Sunday, February 27, 2011

An Unexpected Billboard


I was driving to work last Wednesday and my eyes nearly popped out of my head when I saw this billboard on the North Loop between Main and Airline. I've never seen an art gallery advertise on a billboard. Galleries, when they do advertise, usually spend their ad dollars with art magazines and increasingly on art websites. So what's the story here?

Fourteen11 is a group of UH photography students (initially fourteen of them) who are graduating in 2011. Some readers may recall that I met them last year and bought a print by one of them, Mauricio Lazo. I asked Linda Darke about the billboard and she told me this:
The seniors in the photography, digital art, video dept. asked if they could have their senior show at the gallery.  I told them if they could organize themselves and find someone good to curate the show, I'd consider it. They formed a 501c3 non profit, did some fund-raising, got Kristy Peet,who teaches at HCC and the Houston Center for Photography, to curate the show.  One of the 14 artist's father-in-law owns the billboard company* and gave them a billboard that wasn't rented.
I mentioned that there were initially fourteen. One of their number, Patrick Hunter Cash, died of muscular dystrophy. The rest of the members of Fourteen11 decided to honor Cash by putting one of his photos on the billboard.


The exhibit will be opening at the Darke Gallery on April 8. Make a point of seeing it--these students are all top-notch photographers, and some of them have very exciting ideas.

*Correction: Ajaz Akhtar, one of the members of Fourteen11, writes in with a correction. It is his wife that works for the billboard company, and she convinced her boss to do something to help out their group. (And since Fourteen11 formed a 501(c)(3), the in kind donation of billboard space is probably tax deductible.)

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Jim Nolan at Art Palace

Jim Nolan (whose exhibit Today is Tomorrow is currently up at Art Palace) started off doing video and evolved into sculpture. Video, because it is a flat medium, might seem more similar to painting or other two-dimensional art than to sculpture. But like sculpture, it adds a third dimension--time in the case of video. But more important than this formal similarity is that in practice, video feels like it overlaps with sculpture more than with painting. This may be because the scope of sculpture has exploded in the past 40 years. Painting's scope has expanded as well, but nothing like what sculpture has done. In Nolan's case, one of his teachers was Tony Oursler--who is one of the most overtly sculptural of the video artists.

The thing that is kind of amusing about some of Nolan's art is that even as he avoids creating paintings, he remains interested in painting. So painting becomes the subject of some non-painted work. A sculptor I know once went off on painting, excoriating it as a narrow medium and complaining bitterly at how much it still held the fascination of the art world despite its obsolescence. Auction prices confirm this--the best selling works of contemporary art at auction are paintings. The fact that Nolan is fascinated by a medium he doesn't use is therefore not so strange. In fact, I'm surprised it's not more common.

Jim Nolan, Palisades Paintings / Brown, Red, Yellow, Blue, photo on canvas, 2011

So here are four monochromatic, gestural paintings. Except if you look closely, they are all identical (this is obscured slightly by the fact that every other "painting" is hung upside-down). They are, in fact, photos of brush-strokes filtered through some kind of image-manipulating software (like Photoshop) and laser-printed onto canvas. That is one way to demonstrate that painting has had its time--that images on canvas can be generated via laser printer! But there's something else going on here as well. What is the source of the original painted image?

The title of the piece is a clue. Nolan stopped in a rest stop in New Jersey and came across this expressive, gestural painting in the bathroom. Someone had painted over a window, and because the paint wasn't perfectly opaque,the light shining through gave a high level of visibility to the brushstrokes. Nolan took a photo of this anonymous, accidental abstract painting. These four beautiful paintings are essentially a photo taken inside a New Jersey public restroom.

Jim Nolan. MaybePartyingWillHelp / Bucket, tablecloth, bucket, artificial flowers, pushpins, 2010

Here's another "painting" piece. The big circle is a cheap plastic table-cloth from a dollar store. Nolan is interested (as we''ll see later) in extremely modest objects that are nonetheless designed with some aesthetic sense behind them. This tablecloth has what appears to be a series of highly gestural watercolor brush-strokes. And it looks good--it reminds me of Jackson Pollock's Mural or of any number of "all over" color-field paintings from the 50s and 60s. But look closer and you see that the "all over" pattern is like that of any table cloth--it's the result of a design process (almost certainly digital). The gestural brushstrokes are repeated over and over. Given the microscopic margin on selling a plastic table-cloth in a dollar store, it's tempting to imagine the artist whose work was used in this tablecloth as being like one of the oppressed art workers depicted in the Banksy Simpsons intro. And given this, the grimness of the table setting--grey flowers in a used grey bucket--is all the more appropriate.

Jim Nolan, Thank You / Purple, wood, paint, plastic bag, push pins, 2011

The first thought here is maybe of arte povera, or of some of the minimalist and post-minimalist pieces that depended on hanging something to create a form (like the Robert Morris felt pieces). All that's in there, to be sure. This is a vocabulary that Nolan draws on. But also there are the bags. These bags thank you for shopping with a bunch of purple flowers. Which means some designer or manufacturer (or team!) made aesthetic decisions on what words to put on a bag, what images, what colors, the fonts of the words, the spacing, what kind of flowers, etc. Those bags are art objects in their own supermodest way. Nolan is reminding us of this.

Jim Nolan, Mono in Stereo, photo, 2011

These are cheap speakers, But even cheap speakers have some design decisions that someone made--do we go with the fake woodgrain? Or do we go for a more hightech black finish? What I like about these deadpan, straight ahead photos of these extremely modest speakers is that they look like portraits. They look like Nolan is riffing off one of the most venerable genres of painting. And for me, this is even more clear when you see the scale of them.

Jim Nolan, Mono in Stereo installation view, photo, 2011

Who does oversized portraits? Chuck Close comes to mind. When I saw these two giant photographs, they felt more like two guys than two speakers. Blowing them up ennobles them. Nolan uses the language of post-minimalism to create grungy but unexpectedly human pieces of work. And his emphasis on found design sets him apart.

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Friday, February 25, 2011

The Ongoing Inconvenience of Communty College Art Galleries

The Bosque Gallery at Lone Star College-Cyfair

If you are an art lover who likes to stroll through the galleries and museums and art spaces in Houston, you inevitably find yourself in certain neighborhoods. The Museum District, Montrose, that area near Richmond and Kirby, just north of Downtown, the Heights, the Third Ward, and increasingly on the East End. But unless you visit the Pearl Fincher Museum in Spring, you almost never find yourself outside the Loop looking at art, much less outside the Beltway. It's as if most of Houston and Harris County were a vast art-free zone.

Wendy Wagner, Lookie installation view, mixed media, 2011

But that's not really true. Last night after work, I visited a distant art outpost, The Bosque Gallery at Lone Star College CyFair. The show was called "Lookie" and it was by Wendy Wagner, the 2008 Hunting Prize winner. The show was a combination of sculptural installation, paintings, and animation. The animation was especially great--this seems to be Wagner's biggest strength. She was in the gallery talking to students, many of whom appeared to have an assignment that involved writing about the exhibit, which I found touching. The opening was from 4 pm to 6:30 pm--I barely made it before it closed. And these hours were special hours. The gallery is usually open on these days and times:

Monday                          Closed
Tuesday-Thursday      11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Friday-Sunday               Closed

 That's typical for the community college galleries. Have you ever been to one? I've been to two--the Bosque Gallery and the art gallery at LSC-Kingwood. In both cases it was because they were open late for an opening, and even then I was only able to see shows there because I work on that side of town.

View Community College Galleries Outside the Loop in a larger map

As far as I can tell, the map above shows all the community colleges outside the 610 Loop that have art galleries. I may have overlooked some--if you know of any that I am missing, please mention it in the comments. Now some might think that community college art galleries are going to show uninteresting art or second rate art. After all, these are basically vocational schools. They don't have the broad educational mandate that a university nominally has. But the thing is, I'm always hearing about really excellent shows at these places--shows by exceptional local artists. Why is this?

Wendy Wagner, Lookie installation view (Wagner is the person on the left), mixed media, 2011

The reason is simple, I think. Lots of Houston's best artists teach at these places, either as full-time staff or as adjunct teachers. They have the wherewithal to put on excellent shows in these galleries. But the problem for me, as an art lover, is that I can never see them. Because as with the Bosque Gallery, the hours for these places are basically designed to ensure that people with day jobs never enter the gallery.

College of the Mainland Art Gallery
Mon. to Thurs.  10 am to 5 pm

Art Gallery at LSC-Kingwood
Mon. to Fri. 10:30 am to 5 pm (the main site gives different hours, but these are the hours on their Facebook page

San Jacinto College South Art Gallery
Mon. to Thurs. 8 am to 5 pm
Fri. 8 am to noon

Galeria del Norte--San Jacinto College
can't find their hours online 

HCC Northeast Art Gallery
Mon. to Thurs.  9 am to 3 pm

HCC Northwest Art Gallery
M 8:30 a.m.–11:30 p.m.
T 10:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m.
W 8:30 a.m.–11:30 p.m.
Th 10:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m.
F 9:00 a.m.–1:00 p.m. 

Alvin Community College Art Gallery
no times and days given 

 Wendy Wagner, Lookie installation view, mixed media, 2011

It's frustrating that there are so many art galleries that have what seem to be interesting exhibits that I just can't see. But you might be saying to yourself, jeez, what a whiner. Just because he can't some art shows he acts as if a great injustice is being perpetrated.

That aspect of my complaint--that it seems self-centered--is one reason I haven't written about this before, even though it has bugged me for years. But I think there is a bigger issue here. If you live inside the Loop, seeing art is pretty easy. The further outside the Loop you go, the harder it is. Now I think art is facing a crisis. People in the U.S. are alienated from art. Art funding in schools is being slashed. There are lots of people who find the art world and contemporary art to be elitist, appealing on one hand to wealthy socialites and on the other hand to academics who read lots of philosophy and critical theory. Ordinary Americans (whatever that means) can't relate.

But to my mind, a part of the problem is the geographical isolation of art. If you live in Pearland or the Woodlands, seeing an art exhibit is a major expedition--a forty mile drive! Why do that when the water park or the golf course are right down the road?

Wendy Wagner, Lookie installation view, mixed media, 2011

But as I've shown, the reality is that there are art galleries all over the Houston metro area. And these galleries feature really interesting exhibits like "Lookie". To me, it's tragic that the average resident of Cypress-Fairbanks can't swing by on Saturday afternoon and see this exhibit. More important than any personal inconvenience is the inconvenience suffered by a population that might not otherwise have any easy access to art at all. If we think it is important for the people of the Woodlands and Pearland and Pasadena and CyFair to have access to art, then the galleries at the community colleges should stay open longer hours and on the weekend.

 Wendy Wagner, Lookie sculpture, ceramic , 2011

I realize it's easy for me to blithely suggest that they stay open later. The community colleges in Texas are underfunded and about to lose even more funding. This is unlikely to change in the future, as the people in Texas repeatedly vote for the cheapest government possible. So what can be done?

I don't have a magic bullet. But I think it would be good for the gallery directors and art departments of those schools to start thinking like non-profit art spaces. The ones here in Houston work hard to get grants and come up with creative ways to raise funds. For example, they sell memberships. Even though seeing an exhibit at Diverse Works, for example, is free, they go through a lot of trouble to sell memberships at varying levels of sponsorship. I'd like to see some of the same from LCS and HCC and San Jacinto. And if it leads to being able to be open more hours, it could be a virtuous cycle--the more people who visit the gallery, the more people who will give money to the gallery. And surely the colleges wouldn't mind a slightly higher profile in the community.

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Monday, February 21, 2011

Sarah Williams Returns to McMurtrey Gallery

Sarah Williams, La Plata ATM, oil on board, 2011

I first saw Sarah Williams paintings last year at her first McMurtrey Gallery show, and I wrote about them. I emphasized their spookiness. In some ways, this show is even spookier than the previous show. There are no daytime scenes this time. Instead, we have images of depopulated, late-night midwestern buildings. The effect of the show is not really so much spooky--that was probably the wrong way to describe it. Instead, it feels lonesome, but not in a bad way. There is a kind of peace driving around late at night after everything is closed. The familiar becomes strange, and that's kind of wonderful.

Sarah Williams, MoDOT, oil on board, 2010

Sarah Williams, Green City, oil on board, 2010

Sarah Williams, Centralia, oil on board, 2010

Of course one reason they look so strange at night is how they are lit. I'm fairly sure that all of these images are are of locations in Missouri, and they make one wonder if Missouri especially likes green lights. The green lights are quite otherworldly. But even when the lights are more ordinary colors, there is a strangeness.

Sarah Williams, Jericho, oil on board, 2010

Sarah Williams, Centralia Carwash, oil on board, 2010

But in addition to these paintings, which are very similar to what she showed last year, she has a series of small paintings--one foot square--where she does something different. They are all about showing stars in the sky--sometimes in a  naturalistic way, as in this gorgeous crepuscular painting:

Sarah Williams, Lexington House, oil on board, 2010
But most of the stars are depicted in ways that call attention to them. For example, as constellations.

Sarah Williams, St. Joseph Water Treatment, oil on board, 2011

 Or as time-lapse images.

Sarah Williams, Constellations 4, oil on board, 2011

I found the constellations and time-lapse effects to be distracting. For me, the main thing are the lonely nighttime scenes. But I was clearly in a minority. When I went to the show on opening night, all but one of the 12" x 12" "star" paintings had sold.

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Bjørn Båsen at Anya Tish Gallery

Robert Boyd

Bjørn Båsen, Taffel I (Wonderland), oil on canvas, 2011

These paintings by Norwegian artist Bjørn Båsen on view at the Anya Tish Gallery, when you look at them at first, strike one as unusually rich, sugary pictures of the kind of ceramic objects that granny might possess, but ratcheted up a notch. (When I saw them reproduced small online, in fact, I thought they were photos of elaborate delftware.) But when you look at them more closely, you notice two things. First, the shadows behind the objects don't exactly match up to the objects themselves. Second, there is text reproduced on the surface of each painting--but it is subtle. The text is not painted on, but embossed. (You can't see the text in these reproductions. If you want to experience that aspect of the work, you'll need to check out the paintings in person.)

So in this painting, the text starts "She peeped over the edge of the mushroom" and is from Alice in Wonderland. And the shadows depict the caterpillar smoking a hookah with a very phallic mushroom beside him. At first you might think this was a piece about how imagination works--how ordinary shadows could inspire Lewis Carroll's fantastic imagination. But this doesn't seem quite right because the weird ceramic objects are themselves quite bizarre to begin with. For one thing, not only is this object which is casting the shadow bizarre (what could it be for?), but it is inside a much larger ceramic object. In short, this painting--and the rest of the series--defy obvious interpretation. Instead, I think the viewer (this viewer, at least) is left with a very pleasant sense of mystery. The fantastic pervades the work--the references to Alice in Wonderland reinforce that (but perhaps needlessly).

Bjørn Båsen, Taffel III (Wonderland), oil on canvas, 2011

This weird, broken double samovar manages to cast a shadow of Alice falling down the rabbit hole.

Bjørn Båsen, Taffel IV (Wonderland), oil on canvas, 2011

And the Cheshire Cat appears as a shadow to these ceramic conduits (which remind me a little of well-heads, the pipes and valves on the top of oil wells).

What happens when you do a similar kind of painting, but with a different literary reference. The pieces above are fantasy squared--the literary reference reinforces the strange unreality of the image. Not so with the two "Prism" paintings.

Bjørn Båsen, Prism I, oil on canvas, 2011

Here the text is from Germinal by Emile Zola. Again it is embossed on the canvas. Zola was a naturalist, highly concerned with documentary accuracy. Germinal was his novel of the brutal conditions under which coal miners labored, and the attempt of some of them to strike. An image of a mine filled with purple gems, where even the mine carts and tracks are constructed of this purple gem material, is again utterly fantastic. Even more than the weird ceramics in the other paintings, these "Prism" paintings look like illustrations from some children's fantasy novel--maybe a chapter from on of the later Oz books. And again, the painting surface is bright and sugary. But the text, instead of reinforcing the unreality of the image, is in stark contrast with it. There is a connection (mines) but the connection is ironic. When you look at this painting, you don't expect to see oppressed coal miners covered in coal dust, using blind horses to drag carts of coal--you expect to see elves or gnomes or smurfs, grinning as they march along with little pickaxes over their shoulders.

It seems that Båsen's main output is in the form of installations, which based on what photos I've seen look a lot like three-dimensional realizations of the kind of painted images in this show. I would have liked to have seen one of those, but that's ok--he's a hell of a painter and it was a pleasure looking at these pieces.

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

What Are You Doing on March 12?

What you should do is attend Box 13 ArtSpace's annual fundraiser. No, wait--don't zone out! All non-profit art spaces in Houston have fund-raisers and many of them are very deserving of your support. Box 13 is definitely deserving. But that's not why I am suggesting that you attend this fund-raiser.

Instead, the reason is that it is a way for us low-budget art collectors to get some surprisingly substantial pieces of art for a really low price. Lots of spaces have auctions (Project Row Houses, Diverse Works, Lawndale) and what I find is that the prices at these auction (for very, very fine pieces of art) are really high--these auctions attract fairly well-to-do collectors. Even at Lawndale's annual Retablo show, a silent auction in which most pieces are relatively affordable, the most desirable pieces end up selling for a lot of money.

But the way Box 13 structures its event is as a raffle. They get a large number of donated artwork from artists with studios at Box 13, other Houston artists, artists from the rest of Texas and a few from other parts of the country. Last year, the selection was terrific, I thought. Then beside each piece is a little box. You buy as many raffles tickets as you want, and put a ticket in the little boxes adjacent to the pieces you would like. The more popular an individual piece is, the more tickets there will be in the box. But the thing is, for a relatively small amount of money, you are extremely likely to win something. Last year I bought something like $200 worth of raffle tickets. How many artworks can you buy for $200? Not too many! But I ended up winning four beautiful, substantial pieces (as I wrote about here).

Box 13

This was one of the raffle winning tickets being chosen last year. That's one of the fun parts of the event--winners find out the same night--and get to carry their new piece of artwork home with them.

That's why you should come to the Box 13 fundraiser. For a little bit of money, you probably will drive walk home with a piece or two of superb artwork. The fact that you will be also supporting a wonderful organization is just a bonus. So mark off March 12 and be there at 7 pm.

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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Art of the Deal

I'm reading Noah Horowitz's book Art of the Deal. It is about the economics of the contemporary art market from a micro (gallery) level to a global level. I just started but already it is fascinating. Here's a quote:

Dealers utilize their promotion of cutting-edge practices like video or experimental art as a loss-leader. Their commitment to this type of art may enhance credibility, but the real money is made out of public view on sales of more conventional goods (prints, photographs, paintings). Dealers' adeptness at gaming the market in this way is one of the hallmark developments since the 1960s.

This may seem obvious, but what makes it particularly powerful is that he points to research that shows that between 25% and 60% of galleries' earnings comes from back room dealings--dealings on e secondary market. Nothing inherently wrong with this, but it helps explain how a dealer whose "front room" is devoted to video or performance or installation art can survive. Indeed, it might represent a recipe for newish dealers that have a commitment to cutting-edge art (for example, Art Palace here in Houston).

ZOMG Google is Run by Liberal Elitists!!!

How else can you explain this?


Yep, today's Google logo is made up of Brancusi sculptures.
Google has proven that they’re not just a company that loves science and technology because as of today, Google is celebrating the 135th birthday of Romanian-born sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi, or Brancusi in English. According to the artist’s Wikipedia entry, Brancusi was born in the small village of Hobiţa, in the small town of  Peştişani in Gorj County, Romania. (The Pop Herald, February 19, 2011)
Way to go Google!

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Wanted: People With Opinions About Art

Attentive readers might have noticed light posting in the past week. This is mainly because I have been quite busy at work, which has meant late nights, homework, and being pretty tired even on days when I get home at a normal time. When it comes to my day job and my hobby (this blog), they have to coexist--but when there is a conflict, my day job has precedence. But I want this to be a good blog, and my definition of a good blog is one that continually provides new material for its readers.

At the same time, I have become a little tired of my own voice. I like reading reviews of art exhibits here in Houston written by other people--Kelly Klaasmeyer, Douglas Britt, Michael Bise (far too rarely). But I'd like there to be more voices. And not just reviews. I want to read art history, personal history, scene reports, the musings of fl&acircneurs, manifestos, rants, reminiscences, criticism, etc. For example, I love the blog posts of Earl Staley (the Rooster Cogburn of Houston art) and M.M. Hansen, neither of whom are reviewers, but both of whom have things to say about Houston's art, past and present.

So you can see where I'm going. I want to solicit contributors to this blog. If you have an itch to write, I might be interested in hosting what you write. I'm looking for opinionated writers (not cheerleaders, even though a little cheerleading is OK) who can write between one and three posts a week. So if this is you, email me at

Sunday, February 13, 2011

RGB and Sometimes Y

Brian Piana's new project--a spin-off from his RGB and Sometimes Y project. He's adding text to the colors.

Brian Piana, February 12, 2011, 10:18pm over 11:55am, CST. (Valentine's Day 1/4), twitter data visualization

I like the combination. By the way, here's the RGB and Sometimes Y image from Super Bowl Sunday.

Brian Piana, February 6, 2011, 9:08pm CST. (Green Bay Packers win Super Bowl XLV), twitter data visualization

Remember that this project  is based on mentions of the words "red," "green," "blue," and "yellow." As you can see, on Super Bowl Sunday, "green" and "yellow" got mentioned a lot!

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Making Money

Robert Boyd

Marina Abromović and Ulay, Rest Energy, performance, 1980
"[Marina] Abromovic is from the generation of artists who matured in the 1970s--the artists who didn't want to sell anything. They had contempt for the market which many of them, now saddled with mortgages and dependents, have come to regret. But Abromovic has pretty much stuck with the immaterialist values of that idealistic age." (Thomas McEvilley, "Marina Abromović: Speaking Silences, Carrying Water" in The Triumph of Anti-Art, 2005)
I think Abromovic has done all right for herself in the end, hasn't she?

Marina Abromović, Seven Easy Pieces, performance, 2005

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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Thomas McEvilley on Installation Art

Much installation art of the 1980s--such as the work of Mel Chin or Fred Wilson or Cady Noland--was heavily code in ways that invite, or command, the viewer to decode them. The works are often extremely complex, and may refer in detailed ways to social and political situations. These works are, in other words, meant to be "read" as texts. They may appear inscrutable at first sight (and often, proudly, do), but in fact they are inwardly anxious to give account of themselves. (Thomas McEvilley, The Triumph of Anti-Art: Conceptual and Performance Art in the Formation of Post-Modernism)

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Saturday, February 5, 2011

"It's not a genre, it's a medium": A Formalist Argument About Comics

I was reading a column called "She Has No Head!" on a comics website, Comic Book Resources. The writer, Kelly Thompson, has been engaged in an interesting experiment called The Ladies Comics Project. The idea is to identify women who are not already comics readers, give them a comic book, and have them report back. You can see how this would be interesting. Comics is, broadly speaking, a "male" form of expression. Are there tropes and conventions that comics readers (male and female) find completely normal--even invisible--that would jump out to non-comics-reading women? Would they find the work sympathetic and pleasurable? Would they find it difficult to comprehend? Sexist? This is a nice sociological experiment in comics criticism. It pleases me to think about because it suggests that Thompson might think that comics do not have universal qualities--that "comics" means something different to different people. But she indicates in this piece that she is actually coming at it from a different starting point.
One of my biggest revelations about women who don’t read comics and comics themselves came not long after Ladies Comics Project, Phase I via my mother.  I had posted a column reviewing Sarah Glidden’s How To Understand Israel In 60 Days Or Less, and my mother had read the column and in an email to me mentioned that she liked the column and thought the book looked interesting but that she didn’t understand how it was a comic.  She admitted that she had seen the pictures, so knew it must be, but still didn’t understand how it was a comic.  She also mentioned she planned on buying it (which kind of blew my mind).  I didn’t really respond to her email because quite frankly, I didn’t understand the question – if she could see the pages how could she not understand that it was in fact a comic?  When we spoke on the phone she asked me why I hadn’t answered her email and I explained my confusion.  Through the course of our conversation it became clear that she was conflating genre with medium.  In fairness to my mother, though she has been exposed to more of the comics world via me than a lot of people, most of the time she was actively around comics (i.e. when I was a teenager and living at home) I was reading superhero comics almost exclusively.  However, it surprised me that she, even with her exposure to comics, didn’t understand the difference between genre (in this case superheroes) and medium (in this case comics) and the idea that comics can (and do) tackle any subject imaginable. (Kelly Thompson, "She Has No Head! – Ladies Comics Project: Phase II, Part One", Comic Book Resources, January 31, 2010)
This idea, that comics is not a "genre" but is instead a "medium" is a commonplace view in comics. For example, a few days after seeing this paragraph, I saw this tweet:

Alex Bowler (@alex_is_editing)
2/4/11 3:44 AM
Bookseller article again categorising graphic novels as a 'genre'. WE ARE BANGING OUR HEADS AGAINST A BRICK WALL.

Bowler is an editor for Jonathan Cape, and one would expect an editor at a literary publisher would have a little more sophisticated view of the word "genre," but I guess not. The problem is that when a comics critic writes that comics are not a genre but a medium, what they mean is that comics are not limited to a particularly genre like "superhero comics" but can be potentially about any subject, just film or painting can. Fair enough. So for them, "genre" means what we say when we say "genre fiction"--stories that have specific subject matters and specific conventions. Mystery novels are a genre. Romance novels, science fiction novels, and so on are genres. And the problem with comics is that comic books (the small, magazine-format things sold in comic stores) have been dominated by a particuly ridiculous genre, superheroes. As comics writer Warren Ellis has frequently commented, it's as if most novels were "nurse novels" (to pick a weird, narrow genre). But genre is a broader word than that. It can refer to formal qualities as well. For example, I wouldn't have any problem with calling the "comic book" as described above as a genre. It has, for example, a conventional format, which is one of the defining qualities of genre.

But this isn't my main objection to Thompson's paragraph above. This is just a disagreement about the definition of "genre." What really struck me about Thompson's paragraph is her own puzzlement at her mother's reaction. She attributed it to an error on her mother's part. But I think that's not a very useful way to think about it. In fact, that her mother didn't consider How to Understand Israel in 60 Days Or Less to be a comic to me shows the fluidity of the definition of comics, and the pointlessness of trying to define comics by some set of formal characteristics. The more expansive idea of what comics are, which I share with Thompson, is accurate only among "initiates." The reason for two (or more) conflicting conceptions of what a comic is can be generational--for people of her mother's age, comics mean a certain thing different than what they mean for people of Thompson's age. We see this all the time in all kinds of arts, especially as arts that are affected by technology mutate. People not comfortable with the new technology might have a hard time recognizing some new art. That's not what is happening here, but it's similar. Comics have evolved since Thompson's mother had the idea of comics fixed in her mind.

Another reason for the disconnect between Thompson and her mother may have been because they belong to different "taste cultures." A taste culture is the term Herbert Gans created to describe groups, which are often determined by class, education and other background characteristics, who value particular elements of culture. (Gans came up with this theory as an answer to Frankfurt School, who saw all popular culture as a part of the program of capitalism to psyche out the working class by giving them debased versions of high culture that they would consume uncritically.) People like Thompson's mother are well outside Thompson's own taste culture, who could be identified as "comics fans". For Thompson's mother, the "definition" of comics is simply "belonging to the category of things like the comics I've seen before." In this case, she had mostly seen Thompson's own superhero comics. I happen to think this is a very reasonable definition of comics--it's certainly the most useful definition.

People like me (and Thompson, presumably) have lots of experience with comics of all different sorts. The group of things "belonging to the category of things like the comics I've seen before" is, for us, vast--far vaster than it would be for Thompson's mother or anyone else not in our taste culture. Furthermore, we will sometimes look at things on the edge of our own experience of comics and interrogate their "comic--ness." We might look at their formal qualities to try to figure it out, or we might look at how the object in question functions for its users. But people like Thompson's mother, who have little interest in comics in the first place, would never apply that much consideration to the question of whether this thing or that thing is a comic. They would use the simple heuristic mentioned above--does this thing resemble other things called comics?--to make their decision. Of course, it's when that heuristic breaks down, as it did in this case, that things get interesting. Here was Thompson calling something a comic that was obviously not a comic to her mother. So to resolve this contradiction, I assume that Thompson's mother had to expand her definition of comics.

But at the same time, I think Thompson should be aware that her own personal definition of comics, a "medium" that has certain inherent qualities, is inadequate because it is not universal. (The problem with formalist or other essentialist definitions of "comics" is not that they aren't universal--it's that they pretend that they are.) A "definition" of comics has to include their use in society, how they exist in the world.

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Lane Hagood at the Joanna

Lane Hagood took over the Joanna on Saturday with a large show of paintings, drawings, sculptures and large photocopies called "The Museum of Eterna". Before I launch into this, I have to confess that I own two Lane Hagood paintings. This means that I am rooting for Hagood. When he has a new show, I want it to be good so I can feel good about the pieces I have. But it's conceivable that because I have work of his, I will be biased in favor of his new shows. Read this review with that in mind.

Lane Hagood, Homage to Crawdad, painting on canvas, 2010

This painting is driving me crazy because I know it's a parody of a well-known painting of judges at a salon in 19th century France. But my visual memory is failing me and the internet isn't saving my bacon. I can't remember who painted the original. (Update: Yes, art-lovers. It's based on Hommage à Cézanne by Maurice Denis, painted in 1900.)

No matter. This painting is typical of Hagood's interests as an artist. He is fascinated with collections of things--objects, artworks, specimens. He refers to various works and group of works as "salons." This word is meant in the old sense of a painting competition as opposed to a collection of people gathered for conversation (though I suspect Hagood would be interested in the latter type of salon as well.) Images of 18th and 19th century salons showed paintings stacked on top of one-another, filling the walls. This horror vacui is as typical of collectors as it is of collections.

Lane Hagood, Abstract Salon, acrylic on canvas, 2010

So you get works like this which are abstract paintings on one hand but are collections of abstract paintings on the other. A single abstraction has the potential to be a heroic, sublime work of modernism--the sort of quasi-religious work that brought modernism to an ultimate crisis. But a collection like this is post-modern. This kind of work recalls Yves Klein more than Mark Rothko. It is more about the spectacle of paintings, the concept of exhibiting them. It specifically reminds me of Yves Klein's Yves Peintures, a catalog of paintings that didn't exist. The Abstract Salons (there are several in the show) are depictions of abstract paintings that don't have independent existence.

Lane Hagood, Abstract Salon detail, acrylic on canvas, 2010

In two rooms in the Joanna, Hagood creates salon-like environments. In one, he has made a bunch of posters of personal culture heroes.

Lane Hagood, Icon Salon installation view, various posters, 2010

Artists, musicians and writers like Rimbaud, Georges Perec and Roberto Bolaño are among Hagoods icons.

Lane Hagood, Icon Salon installation view, various posters, 2010

Not to mention Houston's own Mark Flood.

Another salon-room is the Black Snake Salon.

Lane Hagood, Black Snake Salon, mixed media, 2010

Here Hagood is emulating the animal collections of early naturalists, who were themselves no less infected with collector fever as any other. These collections are trophies--a word that specifically describes taxidermied animals that have been hunted, as well as a general showing off of valuable items in one's possession. And that is what the collector is all about. His collection signals to other people--his wealth (maybe), his taste (possibly), his learnedness (perhaps)--and possibly all three (a valuable art collection, for example). But there is also a deeper psychological force at work. Collectors are hoarders, and we know hoarding can be pathological. It's a small step from being an avid collector to being someone who has something seriously wrong with his head.

Lane Hagood, Detourned Bust, mass-produced statuary, foam, acrylic paint, 2010

Included in the show are a collection of "detourned busts". Détournment is a term from Situationism which means to take existing images, objects or texts, and by changing parts of them to change their meanings. There often an element of political subversion involved (as when billboards are altered to contain anti-consumerist messages). But in general, Détournment is part and parcel with modernist and post-modernist art practices--collage, pastiche, parody, etc. Lanegood doesn't seem to be making a political statement or even an anti-art or dadaist statement. (After all, his other art is highly respectful of art and literature from the past.) Instead, he seems to be creating a disturbing experience of classical beauty colliding with disturbing ugliness. The painted foam "heads" might remind viewers of the head of Joseph Merrick (the Elephant Man), of tumors, of fungal growths, or of shit. 

Lane Hagood, Detourned Busts installation, 2010

Lane Hagood, Detourned Bust, mass-produced statuary, foam, acrylic paint, 2010

The ironic juxtaposition of shapeless "ugliness" with classical beauty is mirrored with another juxtaposition--mass produced statues and unique shapes. These statues are made from sources ranging from classical Greece and Rome, Michelangelo, and Rodin, but they are churned out in factories for home decoration. Each shapeless foam addition is, however, unique. (Full disclosure again--I bought one of these pieces.)

I will leave you with one more "salon"--a painting of paintings, but unlike the Abstract Salon, Hagood is reproducing well-known works of art.

Lane Hagood, Seventy Eight Objects Depicted Within and Object, acrylic on canvas, 2010

Lane Hagood, Seventy Eight Objects Depicted Within an Object detail, acrylic on canvas, 2010

By painting this, Hagood is creating his own platonic museum--and one that is relatively portable at that. Of course, we have portable art museums already. They are called art books. And we can add to them new technologies like Google Art Project. But Hagood is creating a highly personal version of a portable museum. John Berger wrote about this in Ways of Seeing--he commented how reproductions of photos, texts, and art pinned onto a bulletin board in a teenager's bedroom creates a personal meaning that can't be reproduced by walking through a museum. Hagood mentioned this quality at the opening, how each person's collection is a personal expression. This may be a very solipsistic conception of the "museum" or "collection," but if one accepts, as Thomas McEvilley claims, that there is no universal taste, then a personal version of taste is what remains. When I was younger and we still had such things as records, one quick way to learn something about a person was to check out her record collection. Hagood is letting us check out his.

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