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by Carlo McCormick
|Houston may be statistically the most air-conditioned city in America and the most polluted as well, with a booming prison industry in a state that takes peculiar pride in its unmatched pace of executions, but what is still more amazing is that is that within the vast sprawl of this Texas city exists a surprisingly large, vital and diverse art community.
Long relegated to the general obscurity that the art world bestows upon the provinces, Houston has been amassing a wealth of talent that is ready to bust out of its regionalist margins -- especially now that the market has gotten a good whiff of it.
I spent nearly a solid week running around town in a rabid tourist frenzy, and still barely skimmed the surface of this city's eccentric cultural landscape.
With plenty of inexpensive rentals with lots of studio space, enough employment possibilities to allow even the more marginal artists to exist at a relative level of comfort without becoming wage slaves, a few local galleries and alternative spaces consistent in their support of the home-grown, and a broad array of cultural institutions that can be expected of places where vast sums of wealth are accumulated, it's easy to see why so many artists end up in Houston.
It's not that hard to imagine, too, how the ease and isolation in Houston have insured that, until recently, that only a small number graduated to the usual world art hubs.
One obvious magnet in this continuously accumulating cluster of artists is the university system. I visited the graduate art program at the University of Houston, where the emphasis remains solidly on art making. The faculty shows an admirable disregard for the kind of wretched theory that has come to ruin many an academic program.
Indeed, "practical" is the word at the U of Houston art department, which emphasizes idiosyncrasy rather than the homogenized trends of dominant art discourse. A good sense of the creative liberties allowed there can be gotten from the work of Michael Ray Charles, a Houston alumnus whose show of mock African American folk graphics was a highlight at Tony Shafrazi Gallery in SoHo this past season.
Another local light is pop polyester sculptor Luis Jimenez, who comes in from New Mexico for part of every school year. His Vaquero, a brilliant statue of a Mexican cowboy astride a horse brandishing his guns in a kind of contemporary Chicano version of Frederick Remington, is a prominent landmark in Moody Park, where the large Mexican community rioted during the 1970s to protest police brutality -- a condition that still persists. Incredibly, a group of politically correct wankers recently tried to get the sculpture removed on the grounds that it was a negative portrayal of the Latino male.
I also checked out the very successful Glassell School Core Program that's part of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. Offering free studio space, financial help and immediate access to the galleries and collectors that make up the Houston art world, Core boasts a growing roster of graduates to New York galleries (Jeff Elrod at Pat Hearn, Shazia Sikander at Deitch Projects, Leandro Erlich at Kent, Giles Lyon at Feigen Contemporary, Julie Mehretu at CRG).
The work I saw at Core is savvy, sellable and well-honed by a continuous influx of prestigious visiting artists and critics, a constant flow of dealers through the studios and, in a totally perverse intrusion of the market into the academy, the matching of each artist with a "parent" patron and collector.
Ably directed by Joseph Havel with a supportive but unobtrusive hand, Core can only become hotter, especially after the inclusion of Havel's enigmatic bronze draperies in the current Whitney Biennial. We went with Joe to see his show at Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery, still looking good but nearly decimated by the growing feeding frenzy for his work.
It's the same stinking rich oilman Alfred C. Glassell Jr., by the way, whose amazing collection of African gold objects constitutes just some of the plunder on view at the Houston MFA. Already boasting a world-class collection of masterworks, the MFA has just added a massive new wing in the name of the Audrey Jones Beck Building.
Bringing the total exhibition space of the MFA to 158,150 square feet (making it the sixth largest in the nation), the Beck Building continues to feature the massive but inconsistent collection of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists in the manner that Henry Beck's trust decreed -- hung on god-awful pink walls, because "a painting is like a pretty woman, she always looks best in pink."
Done up in true Texas style of bigger means better, the entry to the Beck accomplishes its intentions in a bombastic display of grandeur and prestige on a monumentally pompous scale. Because art really serves the rich best as a bequest, the major feature here is a huge ascending wall with the names of all the museum's moneyed patrons deeply engraved in an almost funeral Roman font for all time.
Among the festivities we caught for the grand opening of the Beck, the best time was the publication party for Alison de Lima Greene's giant tome, Texas: 150 Works from the Museum of Fine Arts, which was published by Abrams. With many of the artists in attendance, including Terrell James, Bert Long, Suzanne Bloom, Ed Hill, the Art Guys, Mark Flood, Amy Blakemore, Page Kempner, Aaron Parazette, Gael Stack, Joe Mancuso, Joseph Havel, Madeline and Nancy O'Conner, Sharon Engelstein, Robin Utterback and Liz Ward, it was a great chance for an out-of-towner like me to get a true taste of the dysfunctional family that is the Houston art community.
Seeing them all together reminded me of a quote purportedly from the sculptor James Surls: "The Houston art community is like a barrel of crabs, when one of them tries to crawl out, the others reach up and pull him back in."
Just across the way from the MFA is the Contemporary Arts Museum, where I saw "Outbound: Passages from the '90s," a serviceable survey with the usual suspects -- Janine Antoni, Matthew Barney, Robert Gober, Ann Hamilton, et al.
Oddly similar was the exhibition downstairs at CAM called "Lather, Rinse, Repeat," made up of art from area high schools. So sophisticated was it that it has to change my usual response to all those mediocre gallery shows from thinking they look like art school work to knowing they look like high school work.
No trip to Houston would ever be complete without a visit to the Menil Collection. It is indeed everything it is supposed to be, and if that weren't enough, I used my nepotistic contacts to sneak into the conservation department, which was busy restoring panels for the Rothko Chapel, which has been temporarily closed for repairs.
On the tip that it was a highlight of my buddy Tony Oursler's recent visit, I got off the typical museum circuit and drove to the middle of nowhere for the indescribably morbid National Museum of Funeral History. Offering a wealth of grave and memorial service fetish from the stars, eerie recreations of funeral parlors and embalming rooms ca. 1920s, coffins, cemetery carts, cast iron caskets, a special display of visionary wooden caskets from Ghana, and a veritable fleet of hearses from the wooden horse-drawn carriages of yore through its entire automotive history, this museum is a necrophiliac delight for the entire family.
To get a real taste for the weirdness that is Houston, however, the place to go is the Artcar Museum. While I raced through all the other museums, this is the one I went back to time and time again, savoring each visit for the absurd oddity that it is. Houston's annual Artcar Parade is a true mega-cultural event, though it's now a shadow of its former freakiness due to the bureaucratic horrors of its Pennzoil sponsorship in.
And if what started with a dozen crazy artists driving broken down but brutally reconfigured hallucinations of the automobile for a few blocks downtown is now a massive public festival with hundreds of cars and a quarter of a million spectators, the oddball esthetics and subversive spirit of the original still live in Jim and Anne Harithas' bizarre institution. I mean, there's even a recreation of Jackson Pollock's car crash!
Of all my trips to the Artcar Museum however, none was more rewarding than the opening for a new work by Houston's star expat, Mel Chin. You never know what to expect next from this eloquent master of conceptual public art, but Chin really shocked us with a level of entertainment rarely attained in the fine arts as he premiered a new video game of his design, called Knowmad.
We were having so much fun driving our car through all these tents of mind-bending psychedelic patterns, I paid scant attention to the conscientious explanations Mel was offering regarding the tribal rugs from which these patterns were drawn and the politics of their representation. Face it, Chin's a genius, not simply because of the immense levels of information he packs into his every creative gesture, but because he does so in the most accessible, least dogmatic and consistently pleasurable way.
One other exceptional art opening worthy of mention from my stay was the unveiling of a modest but exquisite series of five etchings done by William Steen at Tembro/Cerling Print Studio. Titled "Emanation: White Water Suite," Steen's delicate ephemeral images perfectly distill the floating hallucinatory patterns of dancing optical feedback that flicker across one's retina while meditating. A practicing Buddhist, Steen is keenly aware of both the visual effects that can be received through meditation as well as the spiritual dimensions that such processes can access.
I made our my efforts to survey some of the many galleries in Houston, finding particular satisfaction in those that support Houston-based artists. The best of these galleries, by my admittedly incomplete investigations, are Betty Moody, where Gael Stack, Luis Jimenez, Manual (Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom) and Sharon Engelstein show; Inman, where one can find the work of Bill Davenport, Amy Blakemore and Elizabeth McGrath; Texas Gallery, now morphed into a gallery-bookstore hybrid but still working with Rachel Hecker, Aaron Parazette and Francesca Fuchs; and the aforementioned Borden/Butler Gallery representing Havell, Vernon Fisher and James Turrell.
Turrell, by the way, has not only worked his usual optical magic in the tunnel between the two wings of the MFA, called The Light Inside, this birthright and practicing Quaker has designed The Live Oak Friends Meeting House, which is already under construction and will have its public dedication in the fall.
I also stopped by the venerable alternative space DiverseWorks, now seemingly more bureaucratic than adventurous, and the other prominent alternative space, Lawndale, where director Eleanor Williams assured me that there is enough of an art market in Houston that there can be such a distinction as a noncommercial space.
Seeing how Houston-scene photographer Al Herrmann chose to show his unframed pictures in unbound piles on a coffee table, where viewers could sit on a couch and actually handle the prints at leisure, I could almost believe her.
Don't know if it qualifies as an alternative space, but Project Row House, founded by Debbie Grotfeldt and Rick Lowe, is certainly a singly noble and vital noncommercial community art venue unlike any other we've encountered. Renovating a small complex of old row houses in the third ward, a poor, largely black area of Houston, the project includes some buildings dedicated to housing and community space while others serve as small units for art installations.
The crowd at the opening was friendly and diverse, and the artwork ranged from some under the heavy hand of politics to more poetic conceptual environments. In the sparse and meager terms of the project, simplicity of terms worked best, as in Dean Ruck's Tree House, where the space was completely filled with a fallen tree.
The absolute acme of my Houston experience came in an afternoon of studio visits, in which three artists, still largely unknown outside Houston, proved to us the kinds of emotional development and exceptional, obsessive craft can be achieved in the solitude and isolation outside the frenzy of the art market.
Sculptor Sharon Engelstein, whose exhibition at the CAM I just missed, has recently begun using the computer to design and manufacture her whimsical and enigmatic quasi-figurative abstractions. Joyously of the moment, yet deeply rooted in the modernist forms of Brancusi and Arp, Englestein's sleek, quirky molecular and erotic anatomies are the pure organic language of our silicon society. Playful, personal and a touch perverse, her anthropomorphic psychologically laced oddities are the perfect sublimate substitutes for the mind, body, soul and machine in this new age of electronic intuition.
In another studio, I visited with Aaron Parazette, whose paintings have won much recognition recently in Dave Hickey's "Fabstraction" and Barry Blinderman's "Post-Hypnotic" touring exhibitions. With work as exquisite and optically disruptive as any obsessively crafted abstractions in art today, Parazette finds places of sensory contradiction and visual puzzlement where few dare tread. Hot and cold, imbued in modernist practice yet deeply distrustful of its claims, Parazette's abstraction resides in mimetic reference to the hackneyed language of abstract painting and the mundane designs of popular decor. They're also fun to look at, so clever they're like mock representations.
I also made long overdue pilgrimage to the studio of my favorite artistic terrorist Mark Flood. I've been a hard-core fan of his myriad forms of cultural subversion for a long time, and it's great to see him finally getting some exposure in the New York area in a two-person show at Hofstra University and a newly opened exhibition at Anton Kern Gallery in SoHo (with Jack Pierson and Dan McCarthy).
Mark has changed his legal name and identity as well as his creative modes of expression so many times it's hard to keep track. But for those who make it to see his perverse and profound new paintings of rabid pop appropriation and mutation at Kern, keep in mind this is the same artist who has sold advertising space on his canvases, hired a young actor to impersonate him at openings, made a fake press book of photocopied articles from Artforum, Art in America and Flash Art that were never printed but in fact written by him in parodies of these magazine's critical styles, and performed just about every act of esthetic vandalism possible.
And if Flood is a particular favorite of all the freaks in the Houston art scene, he is by no means alone in his weirdness. The town is full of the bizarre and aberrant to such a degree that even the entrenched normalcy of the town itself holds forth some sense of celebration for the deep idiosyncrasy of its arts.
The aforementioned Artcar Parade is the most visible manifestation of this oddness. The parade is also a benefit for something even odder however -- the "Orange Show," a piece of visionary outsider architecture that has been preserved for public posterity since it's obsessive-compulsive builder's death.
The "Orange Show" is very much an official site, one that rich patrons take pride in supporting, but there are tons of these outrageous mutant buildings everywhere. One favorite encounter along these lines was the Beercan House, whose fanatically pursued theme and materials you can guess.
Even the artists that are celebrated in this town are suspect of the more vulgar forms of kitsch, such as David Adickes, whose ongoing project of making huge busts of our nation's presidents and dumping them in a park near colonial Williamsburg has drawn much anger from those residents up North.
There's a huge scene of artists who collectively take over old disused warehouses, so many in fact that the few I visited barely scratch the surface. There's a long and lively history of tattoo artists there, and of the many that abound I made sure to meet up with Eric Doyle, the master inker and proprietor of Mad City Tattoos. I also took much pleasure in visiting Andrea Grover at her Aurora Picture Show, an old church she's turned into a movie house for all things vanguard and arty.
And hands down the all-out circus amok of the entire city is notsouH, owned and chaotically run by the madman performance artist Jim Pirtle. Buying a famous old building in the very heart of old downtown Houston and opening it up as a 24-hour coffee shop for the local homeless and mentally disturbed, and holding a regular after-hours party in his upstairs living room is bad enough. But what's more, the best thing about Notsuoh is that Pirtle did not remove one bit of the massive inventory this more than century old building accumulated in its countless prior incarnations. It's a zoo, a cornucopia of craziness beyond description.
But if there is one thing that truly blew my mind permanently it had to be visiting Don Rock, the famed silk-screen artist who purveyed all the filth for Texas legends the Butthole Surfers and was featured in much of fashion designer Ana Sui's clothes, at his latest venture selling guns, radical literature and his even more subversive shirts at gun shows. How nuts is it? Imagine an image of President Bill Clinton with a gun sight over his face and the words "Exterminate with Extreme Prejudice." Well, hell, we don't got stuff like that back home.
CARLO McCORMICK is associate editor of Paper magazine.