a coiled match cord for the forehead, a crown of burning sticks with flames for hair. Rifle barrels and cannon barrels comprise the body. This incredibly surreal work has symbols of Habsburg might, like the imperial eagle and Golden Fleece, thrown in for good measure. In scrutinizing the image, Arcimboldo comes across as more of an illustrator than a painter. That isn’t a slight to the work, but you see how important carefully and clearly rendering each component item was to the success of the whole.

The exhibition includes delicate and frivolous objects like the fragile mid-eighteenth century “centerpiece for sorbets,” crafted from gold and shells. It’s quite lovely with cameos carved into pale pink shells. Six images decorate the curved arms of the candelabra-like structure, likely depicting Emperor Charles VI, Empress Elisabeth Christine, their three daughters and a son-in-law. Little carved shell baskets trimmed in gold dangle from each arm and would have held sorbet. It would have been akin to eating out of a Faberge egg. This is one of many works in the show that makes you wonder about the craftsman behind it. Who dreamed up and fabricated this engagingly silly object? What did it take to create it?

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Habsburg excess is represented in a mid-eighteenth century carriage so large a window in the upper story of the MFAH’s Law building had to be removed so it could be craned in. It arrived complete with replicas of Lipizzaner horses to pull it. But the red and gold carriage looks restrained in comparison to the entirely gilded wooded sleigh from the same period. A baroque-style fantasy beyond imagining, its froth of ornate arabesques and shell forms completely obscure the form of the sleigh. It looks like a decorative centerpiece rather than a vehicle.

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Among the religious artifacts is an early 1600s ivory and walnut crucifix of a gaunt and agonized Christ, by someone known as “Master of the Furies.” His arms are ridiculously long making the figure waver between elegant and grotesque. The Habsburg rulers also held the title of Holy Roman Emperor from 1453-1806 with a five-year interruption from 1740-45. (The Empire’s history includes some ugly periods of expulsion and oppression of Protestants.) Catholicism remains a major part of Austrian culture. In the 1950s almost 90 percent of the country was Catholic; today it’s approximately 60 percent, although single-digit percentages actually attend. The common Austrian greeting of  “Gruß Gott,” literally means “may God greet you” but the phrase originally meant, “may God bless you.” Centuries of living under the Holy Roman Emperor leave their mark.

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Caravaggio’s c. 1603 work, Christ Crowned with Thorns is on view. It is one of a number of stunning paintings included in the show. With chiaroscuro to spare, a stark ray of light angles across the torso of Christ as he sits surrounded by three male figures. This Christ is not the wracked gaunt stick figure of the “Master of the Furies” crucifix; Caravaggio renders the Son of God with smooth, well-muscled flesh. Christ’s head is turned to the side, a handsome face shadowed, his exposed, muscular neck the focal point of the entire painting. Caravaggio, ever frank and earthy, gives us his highly sensual version of Jesus.

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The paintings are the strongest works in the show and the portraits are especially wonderful. Velázquez’ portrait of the Infanta Maria Theresa, 1652/53, will stop you in your tracks. The fourteen-year-old subject stands in a cream dress with spare coral pink accents, the seemingly casual brushwork coalesces in the figure’s softly rendered features and tactilely painted wig. You can almost feel the glossy smoothness of the wig’s ribbons and the hard luster of the pearls that decorate the neckline of her dress. This is one of several portraits painted and shopped around to various potential and politically important suitors (apparently the 17th-century version of Match.com). Maria Theresa wound up marrying the French King Louis XIV, her cousin.

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Titian’s 1534/36 image of Isabella d’Este is haunting with the dark velvety green of the sitter’s dress, the delicate flush of her cheeks and the luminous red of her hair. Meanwhile Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1536/37 portrait of Jane Seymour, Henry VII’s ill-fated third wife has a cool, almost carved elegance. The details of her finery are so exquisitely delineated that they almost seem etched.

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The exhibition closes with uniforms and gowns from the court of Emperor Franz Joseph who lived from 1830-1916. There are a lot of pompous-looking, gold-braid infested uniforms as well as some heavy-on-the-fur Hungarian ensembles. The showstopper in the gallery is a stunning black velvet evening dress with a tiny, Scarlet O’Hara-worthy waist. Its glamorous simplicity is executed in the style of Frederick Worth, who may have created it. It was worn around 1860 by Empress Elizabeth, known as Sisi, a 19th-century style icon with a fairly tragic life that ended when she was stabbed by an Italian anarchist in 1898.

The 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie by a crazed Serbian nationalist would launch the carnage of WWI. Emperor Franz Joseph died in 1916, and a brief film clip projected on the wall shows some of the pomp and ceremony of his funeral.

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His successor Emperor Charles would rule only two years. One of the most touching things in the exhibition is the ensemble worn by four-year-old Crown Prince Otto in 1916 for his father’s Hungarian Coronation. It’s a little gold brocade tunic trimmed in ermine with a matching hat. It has tiny white, fur-lined, leather boots embroidered with gold thread. A 1929 painting by Gyula Éder shows the toddler descending from his mother’s carriage in the furry finery.

Otto Von Habsburg was the last crown prince of Austria. He has been described as a fierce anti-Nazi and anti-Communist and worked for a united Europe. He spent most of his life living in exile. He died in 2011. His body was buried in Vienna’s Imperial Crypt. As per his request, his heart was removed and interred in the Basilica of the Benedictine Abbey of Pannonhalma, Hungary.

Hundreds of years of rule (and taxation) gave the Habsburgs the wealth to acquire and commission spectacular works of art. But they also left their mark on the European continent in terms of infrastructure and architecture. Their reputation as rulers varies across their former empire.

An elderly Hungarian woman I know says her father always thought the country’s division from Austria was a mistake. He argued that it was better to be part of an empire than an independent but small country. Meanwhile, a friend of mine from Zagreb observes, “They were tyrants but as tyrants go, they weren’t that bad. They didn’t destroy; they built. Their roads are still being used.”

A Bosnian friend concurs, “If I have to live under somebody’s thumb, between the Ottoman Empire who would impale you with whatever they could find to impale you, and the Austrian Empire, I would pick the Austrian Empire.”

“And,” his wife adds, “the most beautiful buildings in Sarajevo are from the Habsburg Empire.”

Some of the most beautiful art is from the Habsburgs as well.

Source: Habsburg Splendor: Great Art and Inbreeding at the MFAH – Glasstire

Mel Chin: Rematch | Mar 2015

Cities cling in perpetuity to a hometown boy made good. Mel Chin left Houston in 1983, and was clearly influenced by the time he spent in our diverse, surreal and polluted swampland. Mel Chin: Rematch, is an epic set of exhibitions that originated at the New Orleans Museum of Art; the show’s Houston iteration adds additional work and feted Chin with multiple openings, lectures and discussions.

Like a lot of other Houstonians, Chin is the child of immigrants. He grew up in the largely African American 5th Ward, where his parents ran a grocery store. His family later moved to the suburb of Meyerland but continued to operate the store, where Chin also worked. He came of age in the politically active 1960s and 1970s.

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Like his hometown, Chin’s art isn’t easily labeled or defined. His fascinating works range from the 524 delicate collages of The Funk & Wag from A to Z, 2012, cut from a vintage set of encyclopedias (on view at the Blaffer), to large-scale sculptures like Our Strange Flower of Democracy, 2005, a bamboo “bomb” suspended from the ceiling of the Asia Society. It moves from video installations like the 1991 Degrees of Paradise with a ceiling of early video monitors and Kurdish-woven carpets (on view at The Station Museum), to early examples of social practice art in the Revival Field documentation at Blaffer, and to performance artifacts like Lecture Ax (at the CAMH) which contains the artist’s notes for a talk at the New School for Social Research. Organizing a Mel Chin retrospective has to be a daunting task. Curator Miranda Lash perceptively used a viral analogy to describe how Chin’s work evolves as it spreads from idea to idea.

In 1970, Chin organized an ecology club at Bellaire High School. One of its projects was to clear trash out of a small, stagnant section of reeking bayou. (Just imagining it will easily stimulate the gag reflex in Houstonians.) The impulse toward environmental repair reappears in Chin’s Revival Field, documentation of which is on view at the Blaffer Art Museum. For the project, Chin worked with Rufus Chaney, a senior USDA research agronomist. Based on Chaney’s research into phytoremediation, a field of plants known to be accumulators of heavy metals was planted at the Pig’s Eye Landfill, a superfund site in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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Traditional remediation involves soil being hauled off to a hazardous waste landfill but Chaney believed that plants could be more effective at removing toxins. The various plants were laid out in a pattern designed by Chin that referenced the concentric rings of a target, as well as a circle and square derived from an ancient Chinese conception of a circular sky and a square earth. The artist overlaid the research with additional symbolism, adding plot markers based on the Mayan numerical system, fabricated from redwood, aluminum and stainless steel. Then jars were suspended from the plot markers containing a bar of zinc, lump of lead or ball of copper. (In description, all that symbolism seems a little overwrought, but I never made it out to Pig’s Eye to see for myself.) Chaney continued his research using the plants in the project, which also brought attention to the scientist’s work outside the scientific community.

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One of Chin’s most iconic works, Operation Paydirt, 2006, is also on view at the Blaffer. It began in post-Katrina New Orleans. High lead levels in children have been linked to violent crime, learning disabilities and lowered IQ. With an estimated 86,000 residential properties in the city contaminated by lead, Chin sought to make people aware of the environmental cause underlying social issues. At the Blaffer, the giant safe door originally mounted on the exterior of a New Orleans shotgun house leads from one gallery into another. Inside the gallery is a massive pallet of hand-drawn “Fundred dollar bills” largely made by children from all over the country. The total count is around half a million. Visitors can add their own contributions on site. Each bill is a symbolic request for lead remediation funding, as well as a mechanism for educating people about the dangers of lead poisoning.

Scholar's Nightmare

Scholar’s Nightmare

The artworks on view at the Asia Society are relegated to the lobby but include some striking sculptural objects. In 1980, Chin began a stint working as a preparator for Dominique de Menil at the Rice Museum, a precursor to the Menil Collection. While there, he came in direct contact with work from de Menil’s phenomenal collection of surrealist art, an opportunity few art students every have. Surreal moments occur throughout his work. On view at the Asia Society, Chin’s Scholar’s Nightmare, is an elegantly strange object. At first glance, it is a Ming dynasty style table with gracefully curved legs. Then you notice one of the legs ends in a taxidermied horse’s hoof. The perfection of the table is subtly disrupted with something wild and unsettling.

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The Contemporary Arts Museum includes a number of pieces Chin created addressing gun violence. In 1981 Houston was the murder capital of the country with 701 homicides. In the exhibition catalogue, Chin states, “My uncle Dick’s murder [WWII veteran Dick Yee Chin] prompted me to relocate of New York City the following year.” Yee was shot at a Houston gas station by a recently released mental patient. In his 1994 work, HOME y Sew 9, Chin repurposed a 9mm GLOCK-17 handgun into a surgical first aid kit for a gunshot victim containing “microelectronic distress beacon on FM band, ACE bandage, saline, narcotic, angiocatheter, epinephrine.” The aid is ironically camouflaged in a weapon favored by everyone from law enforcement to gang members to UN peacekeepers.

mel-chin 911Politics have long been a part of Chin’s work. In what could retrospectively considered an early Houston performance, Chin washed his draft card into pieces. It seems a slower and more meditative choice than the customary burning. While working with Dominique de Menil in the early 80s, Chin also saw the documentary Inside the CIA: On Company Business, the film investigated the CIA’s backing of the Chilean coup d’état. The film would influence the artist’s own 2007 film, 9-11/9-11, also on view at the CAMH. The hand-drawn animated film links two tragedies. The characters of its narrative connect the September 11, 1973 US-backed Chilean coup that overthrew the democratically elected president Salvador Allende and ushered in dictator Augusto Pinochet with the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Chin skillfully weaves a story of relationships and politics.

In the film, the artist character takes her boyfriend to see work by Mark Lombardi, the late Houston artist whose intensely investigated drawings diagramed the players of multiple scandals. The Bush family and various Houston enterprises made frequent appearances in Lombardi’s work. Lombardi, whose drawing linking the Bush and Bin Laden family became of interest to the FBI after 9/11, would have appreciated the political connections in Chin’s narrative.

The film was supported by Jim and Ann Harithas of the Station Museum with Ann Harithas as producer. The CAMH presents the final version of the film, in which the drawing is cleaner and color is added. The Station is presenting their favorite version, an early rough cut. There is something beautifully haunting in the restrained sketchiness of the drawings in the earlier version. It’s reminiscent of William Kentridge’s poignant hand-drawn animations but more spare.

Hitting four separate venues to see all 60 works of Rematch is something of a commitment, but it is one worth making. With such varied artistic production, seeing one Chin work is in no way seeing them all. Chin’s fearless approach to any media that serves his purpose is inspirational.

Source: Mel Chin: Rematch – Glasstire

Buildering: Misbehaving the City | Oct 2014

Buildering: Misbehaving the City at the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston is an interesting show with possibly the worst title ever. “Buildering” derives from the rock climbing term “bouldering” and refers to climbing the buildings and features of the urban environment the same way one might scale mountains and boulders in nature. The “misbehaving the city” subtitle reads like some academic tool’s notion of being clever, but you can’t hold the moronic title against the work. The show curator Steven Matijcio of Contemporary Arts Center Cincinnati has chosen is filled with provocative selections.

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Lee Walton, Getting a Feel for the Place (Belfast), 2007. Video.

At the heart of many works in the show is an impulse to experience and investigate urban environments the same way one might a natural environment. Getting a Feel for the Place, Lee Walton’s 2000 video, presents a series of clips in which the artist moves through a city, exploring its tactile elements. We see him caressing the stone pediment over a basement window or patting his hands in a puddle of water in which a leaf and a cigarette butt float. He runs his hands over the smooth steel curves of a bicycle rack, he even runs his hands over some of the inhabitants as if trying to acquaint himself with some alien life form. He’s approaching the city like some heretofore-unknown wilderness.

In another video work, Making Changes (Reykjavik, Iceland), 2005 – present (ongoing) Walton moves barricades, unprops doors, rearranges store street displays and unblocks a giant steel cable reel so it rolls into the street. All of these actions are executed with the nonchalance and unconcern of someone throwing rocks in a stream or snapping off a branch in a forest. For the viewer of both of Walton’s, videos there is also the discomfort of watching someone doing something weird in public, violating our perceived rules for public and personal space.

Ivan Argote Altruisme, 2011 Video Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin

Ivan Argote, Altruisme, 2011. Video, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin

Generally, after clasping the pole of a subway car, most people avoid touching their eyes, nose or mouth. Ivan Argote, however, fearlessly turns the chrome poll of a Paris subway car into a love object in his video Altruisme, 2011. In a tight shot, we see Argote walk into the car and, with a furtive look, begin to lick and kiss the pole. He’s totally making out with it with a focused eroticism that makes you feel like you walked in on somebody. Germaphobes will likely find his oral contact with the bacteria (and likely the DNA) of thousands of his fellow Parisians particularly horrifying. Argote, a Columbian artist living in France, isn’t just content to just take in the sights. His determined intimacy with something touched by so many random persons is disconcerting, funny and oddly poignant.

 

Sebastian Stumpf Bridges, 2011 Video projection [10:58] Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Thomas Fischer, Berlin

Sebastian Stumpf, Bridges, 2011. Video projection [10:58]. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Thomas Fischer, Berlin

Sebastian Stumpf performs a series of urban stunts for video so quickly and so deftly that any passerby might doubt their eyes. (And as in Walton and Aragote’s work, you wonder how it was filmed. Was there a cameraman? Was there a lone tripod? Was there someone to make sure the camera didn’t get ripped off?) In Underground Garages, 2008, there are a lot of static shots of garage doors, briefly interrupted by a car entering or exiting. Just before the door closes again, the artist runs up and rolls underneath in the nick of time. At first you ask yourself if that really just happened, then you are left to wonder what happens once he is inside. Is he on a secret mission, is he accosted by security guards, is he hotwiring cars? He performs another disquieting action in Bridges, 2011, a series of video clips in which he strolls along different bridges and then effortlessly vaults over the railings into the water. He never comes up within camera range. He repeatedly disappears, from bridge after bridge always leaving you to wonder what happened to him and whether anyone noticed.

 

Etienne Boulanger, Shelter #10, S-088.A47, Alexanderplatz , 2002

Etienne Boulanger, Shelter #10, S-088.A47,
Alexanderplatz
, 2002

And you wonder how many people noticed Etienne Boulanger’s activities during the two years he spent in Berlin trying, like about every other freakin’ artist, to live without paying rent. He found 965 spaces without clear ownership and out of this discovered 40 crevices that would accommodate him. The Blaffer presents the drawings charting these sites. Boulanger constructed shelters in the gaps between buildings or in the space behind a display window in the subway. (You get a fuller sense of Boulanger’s work on his website with work like the 2007 single room hotel, a fully functioning free-standing hotel room he created in Berlin – camouflaged on all four sides by billboards.) In the video Shelters, 2001-2003, night vision video shows Boulanger using foam sealant to close up the cracks in a makeshift wall before tucking himself into bed.

It’s an interesting problem to create a discreet shelter in an urban environment. Anyone stuck overnight in an airport or a train station has addressed the problem of finding a private place to sleep in the midst of a vast public space. But there is also something really annoying about the project. Homeless people all over the world face this problem every day as a matter of survival, a state of existence with no end in sight. Boulanger seems like a slumming dilettante. The French artist (who died in New York in 2008 from a congenital heart condition) also appears to be a white kid sporting dreadlocks. There is an unacknowledged element of white male privilege in this work – and in work like Walton and Stumpf’s. What would have happened to these artists and how would their urban escapades been perceived were they executed by black artists? How many women could have executed Boulanger’s project without incident? What would have been the added difficulties of Boulanger’s shelter project if he were dark skinned with dreadlocks?

 

Kamila Szejnoch, <em>Carousel Slide Swing</em>, 2008. Photos, video (4:04) and leaflets

Kamila Szejnoch, Carousel Slide Swing, 2008. Photos, video (4:04) and leaflets

Other works in “Buildering” focus on the exuberantly absurd. The video of Kamila Szejnoch’s Carousel Slide Swing project in Warsaw in which the artist hung a giant swing from the arm of a Soviet monumental statue of Lenin is hysterical. We see joyful participants swinging with abandon before the police shut everything down. It’s a delightful repurposing of a stolid, oppressive leftover from the Soviet era, one of several monuments to alleged “Polish-Soviet Brotherhood.” That the people in the swing also appear to be dangling from puppet strings held by Lenin’s massive hand adds a sardonic edge to the work.

 

The domestic pranks of the collaborative duo Bestué-Vives (David Bestué and Marc Vives) take this playful attitude into the domestic sphere. Using Bestué’s fairly cruddy Barcelona apartment as the setting, the artists’ 2005 video Actions at Home, presents dozens of humorously inventive scenarios that range from the surreal to the slapstick. A kitchen sink waterfall is created from dishes and kitchenware stacked up and extended from the faucet onto the floor. It’s a strangely charming construction. (Imagine a more casual, underachiever version of Fischli and Weiss’s The Way Things Go.) Yogurt falls from the refrigerator with a splat but neatly fills in the tile grout. A vase breaks when you open the door. One scene listed as “Cat Hair, No Cat” shows one of the artists sweeping comically large fluffs of fur from a loveseat. In another vignette, a fake wall outlet cast from butter is adhered to the kitchen backsplash – one of the artists uses a knife to scrape the butter from the wall and onto a piece of toast. You suddenly realize how unimaginative your own home life is. Why don’t we all entertain ourselves with such absurdities? Those of you with young children may suddenly feel that in stopping your toddler from filling the toilet bowl with bath toys, you have crushed his creativity and rendered domestic life stale and boring – albeit free from consequent sewage backflow.

In the most successful of the works in “Buildering,” there is a demand to cast aside our assumed notions of what is proper and what is possible. There is a longing for a less constrained world. Looking at our own unconscious choices and actions in the critical light cast by these artists, the quotidian and mundane suddenly become opportunities for amusement and adventure.

Source: Buildering: Misbehaving the City – Glasstire

A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James at the Menil Collection | Jun 2014

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Charles James, Concert Gown, circa 1949

“His ball gowns look like furniture and his furniture looks like ball gowns” quipped one Texas socialite upon observing the creations of fashion designer Charles James (1906-1978). In viewing the Menil Collection’s  exhibition “Charles James: A Thin Wall of Air,” you see what that unnamed woman (quoted in the Menil’s exhibition brochure) meant. James’ gowns had bustles and exaggerated hips. His jackets angled outward dramatically. His collars were origami-like structures. Meanwhile, his furniture echoed the curves of a feminine body. James is generally considered America’s first couturier. The European designer Balenciaga said James was “the only one in the world who has raised dressmaking from an applied art to a pure art.”

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a major Charles James retrospective currently on view, Charles James: Beyond Fashion.  It’s got some amazing clothes and the focus is on the technical aspects of James’ work; the Met’s website promises: “Analytical animations, text, x-rays, and vintage images tell the story of each gown’s intricate construction and history.”

Fashion exhibitions are not something usually associated with The Menil Collection but this small, thoughtful show makes sense because of the caliber of James’ work and his connections with the de Menils. James created clothing for the de Menil family and John and Dominique also turned over the interior design of their Houston home to him. The Menil exhibition treats James’ designs as artwork.

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Christophe de Menil modeling a Charles James gown made for her debutante ball, 1953

James was essentially self-taught. His father was a British military officer and his mother was from a wealthy Chicago family. He left/was kicked out of Harrow for something he described as a “minor escapade.” His parents got him a job with Commonwealth Edison in Chicago. He staged a fashion show of batik beach wraps in the office and was promptly transferred to the architecture department. That environment may have given James knowledge put to use in his designs. He left and opened a millinery shop, which was apparently a scandalous thing to do for someone of his socioeconomic class. He would go on to spend a good part of the 1930s in Paris where he designed clothes and hung out with Surrealists like Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dalí.

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Surrealist sensibilities permeate James’ work and are most obvious in the furniture he designed for the de Menil’s home. When John and Dominique de Menil chose James to handle the interior of their Phillip Johnson-designed home, it was an interesting, if counter-intuitive move. Not only were the clean lines of Johnson’s modernism and James’ voluptuous forms very different, James had never designed an interior before. (This would be his first and last interior design commission and Johnson subsequently excluded the de Menil home from surveys of his work.) According to assistant curator Susan Sutton’s text in the exhibition brochure, James put rococo antiques in the house and lined hallways with butterscotch and fuchsia felt. Doors were covered in antique velvets. James painted the cabinet doors of Mrs. de Menil’s dressing room aqua, gray and blue.  He colored the insides of drawers and the interiors of cabinets in “contrasting colors of butter yellow and olive green.” It’s as if he treated the home like a giant jewel box. It sounds wonderful.

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Charles James, Two-Part Sofa, 1952

The curvaceous couch he created for the de Menil home is a riff on Man Ray’s floating lip painting Observatory Time: The Lovers. And while he mixed period upholstery colors like saffron yellow and celadon green in his clothing, he created couches covered in a pale flesh-toned fabric which makes their curves look all the more naked. They remind me of Hans Bellmer’s dolls but with a slightly less creepy sensuality.

Hans Bellmer, "La Bouche," 1936
Hans Bellmer, La Bouche, 1936

James’ work is often characterized as too far ahead of its time. In 1937, he designed an amazing down evening jacket that looks like it could have been made yesterday—or at least in the 80s. He made an A-line dress ten years before the trapeze dress made headlines. It must have been frustrating for James to see things he had already done decades ago heralded as brilliant innovations.

By all accounts James was difficult. His designs weren’t about working with the bodies of his clients but sculpturally reshaping them—more the attitude of a fine rather than applied artist. The exhibition includes a dress form custom made to represent James’ ideal female body: square shoulders, long waist, curved hips and small, widely spaced breasts that apparently point in two different directions. The form is stenciled with the label, “IDEAL AVERAGE.”

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Charles James, Dress Form, circa 1950

James pretty much stopped designing in the 1960s. In 1954, he had married a wealthy divorcée 20 years younger than he was and had two children. It was something of a departure for James, who was gay. Fatherhood also inspired a line of children’s clothing. The couple ran through all their money and divorced—but apparently still cared about each other: his ex-wife would work to preserve James’ legacy after his death. James’ business would go on to litigate and diversify itself into oblivion, leaving him essentially destitute, doing a lot of speed and living at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. He was carried from there by ambulance on September 22, 1978. He reportedly told the EMTs, “It may not mean anything to you, but I am what is popularly regarded as the greatest couturier in the Western world.”

He was. James died the next day of pneumonia and heart disease.

Source: A Thin Wall of Air: Charles James at the Menil Collection – Glasstire

Plexiglas Makes it Possible! Francisco Sobrino at Sicardi Gallery | Jun 2014

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Francisco Sobrino, Transformation instable juxtaposition / superposition, 1963/2011. Plexiglas, transparent glass.

 

Patented in 1933, Plexiglas was arguably the most “futuristic” material of the 20th century – it was as transparent as glass but lightweight, durable and able to be used structurally. When you think about it, it still seems pretty space age in the 21st century. Don’t we all still expect everyone in the future to have clear furniture?

Produced by Röhm & Haas, a German company, Plexiglas was used for aircraft windshields and the like. (Not-so-fun fact: according to the current company’s website, the company and the Nazis brought in slave labor to meet manufacturing demand during WWII.) At first, its civilian use was for stuff like watch and instrument covers. After the war, Plexiglas made its way into a host of other applications and became more widely available.

The Spanish-born artist Francisco Sobrino began working in Plexiglas in 1961. Sobrino died only a few weeks ago, but some of his early Plexiglas work is on view in his current show, Structure & Transformation, at Sicardi Gallery. It’s some quite wonderful work that includes vintage pieces in Plexi as well as some which are partially remade, like Transformation instable juxtaposition / superposition, 2/3, 1963/2011, the piece shown above and below.

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Francisco Sobrino, Transformation instable juxtaposition / superposition, 1963/2011. Plexiglas, transparent glass.

The sculptures are put together like kid’s building toys writ large—the squares of Plexiglas have slits that allow them to interconnect. Transformation took seven people to assemble.  The tinted squares overlap to create tonal variations. The real forms of the sculptures are hard to fix in your mind; they shape-shift as you move around them, becoming more or less transparent and integrating whatever and whomever is seen through them.

Maybe it’s some kind of retro zeitgeist but these circa-1960s sculptures seem incredibly contemporary. Sobrino, who spent ten years studying and working in Buenos Aires, was involved with the Latin America avant garde and optically kinetic work.  He moved to Paris in 1959 with the Argentine artist Julio Le Parc. They co-founded the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV) with goals of creating a collective and involving the public in their art. A significant number of other artists came from Latin America to Paris in the 1950s. Antonio Asis, whose own optically kinetic work is on view upstairs at Sicardi Gallery, moved from Buenos Aries to Paris then.  Venezuelan artists like Jesús-Rafael Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez also made their way to Paris around the same time. Paris has a long history of hosting expat creative communities and it is fascinating to think about all these talented artists with overlapping concerns moving from Latin America and creating a community in Paris. There is something endearing about the idealism and optimism behind these artists’ avant-garde optical experiments and enthusiasm for new materials.

Sobrino’s exploration of materials didn’t wane. According to the bio on his website, the artist would go on to investigate solar energy in 1976 and used solar cells in a “renewable energy” sculpture in 1981. Francisco Sobrino died in France on May 11, 2014 at the age of 82.

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Francisco Sobrino, Transformation Instable, 1/3, 1963/1998

Source: Plexiglas Makes it Possible! Francisco Sobrino at Sicardi Gallery – Glasstire

Kermit Oliver: Tracing Our Pilgrimage at Art League Houston | Nov 2013

Kermit Oliver is a Texas legend, a self-described “reclusive” artist who kept his night shift job sorting mail at the Waco post office until this August. He is seventy. His work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA and the MFAH. He is the only American artist ever commissioned to design scarves for Hermes. Upon seeing one or two of Kermit Oliver’s works, you may be struck by the realist painter’s skill and imagery, but you really need a collection of his works to convey his ideas. His work has a kind of wistful poetry that becomes more and more evident upon viewing multiple works.

Garlanded Sheep,
Garlanded Sheep, 1997

Oliver handles acrylic paint with a lightness, dexterity and sensitivity not often seen in the medium. The Art League’s Tracing Our Pilgrimage presents a lovely selection of 17 paintings from 1970-2013. It’s a small show but it is very effective. It is dominated by images of animals and nature; Oliver’s father and grandfather were African American working cowboys. In a 1997 work, Garlanded Sheep, the animal wears a lush cluster of fruit around his neck, a bounty fit for a Dutch still life painter. The sheep’s head is painted but his body is only a sketch, as if his memory is already fading away after the slaughter.

Buckeye Atop a Mexican Wheel (1997)
Buckeye Atop a Mexican Wheel (1997)

Buckeye Atop a Mexican Wheel (1997) blends the pathos of death with other artistic references. A rabbit hangs by a foot held in place by a red rectangle of paper with a yellow square of paper behind it. The paper looks all crinkly so we know it isn’t just supposed to be painted shapes. It looks like a Kazmir Malevich painting has murdered the bunny in Albrecht Durer’s 1502 watercolor of a young hare. Is Oliver making a sly comment about art snuffing other art?

Sandhill Crane (1983)
Sandhill Crane (1983)

Oliver’s work is infused with a feeling of fall, warm golden light and a sense of looming barrenness. In Sandhill Crane (1983), the crane stands with its neck hanging limply forward and its wings spread wide as if crucified. Dried corn, a crust of bread and a vase of fragile, skimpy flowers sit below like offerings. In the midst of them is a 19th century figurine of a young black girl leading a sheep. The work is laden with the inescapability of time and nature.

Dido and Aeneas (1997)
Dido and Aeneas (1997)

Looking at the show as late afternoon October light angles into the gallery, you feel like you have entered church, not a mega church or even any sort of Christian church. It’s like some sort of ancient spiritual place. It’s in the warm light in his paintings as much as it is in the biblical and mythological imagery Oliver uses. His ornate hand-made frames turn the paintings into icons. A portrait of Uriah’s mother shows her mourning the murder of her son, but is also a portrait of a black woman morning the senseless death of many sons. A painting titled Dido and Aeneas (1997) shows the doomed queen and her mourners, her face melded with a 16th-century mask of the Queen Mother of Benin. Oliver taps into loss and grief that spans time and cultures. His beauty is filled with the melancholy that comes with knowing it won’t last. But somehow Oliver imparts in his works a sense of steadiness, a stoic acceptance to the cycle of birth and death, love and loss. And, in that, is a kind of hope.

Source: Kermit Oliver: Tracing Our Pilgrimage at Art League Houston – Glasstire

Rachel Hecker: Group Show at Art League Houston | Oct 2013

I remember back when the Art League Houston used to be lame (There were the odd exceptions.) But for the past ten years or so, Houston’s oldest arts non-profit has been getting stronger and stronger. The ALH turned 65 this year and it is doing some of its best work yet. The past year saw, among other things, Aaron Parazette’s “FLYAWAY” wall mural; Adela Andea’s luminous courtyard installation, “Primordial Garden”; and the Robert Pruitt-curated “Stacks,” a dynamic series of five artists in five weeks.

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Right now the organization is presenting work by, as well as honoring, some outstanding Texas artists. “Tracing Our Pilgrimage” features the work of Kermit Oliver, the recipient of the ALH’s first Lifetime Achievement Award. The organization’s Esplanade Project continues to host “Funnel Tunnel,” a temporary public sculpture by Patrick Renner installed in the Montrose Boulevard median located in front of the ALH and dedicated in honor of the late Houston artist, Lee Littlefield. The main gallery features “Group Show” presenting the work of Rachel Hecker, the ALH’s 2013 Artist of the Year.

Rachel Hecker is one of smartest and most inventive artists in Houston. She usually works in series. Sad and Pissed was a series of paintings chronicling her breakup with her girlfriend using cartoon avatars. Her most recent work is a series of paintings of “guys who look like Jesus.” The works she is showing at the Art League are all by her but don’t necessarily fit neatly into her other work or series—hence the name Group Show.

fingerBut really, the show is pure Hecker: witty, creative and beautifully crafted. The works are like random snapshots from the artist’s mind. There are goofy art jokes like the giant 5 foot 5 inch thumb, Finger Statue (2013), in front of a painting with a navy gingham pattern titled Hermann Grid Variation (2009), a riff on the optical illusion of the Hermann grid. The pad of the thumb has a smiley face painted on it that looks like it was drawn in ballpoint pen. In a similar vein, Hecker places a sparkly snowman sculpture, his “coal” eyes and mouth arranged in a grin of longing, in front of photo on canvas of a snowy pine forest.

A monumental version of a plastic hospital bracelet that reads “FALL RISK” is funny and sad at the same time. Is the bracelet in danger? From one angle it reads “ALL RISK.” But the idea of reducing a person’s medical state to a handy label is tragic. The original object is likely of personal origin; Hecker spent a number of years caring for her ailing mother.

pillsFloating Xanax (2013) is another medically derived sculpture. It’s a prescription bottle of Alprazolam (Xanax) with Hecker’s name on it. Alprazolam is prescribed for anxiety and panic attacks; the bottle, displayed on a pedestal, spins constantly, like an endless loop of anxious thoughts. (The hovering, spinning bottle is achieved through a magnet and electromagnet.)

Creating its own kind of anxiousness is a collection of paintings of eyeballs with multicolored irises clustered together on a wall—all staring at the viewer. Other works, like the “Not Made in China” sign or the long yellow painting of “caution/cuidado” tape, are vintage Hecker. Ditto the giant pine tree air freshener. They tie into Hecker’s series of paintings of post-it notes and scratch paper, making the quotidian and disposable permanent and finely crafted.

Perhaps the work that surprised me the most was Hecker’s 2004 work 8 Specimen Boxes. Little bits of oyster shell, miniscule pebbles, peanut pieces and sticks are all carefully arranged in little windowed and cotton-filled specimen boxes. When I saw them, I thought they were really out of character. A lot of artists collect little fragments of things natural or manmade and present them elegantly. It’s finding beauty in the cast off and unexpected, but there can also be something annoyingly precious and self-important about it, i.e. “See, only I can find beauty in the world’s detritus. Other mortals pass these things by.”

samples

And Hecker’s fragments are more overlookable that most. But when I read the works list, and I saw that they were made of polymer clay and acrylic I got the joke. Hecker painstakingly duplicated all these fragments of peanut skin and bits of shell. She probably actually collected the originals and is mocking herself for it.

Source: Rachel Hecker: Group Show at Art League Houston – Glasstire

Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art | Feb 2013

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Jean-Ulrick Désert, Negerhosen 2000 (2003)

Jean-Ulrick Désert is a Haitian-born American artist living in Germany. His performance project Negerhosen 2ooo is one of the standouts of the soon-to-close Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. The project involved the artist dressing in traditional Bavarian lederhosen and traveling through Germany—and beyond. Simply being a black man in Germany is enough to garner stares, even without the lederhosen. But the lederhosen turned Désert into a certified public spectacle. Along the way he was photographed with random people he met. He then hand wrote details of his encounters on the printed photographs. An old shoemaker was flattered by his assumed interest in Bavarian culture and whipped out his accordion. Naked German sunbathers eagerly posed with him. A rare few saw cultural critique. A black American carpet distributor living in Germany got it.

 

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Jean-Ulrick Désert, Negerhosen 2000

Organized by Valerie Cassel Oliver, Senior CAMH curator, Radical Presence is the first comprehensive survey of performance art by black visual artists. The show is filled with photos, videos, objects, costumes and sculptures used in or documenting performances by nearly 40 artists. Works by young artists like Désert are interspersed with documentation of performance art classics like Adrian Piper’s cross-dressing, David Hammons’ sidewalk snowball sale and William Pope.L’s consumption of the Wall Street Journal.

I was interested to see work dealing with black artists in Europe, specifically Germany. Désert’s Negerhosen and Wayne Hodge’s Negerkuss (2009) both incorporate the German “neger,” a rough equivalent of “Negro” and a word no longer considered acceptable. And both performances hone in on the very real and under-acknowledged racism that exists in Europe. (“Negerkuss” is also the common name of a chocolate-covered marshmallow candy.) There aren’t details of the Negerkuss performance (frustratingly, there are no descriptions of the original performances anywhere in the show) but the title and fact that it incorporates a rubber mask of a big-lipped black “savage” sets it in Europe. (America’s offensive racist crap is mainly vintage and on eBay.)

Wayne Hodge Negerkuss, 2009 Digital photographs, six 16 x 20 inches
Wayne Hodge, Negerkuss (2009), Digital photographs, six 16 x 20 inches

Googling reveals that Hodge found the carnival mask at the bottom of a bin in a German store. Europe may have universal healthcare but they don’t have widespread awareness that this kind of shit is offensive. I mean, people still do blackface in certain public festivals (as opposed to within the confines of Ole Miss fraternities). Hodge cut the mouth out of the mask and glued it over the mouth of a white classical bust of Cleopatra, a replica of a 35 B.C.E piece in a Berlin museum. He then donned the mask and proceeded to cover the piece with black lipstick kisses, darkening the white plaster, transforming a classical image of beauty into something approximating the black caricature of the mask.

Other work by young artists includes made-for-video performances from Internet sensations like Jayson Musson delivering his ART THOUGHTZ as the character Hennessey Youngman and Kalup Linzy’s DIY soap operas. Musson’s smartass and informed skewering of the art world with a hip-hop delivery has been emailed around by said art world for a while now. His mockery of Damien Hirst is priceless and his video on relational aesthetics is funny as hell. He starts off explaining it as when “someone with an MFA wants to meet new people…” Musson’s videos roast the art world.

Kalup Linzy’s Conversations Wit De Churen II: All My Churen (2003) is on view. (You can also check out much of Linzy’s oeuvre on his YouTube channel.) “Churen” is an over-the-top, soap opera-inspired drama in which Linzy plays almost all the characters. You might pigeonhole Linzy into some sort of campy satire box but he’s an artist who keeps you guessing. I made it to the Houston Museum of African American Culture to see Linzy’s performance. He sang the soundtrack to his Romantic Loner video (also on view), backed by a pretty amazing band. Linzy was maddeningly hard to pin down. He doesn’t have a great voice but sang with the earnestness of someone who thought they did. It was a very low-key performance compared to his soap opera videos. Was he really playing “Kaye,” his Romantic Lonercharacter, or playing himself? Whose dream was it to perform Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” live?

The CAMH made a concerted effort to present a number of other live performances. (The last performances will be February 15 at 6:30 and will feature work by Xaviera Simmons and Jacolby Satterwhite.) You can see the residue of Tameka Norris’s performance in the show. Two faint, drippy lines run horizontally around the sheetrock of a three-sided room in the main gallery. A video player on the wall shows the piece performed at a different venue and, for those who, like me, missed the CAMH performance, it reveals how those lines were made. The artist, clad in an orange prisoner-style jumpsuit, sliced a piece of citrus with a knife and then used the knife to slice her tongue. The pale, watery lines along the wall were made by saliva mixing with blood from the artist’s mouth.

The performance video includes some overhead shots and shows the mostly white audience that crowded around and stared at Norris as she cut herself. For me, the video made the piece less about the artist’s actions than the fact that a bunch of people stood around and passively watched someone harm herself. Maybe it was different if you were in the crowd (performance always is), but the video intentionally or unintentionally makes the work even more disturbing.

Norris’s piece is one of a number of performance works in the show in which the artist does something particularly painful in front of an audience. It’s a familiar scenario in performance art and it’s one I have a problem with. By providing an audience for someone who is hurting themselves, you are complicit in that harm. And sometimes, that’s the point. In Clifford Owens‘ CAMH performance, the audience was apparently more than complicit. According to Carrie Schneider’s review on Glasstire, “Not a Big Fan of Clifford Owens,” Owens instructed the audience to “do something to me that you will regret but you won’t apologize for.” (Other artists had created the performance instructions for Owens.) Responses apparently ranged from kissing Owens to throwing beer on him to calling him the “n” word. There is only photo documentation of past Owens performances in the gallery. I can’t really comment on what I haven’t seen, but bringing out the worst in people is a subject already exhaustively explored by reality TV.

Clifford Owens

Clifford Owens

The viewers certainly become a part of the 11-minute video of Sherman Fleming’s Pretending to be Rock (1993), in which the artist is on his hands and knees for two hours under 200 dripping candles while wearing a thong. (I got the details of the performance from Fleming’s YouTube video description.) I can understand the artist exploring the idea of endurance and stoicism, but seeing it in front of an audience whose members are taking pictures and sitting and idly watching from theater seats makes me think “what the hell is wrong with the audience?” more so than “what the hell is wrong with the guy on his hands and knees in a thong with hot wax dripping on his back?” Dancer Josephine Nicholson is suspended in a harness near the artist the whole time with water dripping down on her. Seriously, the whole thing looks like it was shot in some arty S&M club. There is one part where this woman who looks like somebody’s grandma walks behind the artist and takes a photo of his mostly bare ass and the piles of wax on his back. I just wish “Hennessy Youngman” had done a voice-over commentary for it.

Check out the woman checking out Fleming...

Check out the woman checking out Fleming…

There is no visible audience in the 2011 video My dreams, my works must wait till after hell… by the collaborative duo Girl [Simone Leigh + Chitra Ganesh] and titled after a Gwendolyn Brooks poem. It’s one of the video works screened in its own room, which serves it well. (Presenting a lot of video in a group museum show is almost as tough as presenting a survey of performance art.) My dreams is a static shot of a woman’s body as a landscape—an oppressive one. She’s lying on her side and you see the line of her back like a smooth hill, ending in a pile of dusty gravel covering her head. You keep waiting for her to lift her head and free herself. You watch her side move as her breath becomes faster and faster. You imagine her trying not to hyperventilate. The pounding of a kettle drum ratchets up the drama. The self-control is palpable.

Girl (Simone Leigh and Chitra Ganesh), Still from My dreams, my works must wait till after hell…, 2011. Video, 7:14 minutes. Courtesy the artists

Girl (Simone Leigh and Chitra Ganesh), still from My dreams, my works must wait till after hell… (2011) Video, 7:14 minutes. Courtesy the artists

I think I would feel differently about the video if other people were shown crowded around and gawking down at the woman. It’s still voyeuristic but the separation of the video keeps the audience out. Its wall-sized projection dwarfs the viewer. It somehow remains a private act.

Radical Presence is filled with diverse and well chosen work, but the show itself isn’t giving you much information beyond what is displayed. And someone unfamiliar with performance art or any of the artists in the show is really going to be at a loss. I’m not advocating wall text to spoon feed meaning to viewers but with so many things that are essentially relics and records of performances, viewers need some basic who, what, when and where. Even something as seemingly straightforward as Dave McKenzie’s While Supplies Last (2003) still needs more information. I see photos of the artist handing out bobblehead dolls of himself while wearing a giant papier-mâché bobblehead. The bobbleheads themselves are on display. But I don’t know where the performance took place. Was it in the context of an art venue or a baseball stadium? How long did he do it, how many did he give out? Giving out thousands of bobblehead figures to the general public, figures depicting someone no one knows, is different from giving a few to art cognoscenti.

Dave McKenzie, While Supplies Last, 2003

Dave McKenzie, While Supplies Last (2003)

For the sake of the exhibition, it’s a shame that the catalogue for Radical Presence is coming out after the show closes. The show’s brief curatorial statement asserts that black performance has traditionally been viewed in the context of popular culture and drama and that the work of black visual artists using performance has been largely unrecognized. Text on the website adds that “Radical Presence provides a critical framework to discuss the history of black performance traditions within the visual arts beginning with the ‘happenings’ of the early 1960s, throughout the 1980s, and into the present practices of contemporary artists.” It’s good that the post-show catalogue for Radical Presence will be able to include documentation of the CAMH’s live performances, and it promises to be an important document. But in the meantime, viewers are left to their own devices.

 

Source: Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art – Glasstire

Galveston: Drawings, Mobster Architecture and Brothels | Dec 2012

I headed down to Galveston last Friday to see “The Drawing Room, Part 2,” yet another fine offering from curator Clint Willour at the Galveston Art Center and to check out the old Sam Maceo house. Galveston is always full of surprises – I stumbled across a brothel along the way.

Organized crime boss Salvatore “Sam” Maceo owned Galveston’s famed Balinese room and was part of the “Free State of Galveston” years, when the island was home to widespread gambling, prostitution, bootlegging, etc. His house looks like it’s straight out of Southern California and it kind of is. Maceo admired Frank Sinatra’s Palm Springs home (Sinatra played the Balinese Room) and hired its architect, E. Stewart Williams to design a home for him. A great downloadable Cite Magazine article by Ben Koush gives a wonderful history of the house. (Design geeks will be interested to know Maceo brought in Garrett Eckbo as the landscape architect and reportedly used T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings for the interiors.) The house is listed for sale on har.com. Located in the lovely Cedar Lawn neighbor, the house apparently only got a couple inches during Ike. It has 11 bedrooms, nine full and two half baths, 6,384 square feet, sits on a 44,431 square foot lot and is priced at $795,000. (It also has a peephole in the steel front door big enough to stick a handgun muzzle through.) Go in with a couple dozen friends and start your own rat pack artist commune! Or crime family…

According to the realtor, the pool was created in the shape of Maceo’s dog. (Photo from har.com.)

 

Kitchen with the original stainless steel counter tops.

 

There’s an old projector room with storage for LPs and 45s that’s still labeled.

On my way to the Galveston Art Center I parked around the corner beside the Antique Warehouse. It’s located in a circa 1913 hotel (brothel) that used to have a very discreet entrance. The guest (client) rooms upstairs are now crammed with antiques but, like most everything else on the island, it sure as hell hasn’t been gentrified.

 

 

The Galveston Art Center is still at its temporary (since Hurricane Ike) location. (If you want to do some year-end giving, consider donating to the the GACs restoration of its historic 1878 First National Bank Building Home.)  “The Drawing Room, Part 2,” is on view through  January 6th, 2013 so you’ve go a little time to see it. Don’t wait too long, however. I missed what looked like a very cool Daniel McFarlane show at the GAC which closed a couple weeks ago.  Here are some highlights to get you in the car.

Debra Barrera, “El Camino on the Moon (Apollo 19),” 2012

Debra Barrera‘s muscle car drawings have been getting a lot of buzz but they’re pretty wonderful and live up to the hype.

Laura Lark’s “Cover,” 2011. ink marker on Tyvek.

This Steve McQueen drawing is one of my favorites from Laura Lark’s last show at Devin Borden Gallery.

More Laura Lark work.

You can’t tell much from a distance but these long skinny drawings by Katie Maratta are lovely little panoramas. I kind of wish the panels didn’t have the steel (?) behind them and opted for a more neutral material. I think the presentation gets a little gimmicky.

Katie Maratta, detail from “Oil Field,” 2011, graphite and ink on panel

Katie Maratta, detail from “Dairy Queen and Nine Cows,” graphite and ink on panel.

Neva Mikulicz, “The Sweetest,” 2011, prismacolor pencil on pastelboard, projector, 12 hour loop

Neva Mikulicz does interesting stuff with drawings and videos. An image is projected over her drawing The Sweetest. She’s got really intriguing ideas (sometimes running videos behind cutouts in drawings) but the work can become overwhelmed by the caché of the vintage midcentury imagery she uses. I’d love to see her work with less nostalgia-loaded, contemporary images.

Jillian Conrad, “Structures and Settlements Series H,” graphite on paper.

Jillian Conrad, who just got a big fat Artadia award, offers up some intriguing diagrammatic-looking work. The detail is better but my shot was blurry! Sorry!

Leigh Anne Lester, “Mutant Generate,” 2012, graphite and color pencil on two layers of drafting film.

Leigh Anne Lester‘s beautifully obsessive botanicals delicately create new and bizarre plant life.  Lester got her own really big fat award from the Hunting Prize a few years ago.

Get thee to Galveston!

 

Source: Galveston: Drawings, Mobster Architecture and Brothels – Glasstire