Friday, October 9, 2009

The No Zoning Catalog

Robert Boyd

There seems to be a consensus that the No Zoning show at the CAMH was a bit of a let down. The main critique I heard was that in taking these artists and practices that were all about not being in a museum, but instead were about being out in the world, in the streets, in the community--and then putting these self-same artists in a museum, you robbed them of their mojo. And there is definitely that. I also thought a problem with it was that the show seemed a bit schizo. Part of it was about looking back at what these artist had done as part of their life-long practice of art in Houston (this was reinforced by including photographers who mainly took pictures of artists and artistic events), while another part was about creating new works for display. It probably should have been one or the other, but not attempted to be both.

That said, any show like this was going to be tricky to pull off, and it had a lot of stuff worth checking out, and it honored some artists who usually seem to be on the outside of the local "museum establishment."

It's not a total shock that the catalog is better than the show. A catalog is all about documenting, so you don't have the schizophrenia between looking at the past and creating new works. As far as a catalog is concerned, they are all part of the past. No Zoning is one big history book, and I love it for that.

A big part of the catalog, running along the bottom of the page in most of the book, is a timeline of Houston's alternative art history, compiled by Caroline Huber and the Art Guys. I wrote about this before, how they put it up on Wikipedia and then had it taken down. It's back up--and the idea is that it can be edited and added to by folks. Someone at Wikipedia still petulently complains that it "excessive amount of intricate detail that may only interest a specific audience," but at least it is there and can be added to. (I hope all Houston artists will go in and add more intricate details!)

It's nicer in the catalog, though, because there are illustrations with each entry on the timeline. And reading the timeline gives me a warm feeling, especially remembering those events and places that I witnessed, like the Urban Animals, the re-creation of the Orange Show (saw several great rock shows there), Fresh Paint, True Artists Tales, etc. But it also helped me fill in a lot of gaps and understand the current scene better.

Adding to the broad general history that the timeline represents, the remembrance of the transformation of the West End into Rice Military was great as well. This essay by Cameron Armstrong discusses the discovery of the neighborhood (a run-down working-class area) by artists. I recall as an undergrad that some of my professors had studios there, and "True Artist Tales" creator Scott Gilbert lived in a shack in the neighborhood as well. Armstrong points out that tons of artists, curators, and a few galleries all moved into the area by 1995--enough that it was suddenly becoming attractive for developers. Artists are always the vanguard of gentrification. It's an old story, and hardly one particular to Houston (SoHo, anyone?). But it was interesting to read the specific details of the battles between preservation and development in the West End, issues that bedevil Houston to this day.

The next article is "Handmade Personal Spaces in Houston," about those places like The Orange Show or the Beercan House. Houston's relative lack of zoning helps make these spaces possible, but that same laissez faire approach also endangers them.

The rest of the book is devoted to the individual artists in the show. It helps to correct the problem of decontextualization that happens when, say, Jim Pirtle tried to recreate Notsuoh in a museum. We read about and see photographs of the works of these artists in their "natural" environments.

If you are interested in how Houston's art scene has grown and evolved over the past 30 odd years, this catalog is a great resource--lots of great photos and well-written.

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