Sunday, December 6, 2009

Jim Pirtle, Notsuoh, and No Zoning

I went to my company's Christmas party Friday night. It was downtown, and after I left, I was wandering down Main Street and stopped into Notsuoh. I saw that Jim Pirtle was there, so I introduced myself. I spoke about one of the performances of his that I saw and mentioned that I didn't love the No Zoning Show. Pirtle was a canny conversationalist and arguer. He conceded that it was difficult to bring artistic practices that deliberately existed outside museums--practices that were social or existed in a particular time and space--and make them work inside a museum. He said a lot of what was in the show were traces of the past (especially the photos, but his own installation as well) that lacked context if you hadn't experienced some of it first hand.

In particular, he spoke of the past, and people from the past, as being "ghosts." You have frozen impressions of people and events. Each of the glass cases in his piece were representative of distinct stages in his life; they were pictures of "ghosts" in a way. The big empty box "contained" potential future stages of life.

But one thing he said about No Zoning that made me appreciate it more was about the new director of the CAMH, Bill Arning,  and the two curators of the show, Toby Kamps and Meredith Goldsmith. He said of them that they were not from Houston, and there was always a possibility with people who have been brought in from somewhere else that they may feel like showing off. they may see their task as educating the hicks, or feel compelled to make their mark in a big way. Instead, this show, Pirtle felt, was largely about them working hard to understand Houston and really get where art was in Houston and how it got there. Having put together this show and having made an effort to understand what Houston art means would actually improve future shows.

This makes a lot of sense to me, and hearing it from Pirtle increased my anticipation of what we might see in the future at CAMH.

Around this point, a guy named Alex joined us. Pirtle introduced us and the conversation continued. Alex said he saw the show as a kind of vindication of the original Lawndale. But Pirtle disagreed, pointing out that only some of the artists had come through Lawndale. But I recalled what James Surls said--that Lawndale was the catalyst that permitted other institutions to take the step--Diverse Works, the Core Program, etc.

Pirtle saw the Core program as the key. He said the key was a simple structural aspect of the Core. It brought people in for two years. If you go someplace for a year, you don't necessarily feel attached to the place. But after two years, you will have made friends, connections. There will be reasons to stay--and thats what has happened over the years. And those that stayed really enriched Houston's art scene.

Then Alex and I started talking about Sig Byrd and the history of Houston. Pirtle had effectively engineered our conversation--all in line with his whole concept of Notsuoh as a social sculpture. He would drop in and add something every now and then, but for the most part he let us chat.

If you look at old articles in the Houston Press, it seems like Notsuoh has had its ups and downs. Pirtle bought the building for $20,000, and it is now worth a lot more than that--possibly enough for him to retire on. The taxes on it must be substantial. But he keeps it going. That stage of his life is not done yet.


  1. Jim is right about the Core Program / Lawndale thing. Naturally, Lawndale NEEDS no vindication from the establishment (no stinking badges!), and it put the guts and grit into the art scene in Houston. The Core program brought polish, brains and international talent to town and established respect for Houston artists in the straight art world.

    Re: Sig Byrd, you know I adapted one of his stories ("Comanche") as a comic, right? It updated the story from the '40s/'50s to 1996. Got printed in an anthology produced by Pekar artist Joe Zabel ("Death by Crowquill").

    --Scott Gilbert

  2. A side note about what you wrote:

    "The taxes on it must be substantial. And if he sold it, he could possibly retire on the proceeds."

    haha... There is no actual need for Jim to "retire". A break every now and then? Sure.

    If you go there more than a handful of times then you may understand more of what I mean.

    Notsuoh is his playground. He is not trying to make enough money to do something more glorious. Well for now. Until he fancies something else or however else life goes.

    Sure Nots have its ups and downs but such is life.

    yes, sometimes he bitches about shutting it down and sell the building. But he has been saying that on and off for years now. woulda, coulda, maybe?

    so until something happens... its just entertainment :)