Monday, October 31, 2011

Dennis Harper's Show of Shows

by Robert Boyd

I wanted to lead off with this statement. Have I ever mentioned how much I dislike artists' statements? If you had read this prior to making a decision about whether to go to the Joanna and see this thing, you'd stay home and watch reruns. The problem with artists' statements is that the make even really exciting art sound boring. Fortunately, I didn't read this statement until I got to the Joanna, so I was already committed.

So let me try to give you a flavor of the show--Dennis Harper invited his friends to come together for a one-night only evening of performance on October 22 at The Joanna. The structure was like an evening of broadcast TV, where you might have an Entertainment Tonight-like program followed by some comedy then by a game show, etc. Now The Joanna is a pretty bad place to see performance--it's a house, so the largest room is the relatively small living room. To get around this problem, Harper installed a closed circuit TV system. I think there were four screens in all--two in interior rooms, one on a walled-in porch, and one outside in the back yard. This way, everyone could see the performances. But Harper went an extra step--he created a fake TV studio out of paper--giant paper cameras, lights, microphones, etc. So while he had, in effect, a real TV studio (with tiny modern cameras feeding into Harper's computer, from which he directed the scene and controlled what was seen on the closed circuit monitors), on top of that he had layered a fake 1960s era TV studio.

Dennis Harper, paper microphone at iPageant, paper and PVC, 2011

Dennis Harper, fake TV studio for iPageant, mixed media, 2011

That's sculptor Woody Golden above operating one of the real cameras as various Houston art figures take their places for a game of What's My Line. The camera to the left is made of paper.

Dennis Harper, directing iPageant, 2011

Tina McPherson conducting red-carpet interviews

Tina McPherson, whose day job supervisor of the William R. Jenkins Art and Architecture Library at U.H., is also a local arts scenester. (Lots of local scenesters have day jobs that are tangentially related, at best, to their position within the local art scene.) She conducted interviews of arriving guests (pretty much anyone who came through) similar to those red-carpet interviews one might see on awards shows or celebrity-oriented shows. I've always thought it was weird how the backdrop to these interviews would be wallpaper printed with copies of corporate and/or product logos. iPageant parodied this tendency by putting up Tyvek, the super-strong water-proof paper that home builders use to cover the wooden framing of modern houses. Tyvek has its logo printed in a regular pattern, making Tyvek paper perfect for a red-carpet backdrop. McPherson treated everyone who came in as if they were a celebrity, whose answers to her repetitious questions were actually worth hearing. This went out live on the closed-circuit feed. Lots of people tried to fluster McPherson by giving outrageous answers to her questions, but she never broke character as far as I saw.

Then in the room to the left of the entryway, Herbert Melichar was taking headshot photos of everyone who walked in. He had lights set up and a black background. The photos were dramatic. He put them up in a gallery on his Facebook page and his Flickr page (whichever you prefer).

Nancy Douthey, iPageant perfomance on closed circuit TV

Next up was Nancy Douthey. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this performance was very much based on acting. Douthey was an old-fashioned telephone operator (a job rendered obsolete by technology). You've seen such operators in movies and on TV--they would be sitting before a bank of lights and sockets, and their job was to connect specific callers with specific receivers. Douthey uses practice to engage in a series of one sided conversations. It's not totally clear whether each conversation was meant to be a different person, or if it was the same person, whose personality changed depending on with whom she was speaking. The latter scenario was how I interpreted it, and I saw it as being about how our identity depends so much on other people--and other circumstances. We are not the same person when we are talking to our mother as opposed to when we are talking to our lover.

excerpt from Nancy Douthey's iPageant performance

Then it was time for the main event. both the fake television studio and the real one were set up in the Joanna's living room. A set for a game show was there with seats for four panelists, one host, and one contestant. This was a recreation of What's My Line, which was a weekly prime time game show from 1950 to 1967, and a daily syndicated show from 1967 to 1975. The idea behind the show is that the panelists, who wore blindfolds, would have to guess who the guest was based on a series of yes or no questions. If they failed to guess within a certain number of questions, the guest won (I'm assuming the guest, who was a celebrity, was playing on behalf of someone).

Two of the What's My Line panelists, Dennis Nance and Shane Tolbert

The host was played by Mat Wolf. The guests were Jenny Schlief, Dennis Nance, Shane Tolbert and Lane Hagood. The look was "natty."

It started off a little awkwardly, but as they got into the act, the players got better and better.

The first mystery guest was Blaffer director Claudia Schmuckli. It didn't take long for the panelists to guess who she was. The next contestant was a twist--two people, Cody Ledvina and Brian Rod, the guys behind The Joanna. The panelists never guessed who they were because of their confusing, contradictory answers.

Between each act, the closed circuit TV camera showed this sign.

I left after the "What's My Line" act (which I kind of wish could have gone on longer--how often do you say that about performance art, eh?), and because of this I missed some other things that apparently happened later (to go by the photographic evidence here).

What I didn't quite understand was what all this had to do with social networking. There were a few obvious references (the "like" sign in the place of an "applause" sign), but it seemed to have more to do with television and our shared history of television than anything. But on a little bit of signage showing all of Harper's collaborators, we do get an idea of the interconnectedness of one part of Houston's art scene.

I thought it was fantastic fun, and the format seems replicable. If Harper wanted to host additional performance nights, the fake TV studio with closed circuit monitors would be a good way to structure it. I'd go see them.


Sunday, October 30, 2011

Ibsen Espada's Expressionism

by Robert Boyd

What does it mean to be an abstract expressionist forty or fifty years after the movement ran out of steam? That's what I asked myself looking at Ibsen Espada's new show at New Gallery/Thom Andriola. Espada was one of the artists chosen for Fresh Paint, the ground-breaking painting show at the MFAH in 1985. He had several years of real success after that. But by 2004, he was almost completely out of the art world--and the subject of an article in the Houston Press about how hard it was to be a Hispanic artist in Houston. As far as I could determine, his last exhibit was in 2002.

Ibsen Espada, Winter Dragon, mixed meda on canvas, 2011

Looking at his new exhibit at New Gallery/Thom Andriola, I'd say Espada has come roaring back. This work has real power and vigor. To me, it reminds me of pre-drip Jackson Pollock. The restricted color scheme of Winter Dragon, combined with the thick brushstrokes and swirly all-over composition, really make this work for me. This is my favorite piece from the show.

Ibsen Espada, Victory, mixed meda on canvas, 2011

One thing Espada does that few abstract expressionists did is collage his own canvases. He did it in Winter Dragon, and the effect was subtle. It is much less subtle in Victory. With Victory, it appear that he cut up three or four separate, very distinct canvases to create this collage. It may be the collage element that separates him from his artistic ancestors. Collage strikes me as intellectual and not instinctive. It is less perfomative than abstract expressionism.It has a deliberate quality that balances out the slashing energy of the painted parts.

Ibsen Espada, Sparticus, mixed meda on canvas, 2011

 Ultimately, Espada's master is Pollock. Espada's handling of paint is similar to that in Pollock's Mural. Espada's collaging of his canvases, particularly in Sparticus, creates a kind of boxed-off composition similar to Pollock's The Guardians of the Secret. The thick swirling blacks of Winter Dragon recall Pollock's Number 11. What's interesting to me is that Espada hasn't gone all in and tried to use drip technique.

Ibsen Espada, El Mirador, mixed meda on canvas, 2011

A lot of people would say, what more does this dated style, abstract expressionism, have to say to us? What relevance does the hero artist, contending with the void, slashing away with color, have today? There are all kinds of reasons not to do abstract expressionist paintings in 2011. But for Ibsen Espada, there is one good reason to keep doing them. They work.


A New Rice Owl

by Robert Boyd

I was walking to my class the other day and I saw that Rice had just installed a new sculpture on campus.

Geoffrey Dashwood, Monumental Barn Owl, bronze, 2011

On one hand, a statue of an owl at Rice seems kind of corny. On the other hand, that is one handsome owl. Geoffrey Dashwood is an English sculptor who specializes in sculpting highly streamlined birds like this. This is right next to the Rice chapel, close to Fondren library.

Geoffrey Dashwood, Monumental Barn Owl, bronze, 2011

I also like that they chose a barn owl (which is not the kind of owl that Rice usually uses to represent itself). Barn owls are elegant and sleek-looking, with spooky, minimalist faces. They are the freakiest looking owls, as you can see in this famous gif:

Happy Halloween!


Recently Read Graphic Novels

by Robert Boyd

The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists by Seth. Seth has been working on Clyde Fans forever. It seems like he got into a need to create something artistically perfect, and perhaps this is a bit overwhelming. So while he has been working on Clyde Fans, he has published three books, each of which involved techniques for curing writers block. The first, Wimbledon Green: The Greatest Comic Book Collector in the World, was drawn in his sketchbook--which freed him from having to do "perfect" drawings. It was also done in little self-contained episodes, which freed him from having to have a sense of absolute unity for the work. (Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad squad operates similarly.) George Sprott: 1894-1975 returned to a highly polished drawing but kept the episodic approach--each page was kind of a separate story relating to the life of George Sprott. The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists was also drawn in a sketchbook, but it has a continuous story flow. It imagines that there is a professional society of Canadian Cartoonists that was at one time extremely wealthy due to the huge popularity of comics in Canada throughout the 20th century. Some of the ideas are similar to Dylan Horrocks' graphic novel Hicksville--including that of a great library of all the important works of comics. But at the end of the book, the narrator--Seth himself--explains that the GNBCC was never as wealthy and successful as he has portrayed it here (obviously). It's an extended, lovely fantasia on the idea of comics and comic strips being an art form as respected as visual art or literature--a fantasy of many cartoonists, to be sure.

The Armed Garden and Other Stories by David B. David B. is one of the most important cartoonists in France. A member of L'Association, his most important work is Epileptic, an autobiographical work about growing up with a severely epileptic brother, and his parents' fruitless search for ways to control the condition through both conventional medicine and alternative therapies. But I will confess that I like the stories in The Armed Garden more. These are stories about heretics. Heresy is a subject of particular interest for certain storytellers--for example, Jorge Luis Borges. And interestingly, Borges wrote two stories involving Hakim al-Muquanna, who is the subject of the story of "The Veiled Prophet", one of the three stories here, which describes the origin of al-Muquanna as a prophet and his battles with the Caliph. "The Armed Garden" deals with clashes between two sets of heretics in 15th century Czechoslovakia--on one side, the free-love practicing nudists led by Rohan the Blacksmith, and on the other the Taborites, lead by the bloodthirsty general Jan Žižka. The first panel of this story starts with the words "1415 was not a very good year for Christianity." In such times, heresies are born. These bizarre fable-like tales may seem far from us, but they show want can happen when societies are stressed.

The Man Who Grew His Beard by Olivier Schrauwen. Most of these stories were published in the anthology Mome. I admit that when I read them there, I kind of skimmed them. They seemed like trifles. But in this book collection, the effect is much stronger. The stories are funny, ironic and absurd. In that, he reminds me of his fellow Belgian cartoonists, Kamagurka and Herr Seele. But he also reminds one of the avant garde Belgian cartoonists of Freon (later Fremok). These are more "art comics," where the visual aspect is paramount.

Olivier Schrauwen, The Grotto p. 6, comic page, 2011

This is not to say the narratives are unimportant, mere hangers onto which to hang the art. They are amusing, weird and compelling--the visual aspect makes them all the more so. I think this book was overlooked when it came out--but it deserves to be read.

Love & Rockets #04: Love and Rockets: New Stories by Gilbert Hernandez and Jaime Hernandez. This book, on the other hand, has gotten tons of recognition. The Hernandez brothers have been producing Love & Rockets comics since 1981, and in 2008 started releasing them as book collections. I have to admit I don't get Gilbert's work anymore--he's gone so deep into his obsessions (old genre movies, ginormous boobs) that it's hard for me to see anything else. Jaime's stories are the ones that people really responded to in this issue. For the past few years, he has been concentrating on his character Maggie, and filling in her life. The previous volume contained a particularly powerful story about her childhood and her brother Calvin. This time around, the Maggie stories are a little more sentimental. (SPOILER ALERT) She finally ends up with Ray Dominguez, a character that has been a part of Maggie's life for decades. Jaime is too oblique a storyteller for this to be a cliche. But still, I think one reason people like it so much is because they have wanted to see these two characters settle down and be happy for so long.

Skip Williamson Skip Williamson
Flesh and Spontaneous Combustion by Skip Williamson. These are self-published Kindle books by the long-time underground cartoonist, Skip Williamson, and they could have used a good copy-editor. But between the whiff of vanity publication and the amateurish editing, they're actually great! Skip Williamson is a funny writer--he writes as if he's telling you a longish shaggy-dog story in a bar, and his use of language (as anyone who has read his comics knows) is interestingly florid. I wish it had been organized a little better, and hadn't been so episodic--there are spaces between the anecdotes he shares that I would like to have heard more about. At the very least, I'd like to see the trajectories of his career, his various relations, his life in Chicago (and why he moved to Atlanta), etc. As it is, we get glimpses of these things. The two books are kind of a  "greatest hits" collection. Readers of Pan will be especially interested in Williamson's adventures in Atlanta's art scene as related in Spontaneous Combustion.

Flesh mostly deals with underground cartoonist Skip Williamson's time as an art director for various naughty magazines, including a long stint as an art director for Playboy. Like Spontaneous Combustion, it's highly readable if scattered. Williamson self-published both books as short Kindle books, but what would have been better would have been a single book in which the essays were sliced up and reassembled into a single, full-length auto-biographical narrative. In short, these books would have benefited from having an editor. As it is, they are quite entertaining if sometimes a little confusing as far as chronology goes.



Ward Sanders' Glimpses of an Imaginary Past

by Robert Boyd

Ward Sanders is a San Antonio artist who has had four solo shows at Hooks Epstein. Full disclosure: I bought a piece by Sanders at his last show. His work involves getting old wooden boxes or containers and filling them with scraps of paper and objects. The result is a tiny collection of objects that seem to tell a story of recall a forgotten time or place. They are all backward-looking--reliquaries for an imagined past. This time around, Sanders has added a literary element to it.


Ward Sanders, The Death of New Orleans, assemblage, 2011

I was lucky enough to speak to Sanders at the opening. I told him the combination of deliberate, artificial archaicism with a sense of mystery reminded of the writing of Jorge Luis Borges. I mentioned the story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," in which a group of bibliophiles stumbles first across evidence of an unknown (fictional) country hidden in an encyclopedia, then a whole world, Tlön, which they come to realize is slowly taking over our world--even though it is completely fictional.

Ward Sanders, The Stars of Home, assemblage, 2011

This lead us into a conversation about literature that brings a fictional reality into the "real world"--he mentioned Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino as a major influence. We spoke of George Saunders, Will Self, and Flannery O'Connor. He talked about how David Eagleman's Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives had influenced this current show, as had his readings on fossils and paleontology.

 Ward Sanders, The Whores of Bellocq, assemblage, 2011

Literature was on Sander's mind when he made these pieces. The addition of the text, written in a formal voice, somewhat old-fashioned--a little like Borges--moves the work from an already fuzzy location as visual art to some hybrid. I usually recoil when artists include writing in their work. There are two problems with this practice. First, the writing is usually too long. It's an imposition to make someone in a gallery or museum read long texts. But worse is that the writing is almost always terrible. Most artists are not good prose stylists.

Ward Sanders, Homily on Genetics, assemblage, 2011

Sanders avoids both errors.Just as each box feels like a fragmentary record of something much greater, each text feels like a fragment of a novel or story that I personally would like to read. Something Calvino-esque.