Monday, March 2, 2015

On Not Writing

Robert Boyd

In the past few weeks, I've hardly written a thing. The Great God Pan Is Dead is my blog, but only one of the past seven posts has been mine. I started a post in January on Prospect 3 in New Orleans but didn't get too far. A friend of mine noticed this, but generally it has been unremarked. Which I would expect. I'm not so vain to imagine that people miss my writing here.

There are some practical excuses. I've been working more lately. I have an actual day job that has been requiring more hours and more focus, leaving fewer hours and less mental energy to devote to this blog. And then there has been some personal stuff that has demanded a good deal of my attention. Life happens, and there are only so many minutes a day one can devote to one's hobby. And writing this is a hobby. (I have been paid a little to run this blog, so I guess I can't claim that it purely a hobby. Since commencing in August, 2009, I have earned $537.65--$500 from Box 13 for an ad, and $37.65 from Amazon for books sold through this site.)

These excuses would explain diminished output--but not silence. The fact is, while I could have been writing (and attending openings and looking at art), I've been filling up my time in less productive ways. I've caught up on my television (Marvel's Agents of Shield is completely stupid but highly entertaining). I've drawn a lot; little more than doodling, really. Nothing that anyone but me needs to see. But it's pleasurable, and it has reminded me that drawing as an untheorized activity has a high value. And I've read a lot. That's part of the problem.

Since the beginning of the year, I've read 24 books. Eleven of these have been books of comics which generally require less of a time commitment than prose books. So let's say 13 books. Not to mention the New Yorker, the Brooklyn Rail and various online publications and blogs. Right now, I'm reading Nature and Art are Physical: Writings on Art, 1967-2008 by Rackstraw Downes. Downes is a painter whose work I don't dislike, but in which I have only a little interest. I don't even know why I bought the book. Maybe it was the unusually modest but extremely handsome format--it's like a blank mass-market paperback untouched by an art director. And I totally judge books by their covers.

Downes wrote for ARTnews, Art in America, The New Criterion, Bomb and other publications. His writing is often epigrammatic. (The long preface by John Elderfield is irritating because it quotes so many of Downes' best lines that the reader is about to read for himself. It's like serving the dessert first.) Writing about Charles Burchfield in 1970, he drops this line: "But although the vanguard is presumed to march in the name of freedom and originality, to some artists its revolutions tend to look distinctly like the palace variety, with built in exclusions as rigid as those of the academic whipping-boy it presupposes." Downes is a brilliant defender of a reactionary aesthetic. And by "brilliant," I mean he is an unusually good writer--the sentence above is a perfect example. He employs humor "the palace variety" and inverts the revolutionary program of modernism. He points out that modernism was invented in the name of freedom from the stultifying conventions of academic painting but had at some point become increasingly rigid and puritanical. And even though we can say we are in a post-modern period, our revolutions still seem to be "of the palace variety." Regardless of how social "social practice" art is, for example, the only people who concern themselves much with it enough to read books about it are art insiders like me.

Downes managed to make me think differently. It wasn't a drastic change; let's just say it made me appreciate Neil Welliver a little more and Barnett Newman a little less. And that's nothing to sneeze at! But more important to me as a committed hedonist was that reading Nature and Art Are Physical was pleasurable. Downes comes out of a literary background--he studied literature before switching to art. This shines through both in his elegant writing style and his erudite use of literary examples as well as artistic examples to explain his arguments. I like that he can easily analogize between different art forms--it's something I sometimes do in my own writing, but never as effectively as Downes does.

For example, he wrote an article about Claude Lorrain. He quoted the great English landscape artist John Constable on Claude, an artist that Constable revered: "Claude's exhilaration and light departed from him when he was between 50 and 60, and then he became a professor of the 'higher walks of art' . . . so difficult it is to be natural." Then Downes recalls that Paul Valéry, in comparing the poet's means to the composer's suggests that a poet uses the constantly shifting and evolving substance of human speech while a composer uses a set of specific sounds, "counted and classified," that are quite distinct from noise. (Keep in mind that Valéry was writing this 100 years ago or so).

So, "if the nature painter, who tries to respond directly to whatever is in view, might be said to resemble the poet in Valéry's comparison, Claude increasingly resembles the composer. His drawing expeditions to the Campagna decreased sharply after the age of 50 . . ." Claude's later works were constructed by looking at elements of his earlier work.

What I love about this small section in a longer piece about Claude is the effortless way Downes brings together three artists (Claude, Constable and Valéry) and three art forms (painting, music and poetry) into a tight and perceptive critical insight.

Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Pan and Syrinx, 1656, graphite, pen and brown ink, brown wash, heightened with white, on brown tinted paper. (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen)

Likewise, Downes' essay "Henri Rousseau and the Idea of the Naïve" was a revelation because could connect naïve art (i.e., "outsider" art--the shifting nomenclature of this kind of art was noted by Gary Fine in his book Everyday Genius) to Schiller's essay "Naïve and Sentimental Poetry," where Schiller compares poets who seek nature with poets who are nature. Given that this is a subject of long interest to me (since the 80s when I first saw work by Henry Darger and Adolf Wölflli), I found Downes' long meditation on the subject eye-opening and fresh--or as fresh as a German essay from 1795 can be. But this, not surprisingly, is typical of Downes. He writes in "What the Sixties Meant to Me" that the Hegelian or Marxist idea of dialectical progress was a category error in Modernist theory, and that artists often make their personal breakthroughs by looking into the past instead of the future.

I think you can see the problem here. I'd rather be reading Rackstraw Downes than writing my own reviews. I've heard writing teachers complain that their students don't read enough. That seems counterintuitive to me, since it is reading that has long fed my desire to write. But right now, it is inhibiting that desire. I read something great and it makes me think, why bother? What does my writing add to the world that this thing I'm reading now doesn't already do so much better? And if my motivation for writing is personal satisfaction (or, as I prefer to think of it, pleasure), what if I get more pleasure from something else--like reading other people's work?

And when you go beyond behind art writing--a very narrow genre--the potential for pleasure increases exponentially. After, art writing is writing in service of something else. It isn't written in order to be art. If it achieves that, it's kind of a miracle. Now I want to express a value judgment here. I'm not attempting to define a universal truth--this is a very personal and subjective opinion: novels are the best form of art. They just are. I love all kinds of art, but none has given the intellectual engagement and pleasure that novels have over the course of my life, from the first novels I read (probably the Oz book of L. Frank Baum) to the last novel I read, The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner.

The Flamethrowers starts off in a very Hemmingway-esque mode--indeed, there are two equally Hemingway-esque stories being told in alternating chapters. In one, a young woman picks up a motorcycle in Reno and drives it out to the Bonneville Salt Flats, where she attempts a personal speed record. The other story follows an Italian motorcycle soldier in World War I under attack by Germans. This beginning made me think it was going to be a certain kind of novel. I had expectations. It's OK to have expectations and have them filled--generally speaking, that's something I approve of in art. It means I wasn't let down, and frankly that's usually enough

But The Flamethrowers pulled the rug out from under me. We never know the protagonist's name--she is called Reno by some of her acquaintances, which fits in with the initial feeling that we might be reading a novel by a hard-boiled descendent of Hemmingway. But instead, the novel sprawls out in unexpected directions, in the art scene of New York in the early to mid 70s; in the radical political scene of the Lower East Side in the late 60s; to the "years of lead" in Italy. Reno is inserted into an art world that for those of us familiar with the history (and the mythology) of the era will recognize. Certain characters and locations are obviously analogs of actual people and places.

And these parts of the novel felt like a true representation of what it was like to be an artist. I don't know if an artist from that period would agree, but the thing is that Kushner convinced me. I am friends of Goodreads and Facebook with someone I've never met but who is married to an old colleague of mine. I hope Peter Landau won't mind me quoting his Goodreads review: "[The Flamethrowers] explores the incendiary actions of artists, the mythologies they create and the damage such creations leave in their wake. [...] I couldn't help but compare and contrast, whether right or wrong, this successful novel with a less successful autobiography I recently read that treads similar themes within the same time and place." I think the book he's talking about is probably Just Kids by Patti Smith, and The Flamethrowers reminds you what a superb writer can do (as opposed to someone who is a really good writer for a rock star).

But again I felt discouraged. Here was a book that was so intricate and harsh that I could never in a lifetime ever hope to match it. She was not engaging in "art writing" like Rackstraw Downes, but she said more about art in The Flamethrowers than I have in writing this blog for five years. Or maybe this is just me feeling down on myself. 

A few days back, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a beautiful tribute to David Carr, the recently deceased New York Times journalist and author of the harrowing The Night of the Gun. Carr had hired Coates for his first reporting job to at the Washington City Paper. Coates talks about Carr's mentorship and his philosophy of journalism--that a story could be about a big subject, but it needs narrative to drive it forward. Oh, I know and Coates knows that Carr didn't invent this. One can think of Willie Morris's Harpers, or many of the best writers for the New Yorker or Esquire. But Coates learned it from Carr and it obviously informs Coates' writing.

The reason I mention it is there is something bloodless about writing a review. Maybe if I was meaner, it'd be more fun. But stories--that's where the real fun is. I think my best posts have been basically first-person narratives: for instance, "The Show is So Over" and "Searching for Forrest Bess." 

What I've concluded is that I don't want to write reviews anymore. So what this means is that the focus of this blog will change somewhat. Posts may get a little longer. They will definitely more based in narrative. I think this may be the way to rekindle my interest in The Great God Pan Is Dead.

Of course, there will probably continue to be reviews by this blogs other contributors. See for example Paul Mullen's review of Mel Chin's show at the Contemporary Art Museum. I hope we'll see many more posts as thoughtful as that one was. But my own writing henceforward will be a little different.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Mel Chin: Rematch

Paul Mullan

Mel Chin, M-16 (wound brooch), 2005-6, Precious metal, gemstones, 2 1/8 x 2 1/2 inches

Numerous institutions are currently highlighting the work of Mel Chin, who was born and raised in Houston and spent formative years (1975-1983) here, as well. Four decades into his career, Chin is known nationally as a “conceptualist,” one with a political bent.

Mel Chin: Rematch originated at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) and is organized by Miranda Lash, formerly NOMA Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art and currently Curator of Contemporary Art at The Speed Art Museum in Louisville. In Houston, the exhibition is presented as major collaboration between the University of Houston’s Blaffer Art Museum, the Contemporary Arts Museum (CAMH), the Asia Society Texas Center, and the Station Museum of Contemporary Art. At the latter, “Degrees of Separation” includes an homage to Chin by other artists and collectives. The Art League Houston’s separate show on Chin, “Paper Trail and Unauthorized Collaborations,” just closed. Given this sprawl, I will mostly limit my discussion to the CAMH, where works are installed in the lower-level Zilkha Gallery.

There are various possible modes of relating art and politics. Art can represent oppressive social conditions through an imagistic form broadly accessible and readable by public audiences. Art can also, in a similar approach, represent the really-existing political struggles against those conditions. Paraphrasing a chestnut from Karl Marx, the distinction is an understanding of the world, in the former instance, versus an effort to change that world, in the latter instance. For example, Social Realism prominent in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, encompassed both of these strategies.

Eschewing mere “passive”, distanced representation of a situation, such as economic misery, is a third mode. Simultaneously, this mode eschews simple representation of political movements: organized to transform those situations; external to the sphere of art; and orientated more towards the future. Instead an art is created which can itself, through its internal processes, more directly and immediately materialize a new, changed set of conditions in the real world and in real time. “Social practice art” is one name for this contemporary approach.

Mel Chin, Revival Field, 1991-ongoing, Plants, industrial fencing on a hazardous waste landfill. An ongoing project in conjunction with Dr. Rufus Chaney, senior research agronomist, USDA

One aspect of Chin’s oeuvre has been associated with this art and has a greater prominence at the Blaffer installation. Revival Field (begun 1990) was a collaborative project between agronomists with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the artist. The first Field was in Saint Paul, Minnesota at a former landfill for industrial waste, one where soil was badly contaminated with poisonous metals such as cadmium and zinc. Chin’s work tested the effectiveness of hyperaccumulator plant species (including types of corn and lettuce) in absorbing those metals and making the land safe once again. These experiments actually provided useful data for scientists examining this “phytoremediation” process.

Rather than centrally representing this threat to public health, or engaging in conventional political campaigns – petitioning or pressuring the government to take future actions that may or may not happen – Chin’s initiative helped to immediately and directly resolve a problem on the ground. This is considered a strength of social practice art.

At the CAMH, another aspect of Chin’s oeuvre has greater prominence – that of traditional representation vis-à-vis politics.

Mel Chin, Night Rap, 1994, Polycarbide plastic, steel, wireless transmitter, microphone element, batteries, 24 x 11 3/16 x 5 1/2 inches

The vicious 1991 beating of African-American Rodney King by Los Angeles police was (unusually for the time) captured on video and shown extensively on national news reports. Despite popular outrage, the following year a jury – of ten whites, one Latino, and one Asian-American – acquitted officers on charges of excessive force, triggering in LA the largest urban rebellion seen since the 1960s. There are parallels to the recent Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Missouri.

Made two years later, Chin’s Night Rap (1994) looks like a standard-issue, black police baton mounted on a mike stand, dramatically spotlighted – as if on a stage – in a lonely corner of the CAMH’s gallery. Seamlessly attached to the “business” end is a microphone, turned on, with ambient sound projected through speakers mounted elsewhere in the gallery. Hip-hop – including groups such as NWA and Body Count, rapper Ice-T’s metal band – during this period spoke out energetically against police brutality. Chuck D of Public Enemy declared – in the paradigmatic reading of the art form and referencing the then-important (now superseded) news network – that “rap is CNN for black people”.

The “business” end is suggestive of state violence against African-Americans: a “rap” over the head. Metaphors here have a literary quality, which appears elsewhere in Chin’s sculptures and titles. Simultaneously, the microphone is suggestive of how such violence becomes part of the material foundation for rap and the projection of radical, black voices: oppression breeds this resistance.

A third interpretation is possible. The 1991 Rodney King video “exposed” police abuses for the doubtful: to wit, white people. Black people, Latinos, and those at the bottom of the economic ladder are not as likely to have such doubts, to say the least. This widespread “exposure” of something hidden, disguised was a factor in sparking the 1992 LA rebellion. Today, on the other hand, that is arguably less the case. Cameras are everywhere – on phones or tablets, in surveillance systems for cities and private buildings – and their images are ubiquitous. The recent choking-death of African-American Eric Garner by New York City police was recorded by a passerby on the street and can be seen globally on YouTube. That hardly prevented the brazen killing, or a grand jury from refusing to indict the NYPD officers.

The microphone, then, in Night Rap does not primarily posit the resistance of rap and hip-hop culture. Instead, that posits the state’s recording of its own acts of violence – and the broadcasting, unambiguously and unashamedly, of its willingness to kick your ass and let the whole world know it.

Mel Chin, (Belief/Punishment) Yaqin Saza (for Jam Saqi), 1986, Books, asphalt with hair and glass fiber, encaustic, paper, steel, rivets, wood, 53 x 75 x 9 inches overall

Jam Saqi, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Pakistan, was arrested in 1978 and imprisoned for years by the government of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Chin created (Belief/Punishment) Yaqin Saza (for Jam Saqi) (1986) for a Houston fundraiser by Amnesty International, to publicize Zia’s human rights abuses.

The sculpture’s left part is a circular agglomeration of books: perpendicular to the wall from which they are hung, with tails facing the viewer; and smeared with asphalt, pages fused together, and titles obscured. In the stack’s center is a lone, unmodified book with a red cover; the text is not visible, only the bottom. The disc is tightly bound by a ring of riveted steel. All of this allegorizes abstracted “belief”, as a category, and its containment by the state. The specificity of this belief is undefined, which is oddly consonant with the military dictatorship’s zeal to render invisible and destroy the secular leftist opposition – not coincidentally, to ultimately be supplanted by another “opposition” more in accord with the interests of the Pakistani regime and its US backers. That is, of course, Islamic fundamentalism, further strengthened by US support for rebels who fought Soviet intervention in neighboring Afghanistan from 1979-1989.

The right part is a club wrapped in paper treated to look like flayed skin, per the exhibition catalog (although that would be cryptic to anyone in a museum audience who does not torture people as a profession). In this allegory of “punishment”, Chin was influenced by Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, which argues that pain “unmakes” human consciousness. Through historical studies of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, the 1967-1974 Greek military junta, and others, Scarry also notes that implements of torture are commonly presented visibly and in advance to the victim – who then must imagine torments to come.

In Night Rap, the police nightstick represents not only an instrument of state violence, but how representation itself, whatever its good intentions, can be complicit in reproducing that violence – via its recording and broadcasting. Belief/Punishment presents, again, not only such an instrument, but how presentation itself is embedded in the structure of torture.

There is one distinction. The former work proposes a Foucauldian counter-power, in rap, “made” by power itself. This is absent from the latter work, in which power – via the club and containment – is proposed to operate in a traditionally conceived, purely repressive mode of “unmaking”. Only the red book at the disc’s center – signaling the heart of the human subject and its autonomous commitments, not constructed by an external power – survives such destruction.

Chin is registering ambiguities of representation and problems of classically liberal strategies of ideology critique – of “exposing” something “hidden”, expecting that will be decisive in resolving the problem. Only during certain, limited political periods does such ideology critique have any efficaciousness.

Mel Chin, Elementary Object (For Corsica), 1993, Corsican briarwood, steel, plastic, concrete / vermiculite, excelsior packing material, flannel, paper tag, fuse cord, triple-F blasting powder, 3 1/2 x 12 1/2 x 10 1/4 inches (object in closed case)

What initially resembles a smoking pipe, in Elementary Object (For Corsica), sits on a bed of wood shavings in a steel strongbox. The box is presented on a horizontal plane, in a wall-mounted, glass display case; its lid is open; and when observed from above and at an angle, the “pipe’s” orientation and the shaving’s color scheme evoke Surrealist René Magritte’s well-known The Treachery of Images. The “pipe’s” bowl is sealed, with a wick inserted: it is actually a bomb, (nominally) complete with blasting powder. As is frequently the case with Chin, this can be recognized only by way of the wall labels or secondary commentary.

René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1929, Oil on canvas

A key question here concerns the artistic image’s ontological ground or model – a “real” pipe in the outside world – and the contrast between similitude and resemblance. Magritte’s painting was famously interpreted by Michel Foucault as setting into motion a network of similitudes, internal to the work itself, and definitionally without that grounding origin. Elementary Object points, instead, towards a relation of resemblance, per se based on that model.

This is a linguistic play on “pipe bomb”, frequently used by Corsicans organized underground to fight for their island’s independence from France (one of the national struggles persistently bubbling just underneath the surface in Europe). The disjunction between iconic signifier and its proper referent – between the explosive “pipe” and a real pipe – is, then, the “treachery” in question, one with potentially fatal consequences.

Conversely, theses concerning state violence in Night Rap or Belief/Punishment presuppose a proper correspondence between iconic signifier and referent. Crucial to their functioning, the club and the baton are objectively, correctly decipherable as such. Once more, “truth” and veridicality seem to be on the side of power.

Mel Chin, Scholar’s Nightmare, 2001, Wood, dye, animal part, 30 3/4 x 60 1/4 x 21 1/4 inches

Surrealism is evident elsewhere, including Scholar’s Nightmare (1991) at the Asia Society. A domestic table leg morphs into an animal hoof, echoing Magritte yet again – specifically the boots merging into human feet.

Mel Chin,Rilke’s Razor, Jung’s Version, 1990, Razor, velvet, wood, brass, mirror, 10 x 13 x 2 inches (open), 10 x 6 1/4 x 2 inches (closed)

Two early-twentieth-century poems from Rainer Maria Rilke were Chin’s inspiration for Rilke’s Razor, Jung’s Version (1990), a modified straight-razor resting in opened shaving kit. “Archaic Torso of Apollo” enjoins: “You must change your life”. Further, from the “First Elegy” in the Duino Elegies:

Beauty is only
       the first touch of terror
              we can still bear
and it awes us so much
       because it so coolly
              disdains to destroy us.

This concept, art’s transformational power and its demands, is figured in the silhouette of the Venus de Milo hand-carved into the razor’s cutting-edge. That ancient Greek statue has long been considered a canonical moment of beauty in western art. One can imagine the “terrible”, “destructive” wound that would result from this instrument, the force of beauty. This imagined wound – a jagged tear, abstracted, and without form – can be counterposed to the Venus’ rigorous, classical form.

Traumas of very different origin are given well-ordered form in M-16 (wound brooch) (2005-6), made during the US occupation of Iraq and based on photographs of bullet wounds from an M-16 – the US Army’s standard-issue rifle since 1967. The center is a roughly circular hollow; surrounding rubies reference blood; and onyx references contusions. Other works in this Cluster series similarly fix, as decorative jewelry, the size, shape, and – sometimes – position of real instances of war injuries, as revealed by medical and forensic documentation.

Mel Chin, AK-47 (liver wound/sulfobromophthalein collapsing necklace), 2005-6, Precious metal, gemstones, Variable/wearable

In both Rilke’s Razor, Jung’s Version and M-16 (wound brooch) are overtones of a highly dualistic reading of gender. In the former, the grand theme – the source of art’s rending of consciousness – is feminized in the Venus. Its mode of appearing is banal and quotidian – the masculine activity of shaving, personalized through the small, intimate mirror and sequestered via the velvet-lined, wooden box. In the latter work, rending is more literal and more deadly, a paradigmatically masculinist, collective act of war. Its mode of appearing is feminized costume jewelry, properly for display in public space.

Within modernist thought of the blood-soaked twentieth century, an equivalence was not infrequently drawn between the shattering potential of art and the destruction inherent to politics and war. Chin, laudably, tries to attenuate this troublesome equivalence, by way of a dialectic of form – and the more debatable, gendered metaphors.

“Points of view established in the past are no longer up to date,” Chin states of this current retrospective. “It’s time for a rematch.” Nonetheless, despite some being almost three decades old, his works at the CAMH still have a striking resonance today.

“Mel Chin: Rematch” is currently on view in Houston: at the Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston, through March 21; at the Contemporary Arts Museum, through April 19; and at the Asia Society Texas Center, through April 19. “Degrees of Separation” continues at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art through May 1.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

HOU do HOU: Will the City Ever Recognize its Own Culture?

Dean Liscum

Over a 48-hour period, Houston has let two cultural "icons" be destroyed. One, the Funnel Tunnel by Patrick Renner, was new and had regional attention. To be honest, it was a potential icon that showed real promise. The other, The Flower Man's House by Cleveland Turner, was almost two decades in the making and had achieved international acclaim. It was a bona fide icon. Both were hugely popular within the communities in which they resided.

What puzzles me is why the city of Houston (or the Houston Arts Alliance [HAA], manager of the city's civic art collection) which is in constant search of a cultural identity, didn't seize the opportunity to own this locally produced art and attempt to preserve it?

Institutions pay exorbitant amounts of money to event organizers to generate exactly the type of community involvement and identity that these artworks generated naturally. The City of Houston regularly forks over millions to rebrand itself, a.k.a. give the city a cultural identity. For instance, in 1997, Bob Lanier spent $1M in tax payer money and another $2.5M in private funds to produce "Houston: Expect the Unexpected." That is only one of many branding rat holes down which city leaders have poured tax payer money. HAA had a similarly disastrous foray into sloganeering with it's "Houston is Inspired" mural by committee. Local blogger Harbeer Sandhu at texphrastic painfully detailed it.

Funnel Tunnel and Flower Man's House grew out of the urban ecosystem that is Houston. They were created by local artists, are unique, have garnered national and international publicity, and had popular support in their neighborhoods.

What more could a city struggling to establish its identify ask for?

Patrick Renner creator of the Funnel Tunnel

There are, of course, official reasons why both exhibits were torn down.

The primary one given for the Funnel Tunnel was that it was established as a temporary exhibition. Temporary alludes to the fact that the Art League doesn't have the infrastructure (read money because that's what were talking about) to maintain the structure long term. Nonetheless, the artwork itself was partially constructed by volunteers, maintained by volunteers, and disassembled by volunteers. Plus, it's steel infrastructure looks anything but temporary. It seems (from the outside) that a small amount of money from the city, some weather proofing of the substructure, and the efforts of volunteers could easily sustain it in perpetuity.

If you can't preserve it, cannibalize it. Volunteers helping to disassemble and collecting souvenirs.

Imagine if you will an annual or bi-annual neighborhood festival centered around a local art work that is popular with its adjacent residents and Houstonians everywhere. The city/HAA could close down the northbound lanes on Montrose and make the southbound lanes two-way, thus limiting traffic for a few hours but not blocking it. (I'm not a heretic.) The Art League Houston could donate it's parking lot and facilities to the cause. Vendors could turn the ALH parking lot into a mini-festival while volunteers maintain the sculpture. 4 hours. $20K. Cultural icon established.

Only the skeleton remained

The Flower Man's house was a little more complicated. By complicated, I mean it would have cost more money to restore/preserve than the Funnel Tunnel and it's in a historically African-American neighborhood. History and empirical evidence reveal that money tends not to flow these neighborhoods.

Cleveland Turner, a.k.a. The Flower Man. Photo by Pete Gershon, author of Painting the Town Orange: The Stories Behind Houston's Visionary Art Environments

The verdict on the house was that it was a public safety hazard. Turner died in December 2013 and so the house had been left unattended for over a year and became infested with mold.

Inside the Flower Man's house. Photo by Pete Gershon
Mold is a harsh reality in Houston. If you're poor, mold remediation is virtually impossible. If you have $1M that's been redirected from a poorly conceived rebranding campaign, it's totally do-able. Worst case, the city/HAA acquires the property, demolishes the building, builds a replica of the house or a museum, and donates it along with the annual funds to properly maintain it to a non-profit already in the area like Project Row Houses. Then, it could function as a cultural destination like the Orange Show or the Beer Can House.

Street view of the Flower Man's house. Photo by Candace Garcia

I know. I know. I know.

The Orange Show and the Beer Can house have private, non-governmental organizations that fund them. Actually, it's the same one. My response: who gives a shit. The fact that those white folk artists, their family, and their very wealthy friends\supporters had more disposable income than the Flower Man is irrelevant to his cultural significance. He's a folk artist with the same passion and intensity as Jeff McKissack and John Milkovisch. He deserves the same treatment and would very likely inspire a non-profit foundation to augment and possibly take over any initial support from the city.

Imagine the same volunteer festival that I fantasized about for the Funnel Tunnel. However, in the case of the Flower Man's house, it isn't a fantasy. Over the years, Project Row House organized several volunteer efforts to help paint and repair the house.

Plus, Cleveland Turner's personnel story from homeless drug addict to community advocate is the perfect redemptive story...except he's not white or overtly religious. His religion was his joy, which manifest itself in his art. What's not to love about that?

Nevertheless, nada from our cultural curators at city hall/HAA.

Demolition of the Flower Man's house. Photo by Francesco Conti

And so by night fall of February 8, 2015, both were no more. It's a shame because efforts to save those public art works would have supported the city's unique culture. The Funnel Tunnel and the Flower Man's house could have contributed to a Houston identity based on the efforts of Houstonians, which in my opinion, is a far better use of tax payer dollars than a lame rebranding campaign that leaves us all wondering "Who were the ad wizards that came up with that one"...and alas, culturally poorer.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Deja Hou: Purple Time Space Swamp

Dean Liscum

On January 11th, galleryHomeland held "Homeland Soup", which served as the awards ceremony for the Charge Practicum Grants. Attendees paid $5-$10 for soup, entertainment by Daniel and the Thunder Heads, the presentation of the Charge Grants, and a chance to vote on the first recipient of the Homeland Soup grant.

The proceeds from the dinner funded the Homeland Soup grant. Contenders for the soup grant were
The winner was Mr. Boncy with Purple Time Space Swamp, which is an ongoing collection of digital photographs of the vast sprawl that we call Houston, that is Houston proper and it's many parasitic suburbs. 

Boncy and his posse, which may or may not consist of more than himself (learn more about Boncy in Hungry Ghost Collective's interview of him), publish an average of 50 photographs a month on PTSS's tumblr site. The photos are NOT copyrighted and are free to the public. 

I've lived in Houston for a while and browsing PTSS's photos feels like an exercise in my own personal cultural anthropology, If you've lived in Houston for any length of time and navigated any of Houston's wards and its many suburbs, you'll almost certainly experience an extended bout of deja vu. Although his method for shot selection is unclear (other than photographing Houston), the artistry of them is not. PTSS is not a selfie-diot's collection pushed to tumblr. These photos are well executed.  Each photo is the result of an awareness of light and composition while being willing to accept the bland utilitarianism that comprises so much of Houston's architecture: from strip mall to suburban street to midtown make over.

In other words (Robert Boyd's to be exact), PTSS is an ironic homage to "a soul-crushing blandness that typifies Houston...a drab matter-of-fact-ness that might make some viewers crave the bullet." But it's also a thoughtful, sober introspection of the city. One experiences it as a self-analysis that's not good or bad, but rather honest and unblinking.

Here are a few examples...

Boncy will use the Homeland Soup grant to fund the next phase of the project, print-on-demand (POD) collections of the PTSS photos. In my opinion, it will be money well spent.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Let's Get Physical: Emily Peacock at the Hello Project

Dean Liscum

It's bad manners and it goes against all art world decorum but you just want to touch the photographic works in Emily Peacock's exhibition Soft Diet at the Hello Project. The works beg you to gently run your finger tip over the crevices of teeth, to press your palm into the pile of finger nail clippings, to smear the jello from edge to edge, to write your name in the pink and white smears. But it's not your fault, it's hers. She wants you to.

Incisor, Canine, Premolar, Molar, 30 x 38 inches, Archival Giclee Print Mounted on Aluminum 2014

Gently Cleans, 20 x 20 inches, Archival Giclee Print Mounted on Aluminum

Even though that's a weak-ass excuse to offer any docent, it's true. Peacock acknowledges the imminent extinction of the snapshot, of the photograph as a physical object, a picture on a piece of paper. This exhibition attempts to recapture their fleeting prominence and presence in our lives. The physicality of Peacock's photos is purposeful and stunning. The images are strikingly sensual. The sculptural composition of the photographs of objects placed on top of other photographic images are so sharp and present as to engage one's sense of the hyperreal. Your impulse is to touch them. But you can't because they're just photographs.

These are nostalgic images for Peacock and for us. For Peacock, who often works within her own personal history either using friends and family members to recreate works as in her series You, Me, and Diane and Pieta or as subject themselves as in Reenactments and A Matter of Kinship, they are her story. For us, they are popular images from the culture of our youths, the not too distant past of ball pits and Thanksgiving Day rituals. Peacock's obfuscation of these images with food and finger nails make it unsettling and immediate tapping into the vague memories of what should have been childhood nirvana but wasn't.

Refrigerate Until Served, 30 x 45 inches, Archival Giclee Print Mounted on Aluminum, 2014 

As I've already alluded to, the technical mastery casts its own sensual spell.

Nail Appearance, 30 x 45 inches, Archival Giclee Print Mounted on Aluminum, 2014

Beyond the expert execution of these images and their acknowledgement of physical photograph's cultural attrition, there is a second layer of meaning, a second attempt at salvation, the battle against mortality. In her statement about the show, Peacock mentions that she started making the series when her mother was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer. She confronts it with all her humanity. Her most potent weapon in this battle is the video.

Soft Diet, 5:22, Looping Video, 2014

In the eponymous video Soft Diet, she uses a combination of sexuality and silliness. A pair of gloved hands stroke, caress. and massage a jello mold like the ones served at hospitals. As the video progresses, the hands move more vigorously, until the fingers penetrate and destroy it.

In the Iodine Money Shot Challenge, Peacock conflates the porn industry's money shot trope with the icebucket challenge craze. She uses iodine as her currency, which moves the video's anticipatory antics of heavy breathing and wide-eyed staring from sexual satisfaction or charity martyrdom to the anxiety of a patient awaiting the dressing of a wound or an ominous prognosis. And yes, it's as disturbing and poignant as it sounds.

Distribution and Habitat, 2:07, Looping Video, 2014

In Distribution and Habitat, a hand covered in an institutional blue glove opens to reveal an earthworm that then slowly crawls away from its confines. Metaphorically it could be us fleeing our own mortality or the medical institutions that attempt to protect and profit from that mortality.
My Father, 14 x 20 inches, Archival Giclee Prin,t 2014 

My Father is a photograph that directly addresses the subject of mortality. Its composed of two images. One images portrays him softly, blurred in the foreground while focusing on the lush scenery behind him. The other image portrays him in sharp detail revealing every wrinkle and pore in front of a dark, shadowy landscape. This photographic diptych captures the essence of the videos and her artistic strategy against loss and mortality. She combats it with life in all its sensuousness, sexuality, and humor.

Peacock's biographical information helps in the deconstruction of these photographs, but it's unnecessary for the enjoyment of them. Once again, she's turned the camera on herself and her life and in doing so helped us all reflect on ours -- lost teeth, jagged nails, white smears and all.

88% Of Moms Agree Nothing Works Faster,30 x 45 inches,Archival Giclee Print Mounted on Aluminum, 2014 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Contextually Speaking: A couple of BLACK GUYS, Tu, and You

Dean Liscum

In December I attended two art events that captured my imagination, 24 hours at the Lightnin' Hopkins Bus Stop by THE BLACK GUYS, and Planned Obsolesce by Alex Tu. On the surface, they could not be more dissimilar, but underneath they shared some concepts and methods.

(Photo by Robert Pruitt)

24 hours at the Lightnin' Hopkins Bus Stop by THE BLACK GUYS, which consists of Robert Hodge and Phillip Pyle the Second, was held from 10 a.m. December 10th to 10 a.m. December 11th. The event was one from their series THE BLACK GUYS in which Hodge and Pyle recreate and/or appropriate a series of the Art Guys' (Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing) performances as well as present some original pieces. 24 hours is based on the Art Guys 1995 event entitled Stop-N-Go, where Galbreth and Massing worked as clerks at a convenience store for 24 hours straight.

The duration of the piece was the primary commonality between the Art Guys performance and that of the THE BLACK GUYS. After that, the works diverged. Where as the Art Guys performance may have had some political overtones: protesting the 90s commodification of the art market and drawing attention to the plight of the convenience store clerk, THE BLACK GUYS piece was explicitly political. In publicity about the event, Hodge and Pyle stated that their objective was to temporarily reclaim the Lightning Hopkins bus stop, to which Hodge had contributed a customized bench and large sign when Hopkins was honored by the city of Houston. Since the commemoration, the local drug trade at the 24-hour Gulf station across the street has spilled over to the bus stop. It serves more as an open air market than as public service or a commemorative space. When I spoke with Phillip around midnight, according to his unscientific research, he'd only seen 3 people catch the bus at that site.

Photo by Lovie Olivia 

Hodge and Pyle's downplayed the political aspect of the piece. They described their performance as "spending 24 hours" at the Lightning Hopkins bus stop at Dowling and Frances. They made it participatory, inviting fans, art appreciators, friends, and residence of the neighborhood to join them. And come they did. In their video about the event, a constant parade of friends, fans, fellow artists, neighbors, and patrons stream by. People brought food, drinks, music, and even a portable fire pit fueled with recycled cooking oil to keep them warm. Both artist had brought books and videos in case no one showed, but I doubt either had time to open a book or start video.

The power of the TBG's piece was that what appeared to be a 24hr block party on the surface was actually a clandestine demonstration. Hodge and Pyle parlayed their artistic cache into political action and very subtly enlisted their artistic entourage into helping them reclaim the space. From what I observed and heard, it was neither a defensive nor a confrontational act. There were no shouts or accusations between the usual denizens of the stop and the TBG's retinue. Both artists are from Houston and are aware of the complex history and politics of the Third Ward as well as the artistic communities ambivalent relationship to the drug trade. In fact, I doubt if most of the participants realized what their participation was actually accomplishing. It was a positive protest in which Hodge and Pyle created the future they envisioned for this spot and for the Third Ward in general. TBG co-opted the Art Guy's Stop-N-Go performance and turned it into a positive protest by reclaiming the public space and making it one of camaraderie and friendship, which to fully appreciate, you had to be there.

Planned Obsolesce, Alex Tu's show at the Civic TV Collective wasn't a performance per se. It was a standard opening with an after party in situ. If you breezed by, glancing at the work, chatting with many artists and art appreciators that stopped by, snacking on the pigs head and roast duck, grooving to the DJ, and then moving on, you might have missed something, like the art.

Like TBG's piece, Tu's photographs were appropriations of other works of art/images. They are grainy images enlarged to monumental proportion. These images were once important political and cultural symbols. Now they are backdrops, the visual equivalent of elevator music, artistic white noise. The image of Mao has gone from a potent political symbol, to a pop art icon, to the artistic equivalent of a still life assignment: every art student has to add one to his/her oeuvre.

Idol Gazing At Himself Television infomercial for prosperity and fortune generating golden statue, Beijing, 2012 

The obelisk's significance has gone soft from over use by purveyors of national pride.

Empty Obelisk Transmitting Light Globally/CCTV, Beijing 2012 

The images of lush beaches have grown tired and cancerous, succumbing to the over exposure as a stand in for a purchasable paradise.

Prosperity and Good Fortune in the First World, mural found above meat department at a Chinese American supermarket in Alief, Houston 2012

Further contributing to the work is the site itself. The location of Civic TV Collective is in what was previously Chinatown, but has been recently re-christened as EADO. Like the images in Tu's show, it remains the same geographic location and yet it has been transformed. It's context has changed. The pig's head and roasted duck from one of the last Chinese grocery stores in the area provide sensual remembrance, a taste and smell, of things passed and passing.

The context of old China town and Tu's appropriation and recontextualizing of these ubiquitous images exposes their dubious futures. Do the symbols go on to live in perpetuity in the pop lexicon? Do they pass into oblivion? Are they reborn with a new cogency, a new artistic agency? And Chinatown, what of its future? Does it become a site of urban renewal that retains its current residences and welcomes new ones? Or are the denizens displaced and relocated? Does everything eventually evolve into rebranded EADO whatever that entails?

Planned Obsolesce, the title of Tu's work, begs those questions. I'm not sure how many of the audience struggled to answer them. Tu, himself, was taciturn and thoughtful. Directing people to the food and beer and chatting about any topic but the work. However, as with TBG's performance, if you stuck around for a little while and engaged the work, observed where you were and contemplated why the artist chose that work for that place, you might have discovered that you had unknowingly become part of the performance / piece itself.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Nostalgia Corner: Iron Shrapnel Man

Robert Boyd

I promise I will get back to writing about art soon. I just got back from New Orleans where a saw a whole bunch of art, some of it pretty good! But a couple of days ago, I made a discovery that I had to share. I learned that the The Portal to Texas History, an online repository of scanned publications, documents and images from Texas, has a pretty good run of the Rice Thresher (Rice University's student newspaper), including issues from fall 1985. (Thanks to Scott Gilbert for pointing this out.)

As it happened, I was at Rice in fall 1985. At the time, I was a "senior" actively weighing my options, which were: should I draw some comics or smoke another bowl? Occasionally, I decided to draw some comics, which were then published in the Rice Thresher. The character, Iron Shrapnel Man, came from a dream that my old friend John Richardson had. He told me that he had dreamed that I had created a character called "Iron Shrapnel Man." I figured that if I had invented him in John's dream, that was sort of like inventing him in real life. (I realize now that this is ethically shaky ground--sorry, John!) I literally haven't seen these comics since they were published. Here they are:

(OK, I was trying to be satirical but I think this could be read either way. Not very good satire, then. I was strongly influenced--practically to the point of plagiarism--by Gilbert Shelton's hilarious Wonder Wart-Hog comics.)

(For some reason, psychology had a reputation as an easy major at Rice. If I had been honest about it, I would have made him an art major. Period note: people thought Communism still mattered in the 1980s.)

(I'm pretty sure I stole the joke in the last panel. Also, I'm not sure why I suddenly changed the format. Probably because I was high.)

(The second panel was a direct swipe of Wonder Wart-hog. Damn that Gilbert Shelton was good. Also, the letter published directly above this strip is from me, complaining bitterly about the editorial policy of the then editor in chief and suggesting that students vote him out in the next election. On an unrelated note, I later learned that the Thresher staff had lost all my original art.)

This was the last Iron Shrapnel Man. The bowl won. I dropped out and ran off to Africa, ending the first chapter of my wildly checkered college career. Eventually Rice gave me a degree, so all's well that ends well. As for Iron Shrapnel Man, these six strips demonstrate quite well why I never became a professional cartoonist.

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