Three to See | Sep 2011

Tierney Malone's masterful paintings have a vintage aura.
Tierney Malone’s masterful paintings have a vintage aura.

Two weekends ago, Houston hosted the Houston Fine Art Fair, the city’s first art fair. More than 10,000 people showed up, and participating local galleries got a lot of traffic through their booths in the George R. Brown. Some also got a lot of sales. But there are many younger or smaller galleries that couldn’t or wouldn’t pony up the thousands of dollars it took to participate in the fair. And a lot of those galleries have some pretty fantastic work up right now, stuff that at least some of the estimated 8,000 local fair attendees should check out. Here are three of them.

In “You Are Your Own Twin” at Hooks-Epstein Galleries, Robert Pruitt offers up some of his best drawings yet. The show is packed full of Pruitt’s smoothly rendered portraits of African-American men and women who seem unfazed by the often surreal additions the artist has made to their wardrobes or hairstyles. In Stunning Like My Daddy (2011), a slender young man in a red Kangol hat faces the viewer with his head cocked to one side; he also sports a large, ceremonial-looking feathered collar. And in Outta Sight (2011), a young woman wears a blue T-shirt with a Star Trek logo and a skirt with Native American geometric patterns; she also wears her hair carved into pointed futuristic shapes.

This incorporation of various and varied historical, cultural and pop-cultural references ties into the artist’s exploration of W.E.B. Dubois’s concept of “Double Consciousness” — being “African” and “American” at the same time, simultaneously knowing one’s true multidimensional self and seeing oneself through the stereotypes and assumptions of others. Janus (2011), the first drawing of the show, depicts a young woman in T-shirt and jeans wearing an African wooden mask on back of her head. Janus was the double-faced Roman god who looked to the present and the past.

Pruitt previously made drawings on sheets of brown kraft paper, and while brown paper carries with it some strong historical associations — i.e., paper bag tests for “acceptably” light skin — the thinness and inherent flimsiness of the material ultimately didn’t serve his drawings well from a practical standpoint. But in this show, Pruitt is using lovely smooth, heavyweight paper and dying it in various brownish tones that allow for more variation and contrast. Because this paper holds up better for his charcoal and conté drawings, it allows him to create portraits with a beautifully modeled, almost sculptural feeling.

The artist’s large drawings are the most impressive, with the smaller head studies in the gallery hall slightly more uneven. Working primarily in charcoal, Pruitt keeps his color use selective but powerful, like the bright green of the dress in Steeped (2011), an image of a woman with a massive, gravity-defying Afro sculpted into the form of a Mesoamerican temple. The charcoal and the reddish brown of the paper provide the only other color in the image. As in many of the works, you never quite know how the symbol relates to the sitter. Is the temple a general reference to other American cultures, the Native American heritage of many African-Americans or to the particular sitter’s ancestors? Or maybe it’s all those things at once? However you choose to read it, it’s an incredibly striking and original image — in a show that has a lot of them.

On view at Peel Gallery is “Gabriel Dawe,” in which the artist presents Plexus No 9 (2011), an incredible, chromatically stunning installation. The Mexico City born-and-raised, Dallas-based Dawe created an elaborate network of thread running from floor to ceiling in a triangular pattern, conjuring a radiant haze of color that moves through the spectrum from greens to blues to magenta to orange to yellow. The slender lines of color shift and blend as you walk around the piece. It’s color theory in action, and absolutely gorgeous. (I heard its effects caused at least one viewer at the opening to remark that he wished he were stoned.)

Hallucinogenic appeal notwithstanding, the fact that it is almost medievally low-tech makes the work all the more amazing. To create it, Dawe pieced together a 25-foot length of wood, screwed in evenly spaced hooks and then bolted it to the gallery ceiling beams. Shorter, four-foot strips of wood with more hooks were bolted to the concrete floor at right angles to the piece above. Every hook was numbered. The artist rigged up something like a giant needle and worked with huge spools of thread, stringing it taut between the pieces of wood, over and over again, repeating the process for days. The whole installation took nearly a week.

Plexus No. 3 is a Plexiglas box with thick layers of colored thread, a relic of a previous installation. On the walls are drawings with layers of multicolored fine lines, mimicking layers of threads. They remind me of spirograph drawings and feel like they are almost blueprints for Dawe’s installations.

Dawe’s installation at Peel is the coolest thing I’ve seen in a long time, and it’s apparently the coolest thing a lot of people have seen in a long time. A least a dozen people told me how great it was before I ever saw it.

Tierney Malone has produced some of the edgiest work I’ve seen from him in “Ruminations of a Cluttered Mind” at PG Contemporary. Malone is a masterful painter who has created a huge body of work around vintage jazz album covers, selectively using segments of image and text as the jumping-off point for paintings and wall paintings with a palpably vintage aura. I easily could have missed something, but I think this is his first overtly political show, and it’s the strongest work I’ve seen.

Instead of painting on walls, which tends to give his work a uniformly smooth surface, Malone is painting in chalky tempera on different-sized sheets of cardboard, which are all pieced together into one large work. The cardboard’s slightly visible striation and the paint’s matte texture give the work a sense of age and gravitas. Black and off-white combined with period hues — shades of red, orange, blue and green fashionable in the ’50s — convey a certain sense of loss and wistful nostalgia.

In this body of work, political concerns have invaded and overlaid the jazz soundtrack of the artist’s mind and manifested themselves in the graphic styles of jazz albums. There’s a snippet of the “Hope” text from an Obama sign on one panel, while another illustrates in faded hues an image of a cartoon-like bomb dropping against a blue sky, with 3-D block letters that read “DRONE WARFARE” in pale yellow. It looks like the lid to an old children’s board game.

Speaking of children, Malone trenchantly tweaks a Dr. Seuss classic in the piece Horton Hears a Palestinian!; part of the long-suffering elephant’s head is visible below the title. In another section, a dark blue-black rectangle is painted with the words “Gulf Roux,” a likely allusion to the BP oil spill and the Louisiana coast. A red panel advertises “HR 3162, GITMO RESORT.” The word fragment “DEMOCRA” appears in white letters on a red background, we don’t know if it ends with a “CY” or a “T.” Rows of black exclamation points march across a white background in a piece. And rows of black bodies are arranged in another, a diagram of the hold of a slave ship that Malone uses to replace the plantation drawing that appears on the label of Southern Comfort. Malone has altered the text to read “Original Southern Seed, Shipman Mississippi.”

The references go on and on, but they come across much more subtly in the work than in my descriptions. It’s an incredible show. Malone is putting himself out there with frank, politically incisive work that avoids polemics and is visually glorious. Do you know how rare that is? See this show.

Source: Three to See | Houston Press