Saturday, March 5, 2011

The 2011 Core Exhibition

Every year the Core Program at the MFAH puts on an exhibit by the artists in residence. The 2010 exhibit, as I recall, was dry and boring. But what a difference a year makes! Even though this exhibit contains many of the same artists, the work feels fresh and exciting and stimulating. Maybe it's a difference in my attitude between then and now, or maybe the work has just gotten better. In any case, I want to talk about a few specific pieces that caught my eye--but I recommend you go to the Glassell School and see the entire show.

Kelly Sears is an animator who uses old photo from magazines and books in her work. In the work for this show, once we started it it could not end otherwise, her source material is a high school yearbook from the early 70s. The story is that something infected the minds of these particular high school students. It was not particularly noted at the time, but examining the yearbooks gives one a clue. This thing--this virus or agent--went on to infect the world, and the film comes across as perhaps the last step in an attempt to locate the source of the affliction. The images on the screen, black-and-white shots of students moving slowly against colored (somewhat vibratory) photos of the school building, are not threatening except in context. The sounds and narration (written) inject a feeling of tenseness and menace. Towards the end of the video, we start to see animated black goo dripping from the noses, mouths and eyes of the pictured students, and ultimately from the windows of the school. But I take this as symbolic of the infection because the narration makes it clear that whatever was going on wasn't really noticed  until after it spread to the general population.

Of course what comes to mind is the venerable horror sub-genre of some invisible evil spreading, whether it is something nameless and supernatural, or in more modern versions, a disease of some sort. Zombie fiction is a particularly unsubtle form of this story, as well as the diseases in movies like The Crazies. Of course, seeing this video, one could not help be reminded of the great graphic novel Black Hole by Charles Burns, where teenagers are the vectors for a sexually transmitted disease that slowly turns its victims into monstrous outcasts.

But the teenaged victims in Sears' video are marked not by physical symptoms, but by their actions. They shut down all the student clubs and the class officers all resign. The disease seems to cause them to turn inward and away from the kinds of voluntary social organizations that many think of as the glue that holds a healthy democratic society together. once we started it it could not end otherwise is sort of Bowling Alone reimagined as a horror film. It is a highly intellectual conception of horror--even Black Hole still featured plenty of classic body horror. once we started it it could not end otherwise belongs to a slightly different tradition. One is reminded a bit of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, but even more so of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" by Jorge Luis Borges, in which a group of Argentine and Brazilian rare book aficionados accidentally unleash the idea of a fully realized fictional world, Tlön, on our real world, which Tlön gradually starts to displace.

But what it reminds me of most are other Sears videos, which have similar themes, such as The Drift (2007), where astronauts bring back a kind of addicting music from outer space. (This video is included on Buffet, an anthology of art video by Houston area artists.) If we think of  once we started it it could not end otherwise and The Drift together, it becomes clear that Sears might be talking about the idea of a counterculture, a dropping out from the mainstream, majority culture. In both videos, the point of view of the narrators is that this is a bad thing, destructive to society. You can see examples of Sears animation here and here.

Julie Ann Nagle, Breakdown of a Long Chain, wood veneer, polyethylene, foam, aqua resin, paint, space blankets, Bakelite, padauk, and tree trunk, 2011

Julie Ann Nagle is a sculptor. Looking at her work, I get the feeling she is interested in science and that hand-maiden of science, exploration. In this sculpture, she has depicted the prow of a ship (a wooden ship, which could apply to any ship from medieval times to current day yachts, but that I am interpreting as being from the age of sail). The figurehead is particularly unusual.

Julie Ann Nagle, Breakdown of a Long Chain detail, wood veneer, polyethylene, foam, aqua resin, paint, space blankets, Bakelite, padauk, and tree trunk, 2011

 Instead of a more typical goddess or mermaid figure, we have a man wearing a long coat in the act of doing a cat's cradle. The long coat looks like a lab-coat, so I think we can interpret him as a scientist figure. The title of the piece could refer to chemistry when long chain molecules are broken down into smaller constituent parts. (For example, when the long hydrocarbon chains present in heavy crude are "cracked" in the refining process into the smaller hydrocarbon molecules used in gasoline.) A scientist on the prow of a ship makes me think of discovery and crossing unexplored frontiers. But the cat's cradle in his hands is a warning of sorts. In Kurt Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle, the cat's cradle was symbolic of futile, irrelevant gestures in the face of technological horror. And in that novel, a scientist has created a form of water, ice-nine, that freezes at room temperature. By the end, ice-nine is released on the world, effectively destroying it. Vonnegut was famously skeptical of mankind's ability to keep its scientific prowess from being used for destruction. Nagle seems to be echoing this fear. At the very least, the sculpture has an ambiguous relationship with science and discovery.

Julie Ann Nagle, Adrift in Current Patterns, Velour, Tyvek, polyethylene barrels, gold leaf size, gold space blankets , 2011

This piece immediately conjures up memories of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill if we take barrels as symbolic of oil. (Barrels are 42 gallons, and while this measure is used for other liquids, it is primarily used for oil.) But the irony is that she has made it quite beautiful--even luxurious. The undulating velour sea, the gold-plated barrels--it's very pretty.

Fatima Haider, installation view of three pieces, 2011

These are three pieces by Fatima Haider, each related to one another. Each piece consists of a collage of cut-up phone book pages on the left and a brown rectangle on the right. The collage pieces are apparently pasted on wasli, which is a kind of super-smooth acid-free paper that was invented in India in the 10th century and which was used for painting miniatures. It struck me as ironic, pasting these pieces of phone book (which are printed on the roughest, cheapest, most-acidic paper possible) onto this fine hand-made paper.

Fatima Haider, Names, phone book, tape, wasli, photograph, and plexiglass, 2011

From a distance the pieces are speckled grey planes with lighter grey fissures. You have to get in close to see what Haider has done.

Fatima Haider, Names detail, phone book, tape, wasli, photograph, and plexiglass, 2011

As you can see, she has taken the names from a phone book page, razored them out of the book, and pasted them down. One can't look at this without imagining the artist bent over a table, perhaps with a magnifier, X-acto knife in hand. It seems like it must have been a tedious process.But the vision also makes one think of those ancient miniature painters, who likely assumed a similarly hunched posture as they painted on their wasli with their minute brushes.

Phone books are huge catalogs of data. The computer has pretty much obviated the need for them. Haider is treating the phone book as data, and her process is like a database program or Excel file that filters out particular bits of the data, reorganizing it. But she does it in a nonsensical way: names without the numbers is not a terribly useful collection of data.

Fatima Haider, Numbers detail, phone book, tape, wasli, photograph, and plexiglass, 2011

The data is even more useless when you just have numbers.

Fatima Haider, ... detail, phone book, tape, wasli, photograph, and plexiglass, 2011

The most hilariously useless bit of data extracted are the ellipses, the dots connecting the names to the numbers. The tedious effort of carefully cutting these tiny dots out and pasting them down on paper seems all-the-more absurd in this piece, but it's really the same for all three. Haider has acted as a kind of human computer to take useful information and convert it into a well-structured but nonsensical database in physical form.

Clarissa Tossin, Matter of Belief, inkjet, Plywood and acrylic paint, 2010

When you look at Clarissa Tossin's work online, you see lots of extravagant, beautiful color pieces. But her more recent work seems more conceptual. That's a loss in a way, but her conceptual work is still quite inviting visually as well as interesting conceptually. Matter of Belief is a clever piece that requires a bit of viewer interaction. You see two stacks of paper currency--US dollars and Brazilian reales. But when you look at them closely, you see that one side of each is a dollar and the other a real.

Clarissa Tossin, Matter of Belief banknotes, inkjet on paper, 2010

This is what is written on the table:

Clarissa Tossin, Matter of Belief detail, inkjet, Plywood and acrylic paint, 2010

To understand this piece, it's useful to know a little bit about the economic history of Brazil. But I can already feel readers' eyelids dropping. Feel free to skip the next few paragraphs if you wish. Brazil had more-or-less ordinary periods of growth and slowdowns between 1945 and 1973. But like every net oil importer, Brazil was hit hard by the 1973 oil shock. So imagine this--money from Brazil (and Europe and the U.S.) is pouring into the coffers of the oil exporters like Venezuela and Saudi Arabia and Iran. These exporters put this money into banks--big international banks. Now banks can't just hold money--that's a liability on their books. So they needed places to lend the money, and there was so much money to lend that the interest rates were quite low. So countries like Brazil got very cheap loans. But paying back these loans fed into inflation, a long-time Brazilian problem. It helped produce hyperinflation. This problem helped bring down the military government. The first two civilian governments were both corrupt and incompetent and failed to tame inflation.

The third civilian government had a finance minister named Henrique Cardoso. He was not an economist--he was a left-wing sociologist who had been a long-time opponent of the military government. But he got together some economists to implement a plan. The plan they came up, plano real, with involved indexation, pegging the Brazilian currency to the dollar. Interestingly, they did this prior to introducing the new currency, the real. The idea was to create a belief that there a virtual Brazilian currency that was as stable as the dollar. After a while, once the virtual currency was widely understood to exist and be stable, they turned the old currency into a new real currency. This story was amusingly related on an episode of This American Life. The result of this is this was a turnaround for Brazil, which is now one of the most dynamic and important economies in the world.

What I liked about this piece was that the superstition that Tossin refers to is a folk version of the very complex, mathematically-modeled economic plano real. Classical economics is always referring to the rational self-interest of economic actors, and the superstition of carrying a dollar is anything but rational. But modern economics--which includes large doses of psychology (known as behavioral economics)--allows for this. Educated people may look down on these superstitions, but as plano real proved, changing a people's belief system--in this case, belief in the value of their money, can effect real economic change.

There were additional pieces in the exhibit by Nick Barbee (a table of disparate objects, and a self-published book cataloging them), Steffani Jemison's interesting pieces involving transparent overlays against the wall, which create subtle double-images, and Lourdes Correa-Carlo's photographic installation of the inside of a tin roof (describing this does no justice to the visual wow of this work). If you have a chance, I highly recommend you visit this exhibit.

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