Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Real Estate Art--Bert Long Edition

Robert Boyd

Swamplot alerted us to the fact that Bert Long, Jr.'s house is for sale. Long, one of Houston's most important artists for the past few decades, died in February of last year. The house is in the Fifth Ward on Buck St., a few blocks south of I-10 and east of Waco St. The block on which it sits has some nice looking houses as well as a few that appear to be in serious disrepair. I guess that's one way to define a transitional neighborhood.

Bert Long, Jr.'s house

The Fifth Ward is the kind of neighborhood that West Side anglos are afraid of. But like I said, it's in transition. The Fifth Ward may have been called the the "Bloody Nickel" for decades, but in 2013, there were no murders in the Fifth Ward. This might not seem like something to really brag about, but it's more than the Heights or Montrose can say!

The neighborhood is very gradually gentrifying. And Long's house is a part of this. Before 1999, it was a dilapidated duplex, a double-barrel shotgun house.

Long's house before being remodeled

Long's house before being remodeled

But young Houston architect Brett Zamore decided to rehab it. This became his masters thesis project at Rice University. Now it's identified as "House 00" on his website.  You can see how this project was the seed of so much of what he has done subsequently, such as the Shot Trot house and the Zamore Homes kit houses. To me, what makes a city is not its grand architectural statements--skyscrapers, museums, etc.--but people's dwellings. So even though he doesn't have any big public commissions here in Houston, Zamore is my favorite local architect.

Here's what House 00 looked like after Zamore got done with it.

The door you see is original but repurposed. I love that Zamore carefully preserved the signs of wear on the door. The wall there is original shiplap which has been coated in varnish.

But these photos (taken from Zamore's website) show it in 2000, I think, before anyone was living in it. Fourteen years or so of Bert Long have changed the place. Here are some photos from HAR.

In 14 years, a lot of plants can sprout. Now the house is well-shaded, which probably helps on the electric bills.

And of course, like all artists' homes I've ever seen, Long's house is packed with art. Some I can identify as his, but there appears to be art by others there as well. (As usual, I'd like to ask readers for help identifying pieces shown in these photos.)

The wooden object to the right of the American flag is, of course, a small sculpture by James Surls.

The house is fairly small--960 square feet. It's hard to imagine that it was once a duplex, but shotgun houses were built for poor people and tend to be tiny.

At some point a studio building/garage was added to the property.

This studio/garage is quite large--it's actually as big as the house! Part of it is for the car, but the left-over part has central air and could be used as an apartment.

The asking price is $200,000, which seems pretty high for this subdivision. (There are houses within a few blocks going for $70K and $60K.) But there are two buildings on this lot, and this is obviously a special house. You wouldn't just be buying a piece of cookie-cutter shelter--you would be buying art history. Brett Zamore's first house! Bert Long, Jr.'s home! I realize that these won't mean much to the average Houston house hunter, but they mean a lot to me.

The house has one more interesting art connection--the realtor is Star Massing--wife of Art Guy Jack Massing. I hope she sells it to someone who can appreciate its unique history.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Joseph Cohen's Use-Value

Robert Boyd

When one looks at Joseph Cohen's elegant paintings which occasionally are made with gold or diamond dust suspended in the paint, the last thing one thinks of is "use value." It's a Marxist term about which Marx wrote, "The utility of a thing makes it a use-value. But this utility is not a thing of air. Being limited by the physical properties of the commodity, it has no existence apart from that commodity. A commodity, such as iron, corn, or a diamond, is therefore, so far as it is a material thing, a use-value, something useful." Cohen was using the term to distinguish his own work from that of artists who produce "zombie abstractions." Zombie abstractions were called out earlier this summer in an article by Jerry Saltz. He wrote
This work is decorator-friendly, especially in a contemporary apartment or house. It feels “cerebral” and looks hip in ways that flatter collectors even as it offers no insight into anything at all. It’s all done in haggard shades of pale, deployed in uninventive arrangements that ape digital media, or something homespun or dilapidated. Replete with self-conscious comments on art, recycling, sustainability, appropriation, processes of abstraction, or nature, all this painting employs a similar vocabulary of smudges, stains, spray paint, flecks, spills, splotches, almost-monochromatic fields, silk-screening, or stenciling. Edge-to-edge, geometric, or biomorphic composition is de rigueur, as are irregular grids, lattice and moirĂ© patterns, ovular shapes, and stripes, with maybe some collage. 
It certainly sounds familiar.

Joseph Cohen, Zombie Painting #1

I saw the painting above on the wall of his studio. It was, Cohen said, a deliberate attempt to create a work of zombie formalism. He said it took him several minutes to create this art-fair ready masterpiece. This is the kind of work that he describes as having no use-value. We could quibble about this--after all, if it is useful for decorating one's living room, that surely counts, no? But for Cohen, the use value of art has to do something with the need by people for art-qua-art as distinct from decoration.

I met with Cohen at the house which he built himself and shares with his girlfriend, Lindsay Davis. An architect friend helped him design it, and the electrical work and plumbing were done by professionals. But beyond that it was him and some hired hands. He built it on a small triangular lot and turned this complication into an advantage. It's a beautiful dwelling.

The living quarters are on the first two floors and the studio on the third. I was glad to be able to see where he lived as well as his studio. It meant getting a peek at the art on his walls. It's my experience that artists have the best art collections.

Joseph Cohen's living room

For instance, that's a Robert Goodnough to the left of the television in the photo above.

A David Reed in the kitchen

And he had several pieces by David Reed. Interestingly enough, both Reed and Goodnough are known for their art writing as well as their visual art. Our conversation made me wonder why Cohen doesn't write about art. He had a lot of thoughtful things to say about contemporary art and artists. For example, he spoke about how he had been looking at Wade Guyton, and how the idea of using something printed as a basis or substrate for a painting might work for himself. That such a practice have a purpose is important to Cohen. That was part of his beef with the zombie painters. Their techniques weren't aesthetically required; they were just the easiest way to get the work done.

Joseph Cohen, Proposition 369

For many painters, this might not be an issue. They're creating an image and how one gets there is not that important. But boy howdy, not with Cohen. He is deeply concerned with what he calls the "aboutness" of the work. Everything has a reason. The way he talks about it, he seems very concerned with process. But that would be the wrong conclusion. "Aboutness" is, as I understood it, the thing itself. All the steps and materials to get to the thing itself are important because of the thing itself.

Cohen is articulate when talking about art, whether his own or other people's. This isn't all that common. Many of the best artists I know seem reluctant to speak about their work or other people's. They are often self-deprecating or aloof, which I read as strategies of avoidance. I don't hold that against them, but I appreciate artists who can express something about their art. Cohen, who studied English lit and philosophy in college, seems to feel comfortable discussing these issues. It made for a mentally invigorating studio visit.

Cohen's studio

Of course, the main reason I was there wasn't to have a conversation. It was to look at work. Cohen's work is well-known in Houston. The earliest work of his that I saw was made with some of the cheapest materials possible--surplus house paint and cheap wood paneling. The thing that drew my attention to these works were the carefully "sculpted" drips. I described them at the time as being like stalactites, but in the studio this time, they appeared to me as like rows of sharp teeth. Of course, paint is semi-liquid and drips are a natural part of the process--an inherent quality of painting. But Cohen isn't allowing accidental drips into his work--he turns the drip into a very deliberate, controlled effect.

Joseph Cohen, Proposition 401

Joseph Cohen, Proposition 401 (detail)

Because dripping is a long-time practice of Cohen, he has developed a repertoire of drips, many of which were on display in his studio.

Joseph Cohen, Axiom 2

Joseph Cohen, Oak proposition

As random as the drips can seem, they are in fact purposeful, as is everything else in Cohen's work. The switch from house paint to varnish mixed with pigment and various substances (crushed diamond, gold, iron oxide, etc.), the inwardly sloping backsides of the paintings, painted so that the wall glows faintly with the reflection of the color--these are carefully considered strategies to create the final objects.

Murray Goldfarb relaxing in the studio

The result are objects of great beauty. I still have a hard time applying the term "use value" to them. I guess I'm too cynical about things like this. If I'm lucky, I don't think about economics at all when I look at a ravishing painting, but if I do, it's Veblen that comes to mind, not Marx.

But it appeals to me that Cohen thinks in those terms. I said artists are often reluctant to speak about their own work, preferring for it to speak for itself. Or so they say. But I think they are reluctant because someone like me will end up fixating on a phrase or word--"use value," "aboutness"--and lose sight of the work before our eyes. But Cohen's words about his art didn't affect my appreciation of the work except to give it a deeper context.

Joseph Cohen and his playful dog Murray Goldfarb

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Four Recently Read Comics by Sam Alden, Gabrielle Bell and Peter Bagge

Robert Boyd

It Never Happened Again: Two Stories (Uncivilized Books, 2014) and Haunter (Study Group Comics, 2014) by Sam Alden. That these two books are by the same cartoonist is somewhat astonishing to me. Sam Alden is a 25-year-old cartoonist with exceptional drawing skills. He tailors his drawing to the story at hand--the two stories in It Never Happened Again are drawn in pencil and Alden leaves out a good deal of extraneous detail, particularly in "Hawaii 1997," where he uses minimal means to effectively convey both a sun-drenched beach and the same beach in the moonlight.

(Aside: historically, comics were drawn with pen and ink for technological reasons--it was easier to reproduce solid black marks and black outlines helped to "trap" color for hand-cut color separations. The use of ink was so necessary and ubiquitous that industrially produced comics had artisans whose job description was "inker"--they covered up the cartoonist's gray pencil drawings with crisp, easy-to-reproduce ink lines. Modern reproduction technology has rendered this practice obsolete, but aesthetic inertia keeps it going.)

Sam Alden, It Never Happened Again, "Hawaii 1997" pp 38-39, 2014

"Hawaii 1997" is set on a Hawaiian vacation and seems possibly autobiographical. The main character "Sam" is a little boy, fascinated by an older girl in a bikini (to the amusement of his parents), who sneaks out onto the beach at night and encounters a little girl. That's about it, but it is unexpectedly moving. James Joyce wrote that the moment of an epiphany in a story was when "the soul of the commonest object … seems to us radiant, and may be manifested through any chance, word or gesture." Alden finds this in "Hawaii 1997." The only false note is the little girl's closing line--it's very apt but feels too sophisticated and worldly for a little girl to say.

Sam Alden, It Never Happened Again, "Anime" pp 132-133, 2014

The second story, "Anime," follows a young woman, Janet, whose love of anime becomes a self-destructive obsession. The story shows an obsession with something trivial can become a substitute for living one's life--something that many of us who have ever been fans know about--but also how such an obsession can give one a sense of accomplishment and intangible joy. This story impressed me all the more because unlike "Hawaii 1997," it wasn't obviously autobiographical. Without knowing anything about Alden's life it's impossible for me to say how much Janet is based on himself. But creating a convincing character of the opposite sex indicates to me that an artist or writer is stretching.

Sam Alden, Haunter, pp. 13-14

After the realistic stories in It Never Happened Again, the strange fantasy story (more of an episode than a full-fledged story) in Haunter is unexpected. Not just the subject matter, but also the delicate pen-and-onk drawing combined with the intensely colored watercolors give it a completely different look from It Never Happened Again. What the two books have in common is that the art feels wonderfully hand-made. Alden in no way tries to disguise his hand. The only straight lines in Haunter are the carefully made panel borders. Significantly, they aren't drawn--they appear to have been made by taping off the panels.

The protagonist in this wordless story is apparently a subsistence hunter, dressed in rags and carrying a bow. Pursuing her prey, a javelina-like animal, she stumbles across what appears to be a ruined and abandoned temple. Curiosity killed the cat--the hunter leaves off her hunt to check it out. She finds in it a large idol holding a chest, in which she finds some relics--a cell phone, a pistol, an alarm clock. She seems to not recognize them--her time must be long after the collapse of our industrial civilization. It's a good device, having a character in a seemingly primitive society stumble across an unexpected relic of our time. Gene Wolf used it memorably in The Shadow of the Torturer, and everyone remembers the climax of the Planet of the Apes, when Charlton Heston finds the partially buried remains of the Statue of Liberty.

Sam Alden, Haunter, page 45

Alden might have been thinking of that movie when he drew Haunter. His hunter wakes a demon guardian of the temple. The demon, with her blue-green skin and spiky crown, looks like a malevolent version of the Statue of Liberty, who far from welcoming tired poor wretched refuse would prefer to kill them. The entire comic is a chase and a dual between the hunter and the demon. The hunter lives in a future fantasy world, the outlines of which are barely hinted at. That kind of information is not important to the story at hand, but if Alden were to create more stories set in this world, I'd be interested in reading them. As it is, the gorgeous artwork and propulsive action in Haunter make it a pleasure to read.

Man, I'm getting old. There are cartoonists like Sam Alden and Michael DeForge (age 27) doing astonishing work who are half my age. It's hard for a geezer like me to keep track of this new generation, but worth the effort.

Truth is Fragmentary: Travelogues & Diaries (Uncivilized Books, 2014) by Gabrielle Bell. Every now and then, Gabrielle Bell will be short of cash and will go on her blog and sell some original art. Last year, I bought three pages--a short self-contained story about getting lost in the woods with her boyfriend. These three pages are in her latest book, Truth is Fragmentary. I mention them because if I own original artwork by Bell, how can I be objective reviewing her work? That's for you, the reader, to decide.

Gabrielle Bell, Truth is Fragmentary p. 145

That said, Truth Is Fragmentary is not Bell's best book. It does give the reader a peek into the life of an established creator of art comics (which may be similar to the situation of a lot of contemporary artists), and that's valuable. It's a life of poverty punctuated with occasional all-expenses-paid trips to wonderful places (for comics festivals). Bell plays up her loneliness and isolation, but it doesn't completely work--she seems to have lots of friends as well as the aforementioned boyfriend. She portrays herself as continuously on the verge of a breakdown, but it's hard to know how much of that is real. She has shown a willingness to fictionalize her own life in the past and does so here, as with her presumably fictional narrator of her trip to Colombia. I mention this not to say that Bell is an untrustworthy source but rather to describe what she is doing, which is a semi-fictional memoir. Sometimes this approach works (as in 2010's "Manifestation," which can be found in an untitled version in her 2012 book The Voyeurs), but it seems only intermittently successful here.

Her accounts of her trips to comics festivals can get a bit tedious--the travails of travel, hanging out with festival friends (fellow artists), etc. This might have been why she invented the false narrator for her Colombian voyage. But occasionally you get pages like this:

Gabrielle Bell, Truth is Fragmentary p. 67

This is a prime example of comics about comics, which is a genre that verges on the masturbatory. But I found this episode quite moving. Dominique Goblet's concerns as an artist are similar to Bell's, and Bell is entranced by Goblet's articulation of them.  That sudden feeling of revelation can be quite powerful. Bell instantly becomes a needy fan.

Bell is an important artist, but Truth is Fragmentary finds her in a bit of a holding pattern. There are some great moments here, but it doesn't cohere in an interesting way. It is best enjoyed as a collection of fragments (truthful or not).

Buddy Buys A Dump (Fantagraphics, 2014) by Peter Bagge. Peter Bagge's character, Buddy Bradley, was introduced in a short-lived comics anthology, Comical Funnies, in 1982. Buddy and his family were revived in 1985 in Bagge's solo anthology, Neat Stuff. Buddy was a misfit high school student in these comics. From 1989 to 1998, Buddy starred in Hate, which featured his adventures as an aimless young man first in Seattle and later in New Jersey. These brilliant comics happened to hit at the same time grunge did, unexpectedly turning Bagge into an important chronicler of those times. He has always maintained that Buddy is a version of himself, but ten years younger. After Hate ended, Bagge kept Buddy alive with infrequent stories in the Hate Annual. Between 1998 and now, Bagge has published 11 of these stories (apparently the Hate Annual hasn't exactly managed to come out annually). For the most part, Bagge has left Buddy Bradley behind, concentrating on various graphic novels and pieces of comics journalism. (Again I must disclose that I own some original art by Peter Bagge.)

Peter Bagge, from "Lisa Leavenworth-Bradley Discovers Her Creative Outlet" (Buddy Buys a Dump p. 83), 2009

The stories in Buddy Buys a Dump compress Buddy Bradley's life drastically. Marriage, new jobs, home ownership, a child, even dealing with elderly parents: these issues get touched on in these often hilarious stories. But because he's only giving Buddy a few pages for each year of his life, Bagge can't delve very deeply into them. We reader have been permitted to dip into Buddy's life intermittently, as if reading a once-a-year catch-up letter from a distant relative. That's too bad--one of the things that made Neat Stuff and Hate so enjoyable was the level of detailed involvement we readers had with the cast. Buddy Buys a Dump has something of a drive-by character in comparison. This isn't to say it's bad--the stories are funny and entertaining, and what more could you want? But it isn't classic Bagge.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Comics Strips vs Comic Books

Robert Boyd

Recently, the New York Times made available a web tool, Chronicle, that would allow one to take a word or phrase and graph its appearance in the Times over time. So one could take, for example, a proper name like "Nixon" and see how often it appears.

As we can see, the name "Nixon" appears occasionally in the Times for a century but starts picking up in the early 50s, following the rise, fall, second rise and second fall of Richard M. Nixon. It's a fun tool to play with. It allows you to graph the word as a percentage of all articles in the Times or as an absolute number of articles, and also allows you to see a glimpse of the articles that are mentioned. It's not perfect--a lot of the information used is scanned from microfilm which seems to create some challenges for character-reading software.

I'm interested in comics as an art form, and for most of the last century, the most common type of comics were comic strips. Today, comic strips seem almost like a vestigial form, and many comics enthusiasts don't think about them too much. I think this is a shame--for decades, the primary way that millions of Americans (and people around the world) encountered the art of comics was in comic strips. They were a diverse form aimed both at adult readers and children (unlike comic books in America, which until the late 60s were produced almost exclusively for children and adolescents). The subject matter of comic strips was for many decades more diverse than in comic books, as were the visual techniques employed by artists. The format, however, was rigid and minimal--a few panels arranged horizontally. But within that simple format, multitudes existed.

The New York Times, ironically, has never carried comic strips. But it does report on all things, including popular culture. So the phases "comic strip" and "comic book" have appeared in articles over the years. I thought I'd use Chronicle to see how often this happened. I also added the much more recent phrase "graphic novel."

"Comic strip" is mentioned in the Times starting in 1921. "Comic book" appears much earlier, but not with the meaning we now associate with the phrase (the earlier uses are in reference to books that are funny). It isn't until the 1940s that the modern usage of  the phrase "comic book" appears. "Comic book" surpasses "comic strip" briefly in the 50s, primarily because of a moral panic associating reading comic books with juvenile delinquency. But one thing the graph suggests to me is that until 1992, comic strips had more cultural currency than comic books. But after that date, their relative status switched dramatically. Starting in 1994, "graphic novel" has been a continuous presence in the Times, surpassing "comic strip" in 2008 but still far short of "comic book."

Of course, this is just the New York Times. The Times is an important indicator of upper-middle class cultural concerns, but it's not exactly a census or poll of the entire population. Now Google has had a similar tool for several years call an Ngram. It uses 5.2 million books as its source material. So I used the same phrases and created an Ngram to see how it would compare to Chronicle.

Very similar! Comic strips start getting mentioned frequently in books just before 1920. Comic books appear in the mid 30s, really taking off in 1943. We see again in the 50s comic books getting mentioned more frequently than comic strips--it's a little later than in the New York Times, which might be attributable to the fact that it takes longer to write and publish a book than to write and publish articles in a newspaper. In 1992, comic books surpass comic strips in the Ngram, just as they do in Chronicle. "Graphic novel" starts to take off a little earlier in the Ngram (mid-80s) than in the Times, but it never quite achieves the heights in the Ngram chart as it does in Chronicle.

These two graphs seem like a good indicator of cultural currency for comic books and strips, but not of artistic appreciation. Indeed, there is no way we can tell from the graphs alone whether the mentions of these forms are positive, negative or neutral. Oscar Wilde said, "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about," which may sometimes be true, but some attention truly is harmful. The vast negative press given to comic books in the 1950s was a disaster for the form. Nonetheless, one thing both these graphs show is that comics generally, whether comic strips, comic books or graphic novels--have grown steadily in their cultural currency for almost a century.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

What I Didn't Do This Summer

Robert Boyd

What I haven't been doing this summer is writing. I have an excuse--I moved into a new place, which has been a very time-consuming process. But I've also procrastinated. There have been things I fully intended to write about--the amazing Trenton Doyle Hancock show at CAMH, the ginormous Big Show at Lawndale, the great new artists residency in Navasota and much more--that I just never got around to finishing. Usually I feel consumed with guilt if I'm not producing. But this summer, only a little guilt. And that's a little troubling for the future of the blog. After all, I don't get paid to do this--so without guilt, what's my motivation?

But slightly guilty introspection is not the purpose of this post. Just because I've dropped the ball this summer doesn't mean you need to deprive yourself of quality online art commentary. Obviously Glasstire is still going strong, and recently has been pissing people off a lot, which I like. People getting pissed off means people actually care and engage. Houston's art scene can sometimes feel like a warm soup of complacent consensus (with a lot of "off the record" backbiting, natch). But several Glasstire pieces recently have inspired a lot of contentious comments (which can often be pretty deadly, but I think Glasstire monitors its comment sections to weed out the obvious trolls). For example, check out "How Tight Is Texas for Artists" by Christina Rees, which asks "Why would anyone who is truly creative stay in this city or this state if they could live elsewhere?" Bill Davenport hit one out of the park with his two-fer  "Painting on my Planet" and "The Top Ten Painters In Houston", in which Davenport responds to a somewhat puzzling top 10 painters list in the Houston Press. Davenport proposes that that list is from another planet ("Planet A") while he prefers work from "Planet B." Part of me thinks Planet B should have been called "Planet MFA," but his list was not only pretty good, but it inspired a deluge of reader-generated lists.

But everyone who reads The Great God Pan Is Dead already reads Glasstire, right? What else should you be paying attention to? A new project by Houston artist Brian Piana is Spill Some Stuff. Spill Some Stuff is a podcast, which is a form of internet communication I have to admit that I don't like all that much. My problem is that you listen to them thinking you can be doing something else at the same time, but I can't really simultaneously do anything else and pay attention to the podcast. It's too hard for me to divide my attention. But that's me--obviously there are a lot of multi-taskers out there who can work on some project while still actively listening to a podcast. The success of Bad at Sports proves this.

Spill Some Stuff is very new and has had only two podcasts so far--but they are both pretty meaty. The podcasts last about an hour. Piana has promised that Spill Some Stuff won't be exclusively art-focused, but his first two interview subjects, Emily Link and Elaine Bradford, are both well-known members of the Houston art scene.

Emily Link, Steinmann, 2011

The first episode was an interview with Emily Link, and they discuss Link's art as well as her work with Lawndale Art Center, focusing particularly on The Big Show, which was about to open when this interview was conducted. Piana is a little nervous, and he has a tendency to hog the discussion. The word "awesome" pops up too frequently in this interview. But these quibbles aside, it's an impressive debut. Piana, it turns out, has a fantastic radio voice and is a natural radio interviewer. There's never "dead air"--if he talks a little more than his subject, it's in the service of moving things along. It never feels awkward and he's never at a loss for words.

Elaine Bradford, I See You, 2014, ceramic figures and crocheted embroidery threads (from the Big Show at Lawndale)

And his second interview with Elaine Bradford is even better. They discuss her career and recent work, as well as her work with Box 13 Artspace. And practice makes perfect--Piana's interviewing is even better in this second installment than in the first. This is good stuff. I look forward to hearing more.

Another bit of online art commentary I've been consuming is Art vs. Reality, a series of videos written and starring Peter Drew. Peter Drew is a young Australian artist and critic whose previous claim to fame was to be almost kicked out of the Glasgow School of Art in 2013 for doing illegal street art.

His six-part video series, Art vs. Reality, features him taking on the persona of an extremely pompous art critic doing the kind of "explains it all to you" TV show that reminds one a bit of Robert Hughes. It has a satirical edge, but it aims to address real issues--art galleries (using "galleries" in the English sense of any place designed specifically to show art, including museums), art schools, conceptual art, street art, artists as "geniuses" and art critics. Each episode is followed by a mini-episode in which he responds to viewer mail. (In the first episode, he asks for feedback on the role of galleries today--but warns viewers, "By all means, challenge my opinions, but I warn you: my education cost more than a Blue Period Picasso, I've dined with the world's greatest curators and ruined careers of over a thousand artists. To destroy your argument will be my pleasure... And your privilege. So in other words--let's have a healthy debate!"

This series reminds me a bit of the great series Art Thoughtz by Hennessy Youngman, the alter ego of artist Jason Munson. Youngman and Drew both address their viewers as "internet" ("Wassup internet!"). They both address serious issues of art lightly. Their styles are totally different, but their willingness to use humor to engage the art world marks them as related projects. Given the dour seriousness of much of the art world, they're refreshing.

Here is the first episode of Art vs. Reality:

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Art Everywhere

Robert Boyd

Art is everywhere. Even outside my bathroom window.

These billboards are barely visible through the tree branches outside my window. There's an image on the left-hand side of the right billboard. Here is what that image looks like without a bunch of leaves in front of it.

Erwin E. Smith, Frank Smith, Watering His Horse, Cross-B Ranch, Crosby County, Texas, c. 1909

It's part of a billboard art show called Art Everywhere. The project consists of 58 artworks put up around the country on a large number of billboards. There is a map showing where all the billboards are, but it's inaccurate--it doesn't show "my" billboard, which is on Fannin just south of Drew in Houston. Assuming the rest of the map is correct, you will be able to see several of the billboards around Houston in diverse locations (as well as all over the USA).

The earliest work in Art Everywhere is Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley, and the most recent is a Cindy Sherman photograph. Several artists have more than one piece--Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent and Georgia O'Keefe. There is a preference for representational work in the pieces chosen, but there are a few abstract paintings in the mix.

I vaguely knew this was happening, but it wasn't until I saw the billboard out my window that I realized it was happening now. You will be able to see these billboards through the month of August. Going on a long road-trip? Spotting the Art Everywhere billboards might help pass the time!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Art Outside the Loop: Mattress Mack Goes Abstract

Robert Boyd

Once you get outside the Loop, works of art get more and more scarce. Fewer museums, fewer galleries, fewer public spaces hosting public works than inside the Loop. (The two airports are big exceptions to this rule.) But one thing that does pop up outside the Loop is highly eccentric art--art that doesn't fit into the categories a dedicated art-worlder like myself will expect. I like those surprises, like the cubes at the Sun Blossom apartments on Gessner or the Eclectic Managerie. I got another one of those surprises when I went to Gallery Furniture recently to buy box springs.

31, Bob Mosier, reclaimed steel

This abstract metal sculpture was the least likely piece of art I would have imagined ever seeing in front of Mattress Mack's temple of furniture. What was the story behind it? And what did the "31" at the top mean?

31, Bob Mosier, reclaimed steel

The first thing that occurred to me was, this isn't bad!  I've seen a lot of corporate plop art in my time, and it is usually pretty boring. Sleek and expensive, corporate plop is decidedly devoid of real meaning while simultaneously projecting wealth and power. It signifies "good taste" and modernity without challenging its viewers in any way whatsoever.

31 on the contrary has a loose-limbed, unbalanced stance. With its bent and twisted I-beams bending out from the center, it seems to be on the verge of falling apart. It has wit and the number "31" carved into the top, through which you can see the sky, adds a layer of slightly humorous mystery.

31, Bob Mosier, reclaimed steel

So what does it mean? The granite plaque in front of it explains all.

This fire was big news when it happened. The alleged arsonist was a former salesman at Gallery Furniture--he was ruled incompetent to stand trial in 2012. The "31" evidently refers to Fire Station 31 on Crosstimbers, whose firefighters were probably the ones who responded to this fire.

It would be easy for a sophisticated fellow like myself to snicker at this, especially the self-congratulatory phrase "magnificent work of art". But in fact I totally approve of this. It's a nice work, a commemorative sculpture, remembering a destructive event and constructed from the remnants of the destruction. I wish there were more works like it in Houston. We all know how bad Houston is about commemorating (or even remembering) episodes from its own history. Gallery Furniture decided its warehouse fire was something that shouldn't be forgotten, and that their gratitude towards the firefighters should be expressed publicly. In the scheme of things, this warehouse fire wasn't a major disaster--no one died, thank goodness, and Gallery Furniture was able to stay in business despite their substantial losses. But from the point of view of the Gallery Furniture organization, it was a very important event. So why not commemorate it?

Bob Mosier is an accomplished sculptor from Conroe who specializes in glass. This work is a little different from his usual work, but he used the unusual circumstances of the commission to make something interesting. I appreciate that Gallery Furniture used a local artist for this commission, but given Mattress Mack's Houston area boosterism, I would have expected nothing less.

So if you need to do a little furniture shopping, stop by Mattress Mack's place and take a gander at Bob Mosier's 31.

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