Friday, April 29, 2011

How is Your MFA Treating You?

By Robert Boyd

In my previous post, I did some cursory research into what happened to U.H. MFAs after graduation. But it occurs to me that I should ask you, the readers. So here are my questions. Only answer them if you have an art MFA from U.H.

1) When did you get your degree?
2) Do you live in the Houston area? If not, where do you live?
3) What is your primary source of income?
4) Do you make art with the intent of it eventually being viewed by the public and/or being offered for sale? (As opposed to making art exclusively for your own private pleasure.)

Please answer these questions in the comments. (Or if you would prefer to answer privately, email your answers to me at I will treat emailed answers as confidential.)

I hope to hear from all you U.H. MFAs out there!


Every Year More MFAs Are Loosed On Houston

by Robert Boyd

The University of Houston has an excellent art program. We're lucky to have it. And every year, a new crop of MFA students put up their thesis work at the Blaffer. It's a brief exhibit, lasting less than a month (see it before May 15!). That said, each year one finds that a lot of the artists in it have already made an impact on Houston, showing work in local galleries and art spaces. For example, I would have never suspected that David Graeve was a student. I thought he was a pretty well-established local artist. And one look at his CV (up at the Colton-Farb website) shows an exhibition history that goes back to 1986. I wouldn't be totally surprised in some of his fellow MFA students had been born in 1986.

David Graeve, Homemade Ice Cream, balloons and projections, 2011

So what's he doing getting an MFA at this stage? I have no idea. But I can speculate. He seems like an artist who knows what he is doing--someone who doesn't need additional mentoring. Furthermore, I get the impression that he is plugged into the local scene quite well, and if he felt he needed additional instruction, he is surrounded by artistic peers who can help him out. So why an MFA? Credentials. If you are a young artist with a certain amount of success (and given his exhibition history, Graeve seems reasonably successful), you can get by OK, even if you are basically pretty poor. But as you get older and maybe you have a spouse and children and a mortgage and a need for health insurance, teaching at a university starts to look very attractive. And while I'm certain that it is possible to get a teaching job without an MFA, I'm pretty sure it is much easier to get one with an MFA in your pocket.

So is this why David Graeve went through the MFA program at UH? I don't know. But whatever the reason, one result is a couple of his giant balloon pieces--the one pictured above and one even larger one in the courtyard of the gallery--are on view. And I like them a lot. The big black bubbles of Homemade Ice Cream feel especially sinister within the white cube of Blaffer, like a foam of dark matter breaking through into our universe.

Francis Giampietro, "Thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissolvable by the annihilation of one of us!", reconstituted refrigerator, pressure treated wood, furniture leather, ice and pvc, 2011

Then you have young artists like Francis Giampietro. I first saw his work at the Temporary Space (a space run by one of last year's MFAs, Keijiro Suzuki), and I liked it so much that I contacted him to be in the Fringe Festival exhibit I curated last year. The work in this show is a little different--he uses machines as part of the work. Don't ask me to explain it, though. I know Giampietro always has a clear idea of what his work represents, but it's certainly not always clear if you aren't him. However, while much of his earlier work dealt with unnatural transformation (of the body), perhaps this piece, with its refrigerator parts and its pressure-treated wood, refers to unnatural preservation. Of course the title feeds into that interpretation--it's a quote is uttered by Frankenstein's monster to Dr. Frankenstein. He's saying, you created me, now you are stuck with me. If they could speak, would the substances we have created--pressure-treated wood, plastics of all sorts, plutonium--say the same?

Francis Giampietro, "Nature is crooked, I want right angles, straight lines", composite capital, plaster, paint color matched to leathered pigskin, chalk line and exercise machine weights, 2011

This title comes from The Mosquito Coast, a movie (based on a Paul Theroux novel), about a family yanked from their comfortable American life by their eccentric father to go live on a remote tropical island. But what relationship this book and movie have with the piece is unclear to me. What the composite capital has to do with anything is likewise mysterious. The "pigskin"-colored paint, the chalk line and the weights may all refer to football, and therefore in a way to Giampietro's earlier work that dealt with body-transformation via football training regimens. But really, like much of his work, it is fairly opaque. You're unlikely to get out of it what Giampietro put into it. Instead, it is best to allow yourself to simply receive these collections of disparate objects as they are, and if you wish, to synthesize your own meaning from them. These works are "As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table,"to quote the famous line from Lautreamont.

Another alumnus of the Temporary Space is Jeremy DePrez.  His work here is spare but not minimal. It's too witty for that..

Jeremy DePrez, 5 out of 194 Countries I Have Never Been To, oil and acrylic on canvas with country selection assistance by, 2011

(I'm no painter, but I can play this game, too. So here are five countries I have never visited, chosen by Turkey, Nicaragua, Saudi Arabia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greenland.) The big blank spaces could be taken to represent all the countries he chose not to depict. And the same concept could apply to other pieces he has in the show.

Jeremy DePrez, Visual Artifacts from my Bedroom, oil, acrylic and tape on canvas with objects and muslin on the floor, 2011

Unless DePrez lives in extremely spartan circumstances, we can safely assume that there are many more "visual artefacts" in his room than the two depicted here. With these two pieces, DePrez is engaging in the visual equivalent of metonymy, allowing a thing (or a small collection of things) to represent a larger thing. The five maps he draws represent all the countries he's never visited. This is quite different from the "What you see is what you see" philosophy that underlies so much minimalism.On the contrary, I am reminded of Borges' introduction to Dr. Brodie's Report. He wrote that he was seeking ". . . to write straightforward stories. I do not dare state that they are simple; there isn't anywhere on earth a single page or a single word that is, since each thing implies the universe, whose most obvious trait is complexity."

Emily Peacock, My Sister and I (First Bath), C Print, 2010

This was one of those things where you look at the photo, look at the title, pause, then laugh. That pause is where befuddlement turns into humorous understanding. Emily Peacock's thing seems to be about looking at her own family in several ways. One way is to restage photographs. In this case, the original protagonists of what I assume was an baby photo of the two sisters in the bath is reenacted by the two sisters in adulthood. In this regard, Peacock is similar to Irina Werning. But in MeeMee and Me, she places herself in place of her grandmother.

Emily Peacock, MeeMee and Me, C Print, 2010

Peacock is dealing with family, an issue that weirdly enough is very common in literature but seems somewhat rare in contemporary art (but a local exception to that is the work by Hillerbrand+Magsamen up at Lawndale right now). The pieces are sometimes a little shocking (when they deal with medical issues) but I feel also a level of warmth and perhaps most of all comfort--it's appropriate that "familiar" and "family" have the same root. This doesn't feel like a dysfunctional or estranged family, nor a "perfect" family. The recreations seem, in the end, very loving.

Jay Giroux, Untitled from the series Happily Ever After, The End #1, acrylic on canvas, 2011

This painting has the awkward title "Untitled from the series Happily Ever After, The End #1". And I'm not even sure that's the correct title--the wall information was a little confusing. But I liked the Lari Pittman-like burst of colors, seemingly uncontrolled (and certainly chaotic), but on closer inspection, very precisely painted. I find this work jaunty and pleasurable, as I do with a lot of Lari Pittman's work (although he can hide a lot of pain in his work, too) or Stephanie Toppin's paintings.

When I went to see this show, the Blaffer was also having a book clearance. For twenty bucks, they would give you a canvas bag and all the books you could cram in it. Heaven for a book-lover like me. Among the many books I got were a pile of pamphlet-sized catalogs for earlier Blaffer MFA exhibits--2001, 2004-2006, 2008, and 2009. And I got to thinking about those earlier shows and this exhibit.

The University of Houston turns out new MFAs every year. Because these artists are here in Houston for a while, they are part of Houston's art ecology. An ecology or ecosystem involves cycles of life and death. In the case of the UH MFA program, artists enter the program--some from Houston but many (if not most) from elsewhere. They are here during the program. After they graduate, some leave Hopuston and some stay, at least for a while.

I looked at those old catalogs to see who was still around. I excluded the graphic communication and interior design MFAs--I was looking for the kind of artists one might see in a gallery or art space. Of the 2001 class, one artist, Anderson Wrangle, is now teaching at Clemson, and one is working for the Museum of Fine Arts here in Houston. The other three I'm unsure of, although at least two of them seem to have been in Houston recently. I guess the key question is are they still involved with art in some way--are they still part of our local art ecology?

The class of 2004 offers up no names that are familiar to me. But two of them are teaching high school art (which is awesome--long live high school art teachers everywhere!) in Humble while one teaches in Cy-Fair. Soody Sharifi apparently still lives in Houston, but has representation in a New York Gallery. Others have moved on to professorships outside Houston, but Lotus Bermudez (née Witt) teaches ceramics at U.H. So a substantial proportion of the 2004 MFAs are still part of the Houston art ecosystem, although not necessarily in a highly visible way.

2005 hit the jackpot. Three of its MFAs are well-known local artists, represented by important galleries. Michael Bise, whose recent Moody Gallery show was reviewed here, is also one of my favorite local art writers. Anthony Shumate followed up his successful Barbara Davis solo show with an intriguing group of works that are currently on view at Lawndale. Kent Dorn's grungy paintings can be seen at McClain Gallery. Che Rickman is in Houston and recently did a performance at FrenetiCore, where she is an artist in residence. But there are several artists that I can't find anything about, and of course some have moved on from Houston.

As the catalogs get closer to the present, I am familiar with more artists. This suggests something--that time pulls artists out of the local scene, if not away from art all-together. 2006's Rabe'a Ballin (an artist whose work I like so much that I bought one of her pieces), Douglas Cason (who apparently also teaches high school art in LaMarque), Aram Nagle, and Kathryn Kelley are all active locally and have had work in local artspaces within the past year or so. But quite a few of the class of 2006 have dropped off the radar (or, at least, I wasn't able to find much about them with a cursory Google search).

The same pattern repeats in 2008, where Elia Arce, Chuy Benitez and Woody Golden (another artist I included in the Fringe Festival exhibit last year) are pretty well-known locally. The rest of 2008 seems to still be mostly still in the Houston area. But if the patterns observed above hold, many will either leave or drop out of art making (at least in terms of making art for the public).

The last catalog I have is from 2009, and we see a couple of impresario-types. By this, I mean people who set up their own galleries or who curate a lot of shows. One of the first young artists I met after I started work on Pan was Emily Sloan, who has since started Gallery 1724 and well as curating other shows--primarily at Box 13. Cody Ledvina is half of the duo that runs The Joanna. (And in the next year, we had Keijiro Suzuki, another impresario.) I don't know what the future holds for Sloan and Ledvina, but I could easily see them going on to be commercial gallery owners or directors of art spaces. Is learning this kind of thing part of the curriculum at UH? The artist from the class of 2009 who seems to have found the most success is Cheyanne Ramos, who had a solo show at McMurtrey Gallery last year. (I bought a small collage from that show.) I've also seen art by Michael Brims and Dennis Harper. But the rest of the class of 2009 are somewhat cyphers to me.

The reason I wanted to reflect a bit on previous MFA classes was to think about what happens once you get your MFA. I still actually have more questions than answers. High schools seem to absorb a few, and some become professors or adjunct instructors. A few seem to have high profile (locally) careers, but one has to wonder if they can continue. Many move away from Houston or stop being active in the local scene. I expect we will see the same with the class of 2011. They'll probably mostly stick around Houston for a few years, but gradually some will find opportunities elsewhere and some will find non-art opportunities; the number who are still active and visible in Houston will gradually dwindle.

 Take a Poll: I'm interested to hear from UH MFAs.


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

She Speaks...Darkly at War'Hous

by Dean Liscum

On Saturday, 4/16/11, War'Hous gallery held the opening for She Speaks..., a show that featured artists : Anna Sprage, Claire Richards, and Kelley Devine.

War'Hous is at 4715 Main Street, Houston, TX 77002, which if you're driving north on U.S. 59 and take the Main Street exit but fail to stop because you're either texting someone for directions or googling it, you'll end up in the main gallery. A nice photo-essay of the opening was shot by Candace Garcia and can be viewed here. The folks at War'Hous did the opening up right with Wendy Colonna singing blues and this sign to welcome visitors.

White wine and sparking water are served only at "He Speaks" (read woosy) venues.
Let me be clear. Two free plastic tumblers of scotch later or not, Anna Sprage's work freaks me out a little. Maybe it's the lugubrious palette. May be it's the specter figures. May be it's the shallow picture plane. Maybe it's the eyes. (Who am I kidding? It's the eyes.) Her work is an aesthetic blend of Anime-Manga in the way that she represents the human form and  Egon Schiele, in the way her subjects occupy the canvas and confront the audience.There's little room in the picture space for anything else other than the "Hey you! I'm looking at you!" of the subjects. Whatever the reason, she succeeds at the shocking, dark-eyed stare whether she's riffing on Picasso or invoking Greek myths.

Anna Sprage, Pandora (left) and The Old Guitarist (right)
(photo by Candace Garcia)
She's definitely got a signature style. It just spooks me.

Claire Richards included some of her abstract expressionist works. (She also creates sculpture and paintings in other styles. See the "Currently Working On" section of her website.) For me, abstract expressionist works succeed or fail based on the work's palette, gestural marks/forms, composition, and the baggage that the viewer brings. Of course, one's aesthetic judgments on color and form have more to do with personal experience (a stain resembling the translucence of a bruise, a brushstroke resembling the curve of scar or the arch of a fall or the curl of an menacing smile) than anything like an objective evaluation.

The audience's role being acknowledged, these works are darker than some of Richard's previous work but not overwhelmingly oppressive. One work references water lilies in the title, which made me re-examine the composition of all the works in the show. In doing so, I got the sense that some of the painting could have been reworkings or paintings over some of Monet's works in the way they were structured. For example, waterlilies gone darker and more expressionistic.

Claire Richards, Thunder and Moss
acrylic on canvas
(photo by Candace Garcia)
However, the pieces have their Turner moments complete with crosses.

Claire Richards, Searching the Lillies
acrylic on canvas

(photo by Candace Garcia)
And here I'm seeing Motherwell. However, for the life of me I can't defend that association other than to accept the fact that I may have unresolved Motherwell issues.

Claire Richards, Desert in a Boom Box
acrylic on canvas

Suitcase in Alabama is my favorite. I'm not sure if its the chaotic mandala or the title or something subconscious. Of course that's one of the benefits of abstract expressionism. You may never "know" why you like a particular piece. You just do.

Claire Richards Suitcase in Alabama
acrylic on canvas
Kelley Devine's contribution makes up a smaller (by sheer square footage) but no less significant contribution to this show, and it's no less darker. She showed some older pieces most notably from her series Dangerous Game. She also showed a new series, "This Isn't Real."

I'd categorize Devine's work as psychological-symbolism. Through her art, she works through personal, emotional, social (read relationship), and gender issues. Her adeptness with many different styles (Expressionism, Surrealism, Realism) and mediums (drawing, painting, sculpture) keeps the work edgy and multi-dimensional. In reality, sometimes a cigar may be just a cigar, but in Devine's work a beautiful woman is never just a beautiful woman.

The following two pieces are typical of the new series. In the first one, the title and the nude figure in fanciful galoshes are nice bait, but the the refinery looming in the background should serve as a warning. As a whole the painting feels like an apocalyptic one-night stand. Those galoshes will light you up. (I'm not sure if the boots fuel the refinery/powerplant or it fuels the boots.) Regardless, everything is connected and if you know nothing else about this painting, you know that only one person is gonna walk away from the proposed tryst. Guess who?
Kelly Devine, This is it.  (for a good time call 832.XXX.XXX9)
Got family? Then you've probably got family issues. The staging of  The Contributors with the family standing both behind and over her is simple symbolism but dramatically effective. Even though it's a picture, it's not hard to imagine the figure performing, all top-hat and tail, for her looming audience. I'm not exactly sure what they contribute to the performance but something tells me it's neither encouragement nor support.

Kelly Devine, The Contributors

I come from the camp that believes that not all publicity is good publicity and not all nudity is good (or at least erotic\titillating) nudity. The protagonist in this new series is nude, but she wears her skin like armor. Though the works resemble pretty little pictures or cute collages, they're anything but. They're polished and sharp. Based on the series and individual works' titles, they are half of a dialog, part of a reproof. Admire them in the same way you would a neon-pink glock: delight at the cute colors, appreciate the craft-womanship, but respect its compact power. It can do some damage.

If you missed the opening, War'Hous is having a closing reception for this show on April 28th from 7 to 9 pm.


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Another Jim Woodring Performance Video from Lawndale

I know Pan readers must be getting a little bored of videos and photos of Jim Woodring's performance last Friday at Lawndale Art Center. What can I say--this performance was very well-documented! This video (shot I assume by one of the staff of Lawndale--Dennis Nance maybe?) not only shows Jim drawing, but shows hoards of folks taking photos--including me. I'm the one with the red tie. Also visible are Scott Gilbert (glasses and goatee) and Russell Etchen (tall, glasses, red hair and beard).


Monday, April 25, 2011

Jim Woodring and Marc Bell at Lawndale: Video and Photos

This video was shot by "torgotom." In the background, one can see Christine West (the director of Lawndale), Alchemic Ale's Tim Leanse, and various members of Sketch Klubb.

Speaking of Lawndale, they have an excellent Flickr page where you can see the entirety of Walpurgis Afternoon (and the other exhibits). However, these photos should merely motivate you to see the show in person--especially because they don't capture all the remarkable detail in Woodring and Bell's drawing.

And speaking of Marc Bell, here is a photo of him at the Orange Show.


And finally, the ultimate tribute: a fan with Jim Woodring's character "Frank" tattooed on his arm.



Sunday, April 24, 2011

50 Watts

John Heartfield book cover, 1927

Remember the blog Journey Round My Skull? It is now called 50 Watts, and its author, Will Schoefield,  is still digging up eye-popping examples of book illustration art, like the one above and the one below from this post. Put 50 Watts on your RSS feed--that's an order.

Frans Masreel book cover, 1925


Walpurgis Afternoon: The Big Pen In Action

by Robert Boyd


Jim Woodring with THE PEN

I feel a little weird writing about my own show. But I have lots of photos to share from the opening of Walpurgis Afternoon, which featured art by Jim Woodring and Marc Bell. And my friend Scott Gilbert (cartoonist of the long-running Houston strip True Artist Tales and a long-time associate of Lawndale) wrote up a description on Facebook that I am, with his permission, swiping to reproduce here. (And when I write the word "description," I mean "complete rave".)

Very successful opening night for the Jim Woodring and Marc Bell exhibition here in Houston at the Lawndale Art Center , and a triumph for show curator Robert Boyd. Woodring demonstrated his giant nib pen, and even turned it over to show-partner Bell and several amatuers before the night was over.