Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Rick Lowe is a Genius (Alison Bechdel, Too)

Robert Boyd

Rick Lowe (Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.)

We aren't really supposed to use words like "genius" any more to talk about artists. "Genius" is one of those holdovers of Romanticism, a word, John Berger wrote,that was meant to "mystify rather than clarify." The MacArthur Foundation grants are often called "genius grants," but as Cecelia Conrad, vice-president of Macarthur Fellows Program, wrote, "The foundation does not use the name 'genius' grant; the news media coined that nickname in 1981, when we announced our first class of fellows."

Nonetheless, the name "genius grant" and all it implies has stuck with the MacArthur Fellows Program. The new class of MacArthur Fellows was announced this morning. I was was moved to learn that Rick Lowe, co-founder and guiding light of Project Row Houses, is part of the class of 2014Project Row Houses is one of the best things about Houston. A combination of community organization and revolving set of artists installations, PRH remains an unique institution on the Houston scene. (The only other thing locally that combines art and community action on anywhere near the scale of PRH is the Phoenix Commotion up in Huntsville.) And Lowe has taken this model and incubated similar initiatives in other cities.

Rick Lowe walking along Holman St. in front of Project Row Houses (Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.)

The email from Project Row Houses announcing Lowe's MacArthur grant came at two minutes after midnight. I'm guessing the news was embargoed until then. I went to the MacArthur Foundation webpage and was astonished and pleased that another artist I love had been selected--Alison Bechdel.

Alison Bechdel in her studio (Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.)

Alison Bechdel is a cartoonist who came to prominence with her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. That comic was mainly known within the LGBTQ community--she burst out into wider awareness through her two searing comics memoirs Fun Home: A Family Tragicomicand Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama.I've loved her work since I first read her DTWOF collections. As I sit here typing this, I can look at the wall opposite me and see a piece of Alison Bechdel art--one of her DTWOF strips entitled "Boy Trouble."

Alison Bechdel artwork on my wall

The Fellowship is accompanied with a grant for each recipient of $625,000, doled out over five years. It means that for a few years, at least, Lowe and Bechdel won't have to worry too much about money. The purpose is not to reward them for past work, but to create a space for them to continue working--continuing work already started or initiating new projects. Being a MacArthur Fellow means, above all, time to work.

Rick Lowe is 53. Alison Bechdel is 54. I'm 51 and I feel like a child next to them. Maybe that's what they mean by "genius."

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Discovery Stories: Kindred Spirits at the Art Car Museum

Robert Boyd

What is outsider art? What is folk art? Do these two categories overlap? What is their relationship to the "art world"? These questions are on my mind after viewing Kindred Spirit at the Art Car Museum. Co-Curator Jay Wehnert (who runs the great web site Intuitive Eye) identifies the work in this show as presenting a "folk art aesthetic"--that qualified statement is required because some of the artists in the show are academically trained. Real folk artists, he states, are either self-taught or work in a tradition that exists in their community. If there are themes to the work, Wehnert defines them as "heritage" and "spirituality." Much of the art is specifically Christian, depicting scenes from the Bible or exhorting the viewer to repent.

Rev. Brown, The Straight Gate, not dated, paint on wood

Unlike classical arts like oil paintings or marble sculpture, there is a fuzziness about whether or not a piece of folk art or outsider art is, in fact, art. This issue also exists for a lot of contemporary art, particularly installations, found objects, conceptual art, etc. To vastly simplify the issues here, a rule of thumb is that if you see it in a gallery, it's probably art. (This leads to the comic situation one sometimes finds oneself in, where you are in a gallery looking at an unfamiliar vent or electrical outlet wondering whether it's part of the exhibit.) This idea, the institutional theory of art, has very interesting philosophical ramifications, but it also happens to be very helpful in evaluating much contemporary art.

But with folk and outsider art, we need another criterion. Something similar, perhaps, but not exactly the same. The issue of whether or not a piece of work is "art" or not isn't solved by its presence in a museum--after all, such objects can exist in anthropological or historical museums without being called "art". For folk and outsider art, therefore, a work becomes art not when it enters a gallery, but when it is discovered (and usually acquired) by someone who has some level of connection to the bourgeois art world. In some cases, the "discovery story" is a major part of the elevation of a folk artist's work into the sanctified realm of art. See for example Nathan Lerner (Henry Darger's landlord), John Maloof (buying random boxes of Vivian Maier negatives at auction), Bill Arnett (driving Southern backroads to discover Thornton Dial, the Gee's Bend quilters and other African American folk artists), etc. So when in this show the labels list the names of the collector who owns a given piece, it takes on a slightly more significance than similar labels in a show of, say, 18th century English paintings at the MFAH would. In some cases, that "collector" was the first person with the authority (granted by virtue of that person's membership in the art world) to recognize that a body of work was, in fact, art.

Ike Morgan, George Washington, n.d., acrylic on paper

Such is the case with George Washington by Ike Morgan. It is identified as being in the collection of artist Jim Pirtle, and significantly, Pirtle was the one who discovered Morgan when Pirtle worked the night shift at the Rusk Hospital for the Criminally Insane and Morgan was an inmate there. (Wehnert tells this story on his website, The Intuitive Eye.) As I wandered through this show, I wondered if there were other stories like this hidden behind the artworks on display.

Ike Morgan, Mount Rushmore, ca. 1990, acrylic and ink on paper

It's hard for me to view a show like this without thinking about these things--the "discovery" of the artist and the elevation of the work from either a practical or personal function into the consecrated realm of "art." These seem like key issues in the world of outsider art. So while I look at the fascinating work of a great colorist like Ike Morgan, these thoughts nag. For instance, it is significant that this show is at the Art Car Museum as opposed to, say, Diverse Works or the CAMH. Some institutions in Houston seem sympathetic with outsider art (the Menil and the Art Car Museum primarily), while others are apparently not (pretty much every other art exhibition space in town). As far as I know, no commercial galleries in Houston deal with this work--there seems to be a worry among at least some of them that doing so would be exploitative. (This is an accusation that Bill Arnett has faced repeatedly.) But the upshot of this reticence is that we only rarely see work like this in Houston. Until this show, the most recent exhibit of this kind of art was the staggering Seeing Stars: Visionary Drawing from the Collection at the Menil in 2011. Has Ike Morgan ever had a solo exhibit in Houston? Not as far as I can determine.

It seems weird that Houston, of all places, shouldn't be more fertile ground for the public exhibition of folk/outsider/visionary art.  After all, we love our visionary architecture/environments like the Orange Show. Why does Houston value such artists more if they are architects and builders (and auto customizers) than if they are painters? I don't know. Maybe shows like this can help bring balance.

Richard Gordan Kendall, Church, ca. 1997, colored pencil on paper

Richard Gordon Kendall was a homeless man who passed his time making elaborate drawings. In 1995, curator Jay Wehnert heard about Gordon from a friend who had observed him drawing in downtown Houston. A story like this is red meat to an obsessive folk/outsider art enthusiast. He searched the area near the Star of Hope Mission in downtown Houston every day for a week until he found Kendall. According to Wehnert, Kendall had never shown anyone the drawings. For the next three years, Wehnert supplied Kendall with art supplies, food and clothes while occasionally buying a piece of art. Then in 1998, Kendall disappeared.

Kendall's obsessive drawings were entirely private until Wehnert came along. They were never finished--Kendall would continue tweaking them indefinitely as long as he was the only viewer. But once Wehnert came along and started buying them, they became finished works of art.

Richard Gordon Kendall, Self-Portrait, n.d., colored pencil on paper

The problem with Kendall's work is that it is hard to judge them without judging their story. My feeling is that they seem less visually interesting than Ike Morgan's work, but the mystery of their creation is so fascinating that I'm willing to handicap them. Yet thinking about them this way feels wrong. It makes me feel slightly guilty. But it's a helpful reminder that no aesthetic judgment is pure. There is no such thing as an ideologically neutral Olympian aesthetic judgment. The moment you know Kendall's story, his story becomes part of his art.

Rev, Brown, Jesus is the Way, n.d., paint on wood

Since the creators of these works often come from cultures in which "professional artist" doesn't exist as an occupation, they do things that in some way relate to being an artist. The Reverend Brown was a Fifth Ward sign painter and preacher. In Brown's world, Jesus is the Way was a painted sign serving a religious purpose. In a gallery, it becomes a piece of folk art with powerful design and hand-painted calligraphy.

Frank Jones, Devil House, ca. 1967, colored pencil on paper

When I saw Frank Jones' work, it immediately appealed to me even before I learned his story. But even without knowing Jones' history as a mentally disturbed prisoner, it reminded me of the work of famous outsider artists like Adolf Wölfli and Martin Ramirez. It makes one wonder if there is a style associated with incarcerated mentally ill men? In some ways, they all seem to be turning their prisons into fantasies. In Jones case, he was a visionary who was plagued by "haunts" and "devils" his entire life. His situation seems like a case of untreated mental illness, and like many facing that situation, he ended up in prison in Huntsville. There he drew pictures of his devils in "devil houses" with whatever materials he could scrounge.

Then in 1964, the prison in Huntville sponsored its first prison art contest. Some guards entered Jones's work as a joke. Ironically, it won the contest. And in a classic "discovery" narrative, Dallas gallerist Murray Smither happened to be in the audience for the show. He was taken with the work and became a liaison between Jones and the art world. It's worth noting that with Wehnert and Smither, neither just blindly stumbled onto their "discoveries." They both made an effort to get outside of their comfort zone in hope of discovering wonderful art.

Forrest Prince, People That Eat Animals Have a Love Deficiency, 2006, mirror, wood

Not every artist in the show is an outsider artist or a folk artist. Forrest Prince is an active participant in the Houston art scene, even though his biography reads like that of an outsider artist. He's an ideal example of the fluidity of these categories. Frank Jones, a lifer in prison, never had the opportunity to become part of the social world of any art scene. Forrest Prince could have been in the same boat, but his life of petty criminality ended in the late 60s and early 70s when he was born again as a Christian and an artist (a simultaneous occurrence). Of course, he still needed a discovery story, and his work was spotted by CAMH director James Harithas. But at that point, is he an outsider artist anymore? Does that phrase have a solid enough definition to include or exclude someone like Forrest Prince. Either way, his work is a powerful and a welcome inclusion in the show.

Aaron Lundy, Hood People (one of three), 2004, papier mâché

And sometimes the work here may be the work of someone resolutely outside the art world but feel like it would fit right in, like Aaron Lundy's Hood People. When I saw them, I instantly thought of John Ahearn's portraits of folks from the South Bronx.  Lundy is a hairdresser from the Third Ward. Ahearn has had museum shows and has exhibited work on three continents, with write-ups in all the big art slicks.

Aaron Lundy, Hood People & Third Ward, 2004, papier mâché

These categories--outsider art, visionary art, folk art, contemporary art--are fluid. We know what they mean, but as Kindred Spirit demonstrates (whether intentionally or not), our certainties about them can evaporate when we look closely at individual works and artists.

Vanzant Driver, untitled, ca. 1980, broken glass, glue, plywood, light

Vanzant Driver's glass chapels are the work of someone who sees himself on a mission from God. In fact, he doesn't sign the works because he sees them as being created by God. But when he walked into the CAMH and showed his work to rental gallery director Sheila Rosenstein, he found a receptive eye and a certain entrée into the art world.

When Ray Balinskas and Tito Ramos decided to build their own version of a Mexican nacimiento, they invited many of the artists of Houston to help--including Vanzant Driver.

Ray Balinskas and Tito Ramos (with Marie Adams, Wanda Alexander, Sarah Balinskas, Bobbie Bennett, James Bettison, John Bryant, Pat Burns, Bob Camblin, Sue Castleman, Dorman David, Gayle DeGuerin, Julio Del Hoyo, Mark Diamond, Vanzant Driver, Alix Dunn, Noah Edmundson, Mercedes Fernandes, Michael Galbreth, Ron Garcia, Dixie Friend Gay, Carol Gerhardt, Nancy Giordano, Lynn Goode, Stephanie Wernette Harrison, John Hilliard, Kim Hines, Perry House, Benito Huerta, Tom Hughen, Lollie Jackson, Diana Jenscke, Lucas Johnson, Patti Johnson, Sam Jones, Sharon Kopriva, Labeth Lammers, Jhonny Langer, Maite Leal, Marianne Lixie, Peter Loos, Jesse Lott, Betty Luddington, Mariquita Masterson, Jack Massing, Robert McCoy, Bonnie McMillan, Michael Moore, Paola Mrorni, Melissa Noble, Patrick Palmer, Kate Petley, Forrest prince, Don Redman, Chula Ross Sanchez, Gail Siptak, Earl Staley, William Steen, Lynn Swanner, Joe Tate, Toby Topek, Arthur Turner, Tracye Ware, Gary Wellman, Ellen White, Joanne White, Frank Williams, Clint Willour, Dee Wolff, Elena Wortham and Gloria Zamora), Texas Nacimento, 1989, mixed media

Ray Balinskas and Tito Ramos (et al.), Texas Nacimento (Vanzant Driver chapel detail), 1989, mixed media

Ray Balinskas and Tito Ramos (et al.), Texas Nacimento, 1989, mixed media

Ray Balinskas and Tito Ramos (et al.), Texas Nacimento (detail, flames by Earl Staley), 1989, mixed media

Ray Balinskas and Tito Ramos (et al.), Texas Nacimento (detail), 1989, mixed media

Ray Balinskas and Tito Ramos (et al.), Texas Nacimento (detail), 1989, mixed media

If any single piece in the show represents a collapsing of artistic categories, Texas Nacimiento is it.

One unspoken thing in this exhibit--the elephant in the room--is that many of these artists are African Americans who came from impoverished backgrounds, either from rural areas or urban neighborhoods like the Third Ward or the Fifth Ward. Their race and economic circumstances prevented them from studying art in school, getting MFAs, etc. (Or getting proper psychiatric treatment, as in the case of Ike Morgan and Frank Jones). While there are outsider/folk/visionary artists from every race and background, this show shows us that Texas's long shameful racial history has pushed quite a lot of African-American artists to forge their own paths far outside the mainstream.

This suggests that the discovery story is a story of quasi-imperialist appropriation. It's dangerous territory. On balance, I would prefer that this work be discovered, honored and preserved than otherwise, but it is reasonable to question the well-meaning actions of representatives from a wealthy, dominant culture who acquire work from outsider and folk artists.

Kindred Spirit is a good exhibit, but a bit scattered. There are too many different works in the show that are hard to relate to one another. And the inclusion of three art cars (a requirement of the museum) doesn't help this. But if you look past this minor fault, Kindred Spirit is an important show. It reminds us that there have been and are people in Houston doing often astonishing art completely outside the art world.

What I would like to see now would be nice solo exhibits by many of the artists in this show, particularly Ike Morgan, Frank Jones and Aaron Lundy.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Frank Freed

Robert Boyd

The Museum of Fine Arts book store is having a very nice little sale right now, and I got More Than a Constructive Hobby: The Paintings of Frank Freed an exhibition catalog from 1996 for an unbeatable $2.

Frank Freed was an amateur painter in Houston who started painting at age 42 in 1948. He was heavily involved in the local Houston art scene in the 50s and 60s, particularly with the Contemporary Arts Association (later the CAMH) in its early days. Probably his best known painting is Opening Night at the Contemporary Arts Museum from 1954.

Frank Freed, Opening Night at the Contemporary Arts Museum, 1954, oil on canvas, 18 1/8 x 24 1/2 inches

He had a upper-middle-class day job in the insurance industry (interesting that so many 20th century artistic figures, like Charles Ives and Wallace Stevens, had high-paying jobs in the insurance industry--not that Freed is anywhere close to Ives or Stevens in artistic stature). He was therefore a very active "Sunday painter." The title of the exhibit comes from a letter he sent to his future wife, Eleanor, when he started taking classes at the Museum of Fine Arts school: "It's high time ... I set up a couple of constructive hobbies for old age." Curator William Camfield thinks Freed was underselling himself, but this seems right to me. He never quit his job and never seriously pursued a career as an artist. It was a highly engaging hobby. As someone who has a decent paying professional day job and an all-absorbing hobby on the side--this blog--I can relate.

Frank Freed, View from White Oak, 1971, oil on canvas, 36 x 30 inches

Freed's paintings are a mixed bag. Even though he had a couple of classes with serious teachers, his work is fundamentally naive. You couldn't call him an outsider artist, but you'd be forgiven if you thought of, say, the Rev. Howard Finster when you saw his work. However, his most obvious influence was Ben Shahn, whose work apparently "floored" him when he saw it in New York in 1947. His first painting class was with pioneering Houston modernist Robert Preusser.  His subject matter was his life, his city, his World War II experiences, Jewish life and his travels. Many of his subjects reflect his middle-class lifestyle.

Frank Freed, Cocktail Party, c. 1963, oil on masonite, 16 x 16 inches

Often he deals with political subjects overtly, but occasionally he sneaks it in, as in Cocktail Party which depicts what may have been a typical Houston cocktail party in 1963--all white except for one black face in the middle, the waiter.

It's reasonable to ask if Freed was deserving of a solo exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. He was not by any stretch of the imagination a major Houston artist. But what makes him worth examining is that he was an important figure in the cultural life of Houston, and his painting was a part of that. This is made clear by the excellent critical biography written by William Camfield. He focuses tightly of Freed and his work, but by placing him and his activities in the context of his times, Camfield tells a kind of art history of Houston. Modernist and contemporary art was pushed forward here largely through the efforts of middle-class enthusiasts like Freed, especially in the days before the MFAH and the CAMH had full-time curators.

When this show was reviewed by Sheila Dewan in the Houston Press in 1996, she asked, "Freed was basically a Sunday painter, of which there have been many in Houston's history. It's likely that more than a few of comparable talent have gone semi-professional, as Freed did before his death in 1975. So the question then is, why is the MFA paying homage to this particular one?" Her answer was cynical--money. Freed, over the course of his life, became moderately wealthy and his wife left a large bequest to the museum when she died.

In a way, that can't be discounted. If Freed had been an upholsterer or a mailman, would anyone remember his work today? Well maybe--we still go to the Orange Show and the Beer Can House, after all. In fact, I think it may be harder for a wealthy art patron to be recognized as an artist than other people. Freed didn't have a solo exhibit until 1964. In the 50s, only family members and a few friends knew he painted. It was only because his wife Eleanor promoted his artwork that he started to get exhibits. And even when someone like Freed does start showing his work, it must be difficult for anyone to take it seriously. For an active art patron to proclaim himself an artist seems utterly dilettantish. In the end, we like Freed's work because it is likable, not because he was rich.

In any case, thanks to Camfield's catalog text, this exhibit wasn't just about one man's art--it was also about a period in Houston's history (including its art history).

The MFAH had a lot of these catalogs left. And it's a great bargain for just two dollars. Get it while the sale is on.

The MFAH Has an "H" In Its Name

Robert Boyd

I strolled around the Museum of Fine Arts yesterday and checked out a show called Contemporary Art: Selections from the Museum's Collection. (It's only on view through September 14, so if you want to see it--hurry!)

Nick Cave, Soundsuit, 2011, mixed media

One thing that was cool about this little show was that included work by several Houstonians. And they were placed in the same galleries as artists like Nick Cave, Julie Mehretu, Ed Ruscha, and Fischli & Weiss, which is pretty flattering. Two of the Houston artists on display already have national reputations.

Mark Flood, Peacock, 2003, acrylic on canvas

Mark Flood is about to have a solo show at the Saint Louis Contemporary Art Museum, and Trenton Doyle Hancock's recently closed show at the CAMH has traveled to the Akron Art Museum. So the MFAH doesn't risk any hint of provinciality by showing those two artists. I don't know how important that is to the MFAH--it's certainly not something they'd admit in public, anyway. But let's face it--you don't become a "world class" museum by showing a bunch of local yokels.

Trenton Doyle Hancock, Beacon, 2006, acrylic and mixed media on cut canvas mounted on canvas

They were also showing a Jim Love sculpture, although curiously it was not a piece from the museum's collection. It belongs to the Alley Theatre.

Jim Love, Area Code, 1962, steel, cast iron and lead

The last two pieces were the most interesting in the sense that neither artist is particularly well known outside Houston. So the MFAH is, in a sense, taking a chance with these artists by saying they deserve to be displayed in the company of unimpeachably important contemporary artists like Cave, Mehretu and Ruscha.

Jeremy DePrez, untitled, 2013, oil on canvas

Michael Crowder, Air amusé, 2009, blown and cast glass

So why Jeremy DePrez and Michael Crowder and not, say, Emily Peacock or Robert Pruitt? I'm not making a value judgment here--just expressing curiosity about how particular works of Houston area artists end up in the MFAH.

OK, I've been a bit coy. The thing is, for each of these artworks, the wall-label explains where the work came from. Why these works ended up in the collection is up for speculation. There is a  gate-keeping process, but what appeals to a particular curator is ultimately unknown. But at least we know the "whence."

Peacock was a "museum purchase funded by various donors and friends of the artist." Beacon was a "gift of Cecily E. Horton in honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Core Program." Hancock was a Core fellow from 2000 to 2002. Air amusé was a "museum purchase funded by Wade Wilson, Jackie Wolens Mazow, Richard H. Moiel and Katherine S. Poeppel." Wade Wilson is a gallerist who shows Crowder's work. (We have reviewed Crowder's work here twice.) The untitled DePrez painting was a "gift of Fredericka Hunter and Ian Glennie." Hunter is the owner of Texas Gallery, where Glennie is the director. Texas Gallery exhibited work by DePrez in 2013 (a show I reviewed). DePrez is the youngest of the Houston artists here--he was born in 1983 and got his MFA from UH in 2011.

So how did this piece end up in the MFAH? I asked Alison de Lima Greene, MFAH's  Curator for Contemporary Art and Special Projects, about it. She told me that "in the case of Jeremy, his gallery invited me to look at the work and make a choice if I thought any would be good for our collection." But even at that point, there is a process for accessioning the work that she describes as "rigorous."

"After the curator and director agree that the object has relevance to the collection (which is separate from monetary value) we first present it to appropriate departmental subcommittee which is made up of a mixture of trustees, collectors, and generally knowledgeable people in that particular field. Then if the subcommittee approves, the recommendation goes to our collections committee which is made up of experienced trustees, who have final say," de Lima Greene explained.

Why would Wade Wilson and Fredericka Hunter want to give away work by an artist at their gallery? They're in the business of selling it, after all. The answer is pretty obvious--being in a museum collection confers legitimacy on an artist. In other words, it's branding. I realize this seems crass, and artists often recoil from this sort of thing--after all, the value of the work should be the work itself, not some story about its credentials--and in any case, that value shouldn't be measured in dollars. But gallerists have to live in the real world where artists and landlords and the power company all get paid lest bankruptcy and lawsuits ensue. So good branding is key to their continued existence.

Each label contained one more piece of data--a number. DePrez's was 2013.334. Beacon's was 2007.1693. This is the year the work was acquired and which work it was in order of all the works acquired that year. So in 2007, at least 1693 works were acquired by the MFAH. This tells you that at any given time, only a tiny percentage of the museum's holdings can be displayed at one time.

This perhaps more than any fear of provincialism likely explains why more Houston artists don't have work on display at any given time. (In addition to the works in this exhibit, a small James Bettison work was on display downstairs.) Not that the museum doesn't have a fraught history with local art. James Johnson Sweeney, director from 1961 to 1967, infamously ended the annual regional exhibition, which provided many Houston area artists with important exposure to viewers who might not ever otherwise see their work. Needless to say, this went over pretty poorly with local artists, as demonstrated by Frank Freed's 1966 painting Out! depicting Sweeney ejecting a local painter from the museum.

Frank Freed, Out!, oil on masonite, 12 x 12 inches

(Ironically, Out! was acquired by the MFAH in 1994. Its number is 94.250.)

Personally, I would like to see more local art exhibited at the MFAH. But its relatively small size combined with its huge collection combined with a mission to be world class institution makes this difficult. I'm hoping that when the new building is completed, which will be focused primarily on art since 1900, there will be more opportunities for the display of art by Houston's own artists.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Art and Athleticism

Betsy Huete

This past summer, I had World Cup fever. I barely watch soccer on TV normally, and I haven’t really played in nearly ten years. But I used to play a lot: I played for about sixteen years, starting from about the age of six until I graduated from college. Although I have little interest in watching sports generally, I do enjoy catching Rice soccer games as much as I can (let’s go ladies!!!). At any rate, I thought I would be mostly alone in my World Cup obsession.

My Facebook feed was, to my surprise, blown up. It was aflutter with Team USA chants, concerns about Jozy Altidore’s hamstring, or whether Michael Bradley was going to pick up the pace or not. People cheered on Memo Ochoa’s valiant goalkeeping efforts for Mexico, and floated around funny internet memes for Luis Suarez’s shoulder bite. What was even more surprising, however, was who was participating. Surely, if anyone would be chiming in, it would likely be my former teammates or the slew of people who post incessantly about sports like American football. But it wasn’t them. Instead, they were mostly art people. Fellow artists and writers, curators, dealers, art historians alike seemed completely enamored with the game. Why them?

Tim Howard, looking intense. From

Indeed, there seems to be something hovering in the art world air. LACMA this past summer presented an entire exhibition around the sport entitled Fútbol: The Beautiful Game. Glasstire’s Rainey Knudson recently forwarded a Dave Hickey Facebook post linking art to athletics. Of course there were the grumpy few who posted articles on how Jorge Luis Borges thought soccer fans were idiots—but they did it because they felt the need to respond to a growing fervor instead of ignoring it. And then there are the people residing in the art world who think athletes might as well be aliens from a distant galaxy. Stereotypes dictate that artists and athletes exist on opposite sides of the spectrum. Artists are creative, free-thinking types. Athletes are brutish robots incapable of thought. People like Duncan MacKenzie of Bad at Sports fame wear their un-athleticism as a badge of honor, but what they don’t realize is that to be an artist and an athlete are nearly exactly the same thing.

Based on the recent wave of support from the art world, I suspect I’m preaching to the choir here, but I’ll say it anyway: art is not a creative endeavor. It is an athletic one. If any artist still sits in her studio waiting to be struck with genius inspiration, she is playing an artist, not being one. Artists don’t wait, they practice. And fail. And try again, and so on until they get it right, until their work is resolved. Just like their counterparts, athletes spend hours per day training, failing, trying, not quitting. To be either means one must have an enormous amount of resolve and resiliency, and the courage to constantly face the possibility of rejection. Whether it means getting benched, getting cut from the team, losing the championship game, getting a proposal rejected, losing grant money, not getting accepted into a residency: both sides are filled with victories and losses both large and small. Both must work extremely hard to achieve whatever goals they have set for themselves. It is no coincidence that some of the most successful contemporary artists of our day, like Bruce Nauman and Matthew Barney, were former athletes.

Matthew Barney, Cremaster 3 (still), from

As coaches and players scout opponents and study game tape, artists (should) study art history so they are not making a piece that someone else made forty-five years ago. Like a quarterback or a center mid-fielder, a curator studies space. How does an artwork fit in a given museum or gallery? How does it relate or converse with the other work in the show?

Most of all, both of them strategize. As a soccer team, for instance, stays in formation, they must poke holes in the opponent’s formation by switching the ball across the field, catching the defense off guard. By slotting the ball in behind the defense, or having an outside midfielder take the ball down the flank and cross it in, the forwards then find a way to get it in the back of the net. In short, one team must read the other team’s problems in order to seize an advantage. Artists in turn problematize their own work. By generating and reading the problems inherent in it, they then locate solutions within their own internal logic.

I remember when I first became an artist feeling conflicted and confused. My artist and athlete selves felt at odds: such different friends, totally different conversations, and vastly different thinking. But as I’ve dealt with the reality and hard work of actually being an artist, it’s become obvious that they were always the same, just manifesting themselves in slightly different ways. Given the World Cup’s popularity this past summer, I imagine many of the arts professionals in our community feel the same.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Gathering of Flies: Texas Contemporary Art Fair, part 3

Robert Boyd

Continued from part 2.

Art I Liked, continued

It was interesting to see a pair of Louise Nevelsons (born 1899) and a Romare Bearden (born 1911) in among all the contemporary work.

Romare Bearden, Baptism, 1964, collage, 10 x 6 i/2 inches at ACA Galleries

Louise Nevelson, Untitled (40791), 1976, wood painted black, 57 x 44.5 x 9 inches at Timothy Yarger fine art

Skylar Fein at Jonathan Ferrara Gallery

Skylar Fein at Jonathan Ferrara Gallery

These Skylar Fein matchbook covers are freaking huge, by the way.

H.J. Bott, Oh-Gee!, 2014, glazed acrylics on canvas, 24 x 24 inches at Anya Tish Gallery

H.J. Bott is one of Houston's oldest practicing artists (born 1933). But when I see his work--always so jazzy and yet so precise--it seems like the work of ageless soul. I guess you could call Oh-Gee! a work of geometric abstraction, but that phrase somehow suggests a kind of austere coldness that is simply not a feature of Bott's work. Oh-Gee! is isn't a formal arrangement of color and line--Oh Gee! is an ecstatic dance. I was very glad to see it at TCAF.

My Favorite Art

Ibsen Espada, Yellow Zebra, ink on billboard canvas, 54 x 40 inches at Zoya Tommy Gallery

I've always liked Ibsen Espada's painting. But the veteran Houston abstractionist is an old dog who has learned a new trick. He made an agreement with a billboard company to salvage their old Tyvek billboards. He would then stretch a section of the printed Tyvek over stretcher rods as if it were canvas. But unlike canvas, this material already head colors and shapes on it. Little fragments of words and photos, once part of a larger billboard image.

What Espada has done is let these bits of found art act as the base for his painting. His painting responds to the fragments of printed billboard graphics. This dialogue between painter and urban visual blight turns out to be quite wonderful. What Espada does with these old billboard fragments feels right. Sometimes he almost obliterates the image underneath, and sometimes he barely alters it (as in the painting above). It's a very fresh visual approach from one of Houston's old masters.

Jeffrey Vallance at Edward Cella Art & Architecture

This big silkscreen caught my eye first. It's hard for artists not from Texas to play with the idea of Texas in a convincing way, but Jeffrey Vallance succeeds with this fun piece. Edward Cella Art & Architecture brought a bunch of art by the Los Angeles artist. I've always thought of Vallance as being part of the generation of L.A. artists that includes people like Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw. But his humor also reminds me of the Art Guys.

Jeffrey Vallence, Rock in the Shape of Texas, 2006, rock in the shape of Texas, reliquary, 17 x 13 3/4 x 6 1/4 inches

Jeffrey Vallence, Rock in the Shape of Texas (details),  2006, rock in the shape of Texas, reliquary, 17 x 13 3/4 x 6 1/4 inches

I love the fact that the rock in Rock in the Shape of Texas is only vaguely shaped like Texas.

Jeffrey Vallance Blinky reliquary

They also had a couple of Blinky reliquaries. Blinky was a frozen chicken that Vallance bought as an art student and had buried at a per cemetery. This triggered a lifetime of Blinky-related artworks, which he explains in the video below.

Sandow Birk, Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the Imaginary Monuments series, 2013, direct garvure etching on handmade gampi paper, backed with Sekishu kozo paper, 62 1/2 x 48 inches, edition of 25 at Catharine Clark Gallery

Sandow Birk, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (detail) from the Imaginary Monuments series , 2013, direct garvure etching on handmade gampi paper, backed with Sekishu kozo paper, 62 1/2 x 48 inches, edition of 25 at Catharine Clark Gallery

Sandow Birk, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (detail) from the Imaginary Monuments series , 2013, direct garvure etching on handmade gampi paper, backed with Sekishu kozo paper, 62 1/2 x 48 inches, edition of 25 at Catharine Clark Gallery

When I saw Sandow Birk's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it reminded me strongly of American Newspaper political cartoons from the early 20th century, particularly those of Winsor McCay. What really makes it are the obsessive, finely-etched details, like the shanty-town at tge base of the monument. On one hand, it communicates a kind of cheap irony--the utter failure of the nations of the world to live up to these lofty goals. But somehow the labor intensive artistry on display here combined with the deliberate pastiche of an older style of expression prevent me from seeing it as a piece of cheap irony. I think Birk meant it. In any case, I feel it. I was, in the end, quite moved by this piece of art.

Art I Hated

Carole Feuerman, Kendall Island, 2014, Oil on Resin, 70 x 21 x 25 inches 

People loved Kendall Island. And you could take it home for a mere $148,000. (Or you could hire a girl to come sit around in a bathing suit in your house for three or four years.) There is a pretty interesting video about the making of this sculpture. Personally, I don't get it.

Colin Christian, Batgirl, fiberglass and mixed media, 2014, 35 x 22 x 25 inches

That said, it is a model of good taste next to Colin Christian's Batgirl. Seriously, what kind of douchebag would collect this?

Mads Christensen, What Are You Blinking About?, 2013, acrylic, wood, LEDs, 40.5 x 40.5 inches at Timothy Yarger Fine Art

Mads Christensen, What Are You Blinking About?, 2013, acrylic, wood, LEDs, 40.5 x 40.5 inches at Timothy Yarger Fine Art

This supremely irritating piece of glowy art by Mads Christensen could be seen at the most recent Burning Man Festival. Nuff said!

Stanley Casselman, Luminor-1-11, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 65 x 65 inches at Timothy Yarger Fine Art

This colorful Gerhard Richter pastiche was terrible. I don't mind someone being unoriginal--after all, if an artist develops a technique, it's fair game for other artists to use it. Twas ever thus. The thing is that you have to use it well. Matthew Couper reminded me that Jerry Saltz commissioned a faux Richter squeegee painting. And what do you know--it's the same guy! Saltz seemed quite pleased with his fake Richter, and I guess working in this style has given Stanley Casselman a career (or at least a Beverly Hills gallery).

Art I Bought

Nathaniel Donnett, History Boxers, 2013 silk-screened boxer shorts at Darke Gallery

I mentioned these boxers in part 1 of this series. Nathaniel Donnett had a little clothing store within Darke Gallery that was doing a brisk trade. At $10, they were the best bargain at the fair.

Nathaniel Donnett. Orangeburg, synthetic hair and graphite on paper

This piece was in the CAMH booth. I'm not totally sure if it is in the current CAMH exhibit featuring a large installation by Donnett (I mean, would the CAMH have taken work off the wall of an exhibit to show at an art fair) or if it's merely similar to the work hanging at the CAMH.  In either case, Darke Gallery was handling the sales. I loved it, I could afford it, and so I bought it.

Matthew Couper pointed out that it was the second piece I have related to African American hair (I have a Rabéa Ballin drawing of an African American braid as well). Now I'm worried that I've accidentally become one of those white people obsessed with black hair.

Taro-Kun baseball card at The Public Trust

Taro-Kun football card

Taro-Kun is a Dallas artist. The Public Trust had a bunch of these trading cards that Taro-Kun has carefully defaced, and I found them very funny. They were cheap, too! Depicting Dave LaPoint as a big pussy was perhaps a bit unfair, but it was hilarious. Former Oiler Jerry Gray gets turned into a goat-like creature--appropriate for the Rams. But I chose this card because it reminded me of my favorite deceased Greek deity.

I got this at the Big Texas Train Show next door to the Texas Contemporary Art Fair. I will display it in my home proudly!

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