Saturday, November 27, 2010

It's Better to Regret Something You Have Done... at Art Palace

Of all the commercial galleries in town, Art Palace is perhaps the most adventurous. They regularly display works that are intellectually challenging, as well as works that would be difficult for a collector to possess--installations and video art in particular. This show carries on that direction, and it's really exciting but it makes you wonder how long Art Palace can survive as a going concern. (Or maybe--hopefully--I am underestimating the adventurousness of Houston collectors.)

The thing is, since Duchamp--and really since the Renaissance--context has been a really important aspect in understanding an artwork. Art made for a 17th century Dutch burger's home is inherently different from art made to decorate a 17th century Italian church--even if the subject matter is identical. This comes into play when discussing at least some of the artwork Art Palace's current group show, "It is Better to Regret Something You Have Done..." For example, Linda Post's Cozy Group has a slightly different existence in a commercial gallery than in, say, a non-profit art space like Diverse Works or Lawndale.

Linda Post, Cozy Group, televisions, sewn canvas cozies, DVDs (photo courtesy of Art Palace)

Four small televisions are on the floor in the darkened front room of Art Palace. Each is playing something. Each is covered by a custom fitted cozy, like a tea cozy, made of canvas. Obviously a TV cozy is a very different thing than a tea cozy--a TV cozy has no practical use. There is no need to insulate a TV to keep it from losing heat. The cozies, in fact, prevent the TVs from operating optimally by covering the screen and muffling the sound. Entering the room makes one think of scenes from movies where people enter a dusty old house where the furniture has been covered with sheets. The ghostly shapes of the furniture in such scenes are so suggestive and ominous that this scenario has become a cliche for haunted house movies. Likewise, the Cozy Group has a haunted feel--one that is amplified by the fact that the TVs are playing. The cozies make the screens glow softly and spookily in the darkened room.

So why does it matter that this is being displayed at Art Palace rather than a museum or nonprofit art space? Because by being in Art Palace, one is implicitly asked to imagine this in the possession of a collector. One must imagine this in someone's home--that someone would devote a room in their home to house this spooky, severe piece. (I realize, of course, that you could walk into a gallery and forget its commercial purpose and see the art within as art qua art--and if you can do that, you are a much purer person than me.) The interesting thing is that this piece (or earlier versions) has been shown in non-profit spaces in 2004-05 and 2009. Now as hard as it is to imagine someone owning this group, the thought is tremendously appealing. Imagining this scenario for me makes experiencing Cozy Group in Art Palace a richer experience than it would be at, say, the Incident Report Viewing Station in Hudson New York.

(The reverse would be true about an oil painting in a commercial art gallery. Oil paintings have a long history as objects of commerce, whose location in a gallery is to facilitate a cash transaction. However, an oil painting in a non-profit art space implies a theory or thought process is at work to make sense of it being there. An oil painting in such a space is the end result of a curatorial process, and thinking about that process adds something to the painting itself.)

 After the 2009 Lawndale Big Show, there were two nights of slide presentations by the artists.I'm pretty sure Jim Nolan was one of the presenters, and his talk, though brief, was memorable. (If I'm wrong, someone please correct me.) He described his work as being influenced by Joel Shapiro, which I didn't get. I associated Shapiro with those cutesy cast railroad tie men, like the one in the Cullen Sculpture Garden. But Shapiro has done a lot of other work that you can see as possibly influencing Nolan. This piece distinctly recalls some of Shapiro's wooden floor pieces:

Jim Nolan, It's Better to Regret Something You Have Done/First House, painted wood (photo courtesy of Art Palace)

Some of Nolan's pieces--including Not in focus yet / Grey, which is in this show--feature a string with the two ends attached to the wall (among other elements). This element has a casual feeling--it is literally hanging around--and the artist doesn't determine the form. Gravity and mathematics do. I think this is what appeals to me. A completely flexible string, hanging freely from two ends, will form one shape and one shape only--a parabola. The focus and directrix of the parabola will depend on the length of the string and the distance between the two endpoints. So Nolan has a great deal of control over what the parabola will look like, but still he is surrendering his decision about the shape of the string to the laws of gravity. It's a kind of humility.

Jim Nolan, Not In Focus Yet / Grey, carpet, wood, string and pushpins

And this leads to a second thing Nolan said at Lawndale. It was so memorable to me that I remember almost word for word. "If you keep working on a thing, does it get any better?" On one hand, this could be read as a rejection of craft. But on the other hand, I think it relates to the string, or to the unpainted wood in Double Rose. Or the flattened cardboard boxes that Robert Rauschenberg did (and which can be seen at the Menil). If it works, why fuss with it? If gravity makes a perfect parabola--an elegant shape--why not let it?

Jillian Conrad's art is similar in the sense that she allows her modest, unlovely construction site materials look like what they look like, without any attempts to beautify them. This was apparent in the work she showed at the Art League earlier this year, which looked like detritus recovered from a construction site (with glitter added). This effect is also apparent in her work here, such as the piece Sweet and Lowdown.

Jillian Conrad, Sweet and Lowdown, concrete blocks, plaster, clay, wood and pigment

Jillian Conrad, Sweet and Lowdown, concrete blocks, plaster, clay, wood and pigment

What makes this piece for me is the line on the floor--all the rest of it could be a sculpture in a tradition sense (broadly speaking), but the line on the floor really fuzzes things. If Rosalind Krauss is right and sculpture prior to the '60s could be described as not-landscape and not-architecture, then that little line makes you wonder if this is architecture--a corner of an unfinished structure. Of course, she suggested that minimalist and post-minimalist artists had expanded the field of sculpture--"sculpture"could now be simultaneously architecture and sculpture. But with Conrad's work, I am reluctant to use the term "architecture"--I want to say "building." (I would say "construction," but that is a term already loaded with specific artistic meaning.)

This again is work that is strange in an art gallery. Removing it to a collector's back patio, say, would make a viewer wonder if she was looking at a piece of art or an unfinished building project. And because it is in a gallery and has a price attached to it, I personally can't help but imagining that very scenario. In fact, imagining it is highly amusing for me! A piece like this is ambiguous--depending on context, it may announce itself as non-art or art. And ambiguity can be really funny. And that makes me love the work even more.

I wonder why Nathan Green was included in the exhibit. Maybe they thought the exhibit needed a splash of color, which Green provides in spades.