Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Roadtrip: Beaumont & Galveston

by Robert Boyd

I went to Beaumont with a specific goal, to see the Robert Pruitt exhibit, and with a general goal, to see what the Art Museum of Southeast Texas was all about. I'm used to big city museums. The only small city museums I am familiar with are the Portland Art Museum and the Tampa Museum of Art. But compared to Beaumont, those two cities are giants (Portland has 580 thousand, Tampa has 336 thousand and Beaumont has 119 thousand). Portland and Tampa nonetheless had eccentric museums where you could see how one collector or a small group of local collectors influenced the collection. If this is the case with AMSET, it wasn't obvious.

The museum is located on Main St. in downtown Beaumont. It's long been said Houston's downtown is a ghost town on weekends. That's become less true over time, but it's not an unjust criticism. But Houston is Manhattan compared to the desolation I encountered in downtown Beaumont on Saturday afternoon. Main St. is a broad boulevard. On one side was the Beaumont Civic Center and on the other was AMSET and the Texas Energy Museum. I parked in the vast, empty Civic Center parking lot. There were no crosswalks--they were unnecessary because there was no traffic. For a place that is the civic heart of the city, it was eerily deserted.

Men of Vision
David Cargill, Men of Vision, bronze, 6'6" x 7'5" x 4'6", 1995

This sculpture by David Cargill graces the front to the Texas Energy Museum. Weirdly enough, the people it honors, Vic, Sol, Ben and Nate Rogers had nothing to do with the energy industry--they were the founders of Texas State Optical (Men of Vision. Geddit?)

For a civic "great men" sculpture, this one has a loose, jazzy feel that is uncommon. The figures are not realistic--they have a rubbery, cartoony feel. But certain details have a truthfulness to them that trump mere realism. The sense of forward motion, the gestures, the way the figure on the left tilts his head. I like this somewhat wacky sculpture a lot.

AMSET is a small museum. When I was there, they had two temporary exhibits going on: This Rejection of the Conqueror: Works by Robert Pruitt and Meredith Jack: Back in Black. I discuss the Robert Pruitt show on Glasstire.

Meredith Jack installation
Meredith Jack installation view

Meredith Jack, a retired sculpture professor from Lamar University in Beaumont, works in cast iron and steel. These pieces are recent and made of steel.

Truth Table
Meredith Jack, Truth Table, steel, 58" x 58" x 25", 2011

Truth Table was a piece that made a big impression on mewhen I saw it at an exhibit at Williams Tower. The table is topped with checkered non-slip steel flooring, which is often used in industrial settings--particularly in oil facilities (refineries, offshore platforms, etc.) The hat says Texas. But the most intriguing part of the sculpture are the broken columns. They recall the classical world (although their shape is not typical of Greek fluted columns), but by being broken they add a meaning. In the 18th and early 19th century, there was something of a fad for ruins, which were described as picturesque. English landowners often designed their gardens to include ruins, whether real ruins of medieval structures on their land, or ersatz ruins acquired just for look. Piranesi's etching of ruins were popular art objects for travelers. Ruins were bittersweet reminders of destroyed civilizations; they carried a lesson of humility (not well-heeded, perhaps) to the new young empire of Great Britain. The ruined statue in the poem "Ozymandias" by Shelley offers such a lesson.

I wonder if Jack is doing the same thing here. Beaumont, like Houston, is an oil town--it is the location of Spindletop, the first really big oil well, an event that sent America and the world on a path of oil-dependence. The empire of oil was founded here, you might say. I see this piece as a reminder that empires end.

Snake Woman 2
Meredith Jack, Snake Woman 2, steel, 108" x 29.5" x 19", 2011

The two Snake Woman sculptures are more enigmatic. It may refer to Cihuacoatl, the Aztec fertility goddess, and the two pieces do look like temple statuary. Their relentless blackness gives them a sinister appearance. Whatever the meaning of the work, it has a disquieting presence.

It was fantastic to see Meredith Jack's work, and Beaumont should be proud to have him. But one thing I noticed about AMSET was how much of the art in their collection (at least the art that was on display on the day I was there) is from Houston. I know the sensation of visiting the CAMH or the MFAH and feeling like Houston is just an artistic colony of New York or Europe. So I was surprised to see Houston as the colonizer in Beaumont.

AMSET artists
clockwise from the top left: Karen Broker, Vessel Question, conte on formica, 1992; Ibsen Espada, Gladiator, oil on canvas, 1988; Sarah Williams, MoDOT, oil on panel, 2010; Al Souza, May Be Bay Bees, puzzle pieces on wood, 2003; Burt Long, Dama, mixed media, 1981

All these paintings are by Houston artists, except MoDOT, which is by an artist represented by McMurtrey Gallery in Houston. I didn't do a thorough count, but my impression was that most of the art on display in the museum that day had a Houston connection. And I was glad to see these pieces, especially the Karin Broker Vessel Question, which shows off her supernatural drawing ability which I've loved ever since I was an undergrad in her printing class.

But where were the Beaumont artists? It turns out that one Beaumont artist had a gallery to himself for a permanent installation.

lawn installation
Felix "Fox" Harris, installation, mixed media, approximately 1955-1985

Felix "Fox" Harris's story is not atypical for outsider artists. Born in 1905, he was an illiterate laborer (but fairly successful--he worked as a foreman for a construction crew). When he retired, he had a vision of God presenting him with two pieces of paper, one brown and dirty with age and one white. God told him that the brown piece was his old life, and the white piece was his new life, which he now must live. Harris interpreted this as a sign to make this forest of objects in his lawn. After he died, a group of admirers made sure the work ended up here at AMSET.

Felix "Fox" Harris
Kieth Carter, photo of Felix "Fox" Harris

It's interesting to note that the three Golden Triangle area artists whose work I saw all work (or worked) with metal; Cargil and Jack with cast metal, and Harris with metal assemblage. Now given the nature of my trip (parachute in for a few hours and leave), I can't conclude anything about art there. I can't even conclude that much about the museum--it had a lot of Houston art on display that day, but I have no idea if that is representative of its whole collection. So I'm going to hold off on any big conclusions about art in the Golden Triangle. What I'm writing here is a first impression, and first impressions can be mistaken.

I left the downtown area via Calder Ave. It looked like a major street, and indeed was a big big broad avenue. But it was surprisingly empty. I wonder if there was some big event in Beaumont that Saturday that sucked the population away from the center of the city.

I drove back towards Houston on I-10 until I got to Winnie, where I turned south on 124 towards the coast. When you head sound on I-45 to Galveston, you don't really get an idea of what the coastal plain is like because it's so built up. But on 124, the flatness is unrelenting. Marsh and dry land fade into one another.

flat marshy horizon

At the end of 124 is the town of High Island, an unexpected bit of terrain popping up out of the flatness. It's a quaint little town (not actually an island, though), best known as a mecca for birders, but it has chilling memories for me. In 1973, mass murderer Dean Corll was killed by one of his associates. Corll had been luring boys to his house, raping and murdering them. He buried some of them under his candy-making factory in the heights, and when that became too full of corpses, he started burying them in other places, including out here in High Island. I remember seeing the police digging them up there on TV. I was 10 years old. My relatives would warn me not to get into a car with someone who wanted to "party," an unnecessary warning since the idea of getting in the car with a stranger was utterly terrifying anyway.

High Island water tower

Highway 124 ends and turns into 87, which runs the length of Bolivar Peninsula. This is one of the prettiest drives I know. Even though it was a cool day, I had to roll the window down and breath the Gulf air.

Bolvar Peninsula

The trip was pleasant, but my destination was Galveston. My goal was to see the new Galveston Artist Residency, which was having a party that night. The building was near the Galveston Arts Center and Wagner Sousa Gallery. The GAR is a residence for three artists at a time. Each one gets a nice studio and an apartment a few blocks away. I don't know if they get any kind of living expenses. Right now, the three artists include two who just finished CORE residencies (Nick Barbee and Kelly Sears) and Nsenga Knight. The building has an exhibition space and a lovely courtyard in addition to the studios.

GAR building at sunset
Galveston Artist Residencies building

GAR galleries at night
GAR studios, seen from the outside

Nick Barbee's studio
Nick Barbee's studio at GAR

GAR gallery
GAR Gallery with Nick Barbe sculptures in front and a Kelly Sears video in the background

Nsenga Knight at GAR
Nsenga Knight, photos from the Drowned series

GAR balcony
Balcony overlooking the GAR gallery

All in all, GAR looks certain to be an important addition to the Galveston art scene and to the area art scene as a whole. It's worth the drive down from Houston, for sure.

I noticed a block north on Santa Fe Place was another tree stump sculpture. Of course, I added it to my map.

Trolly conductor stump
Trolley conductor tree stamp

The Galveston Arts Center had an opening that night as well. This small non-profit space is a key institution for contemporary art in Galveston. It mostly shows artists from outside Galveston, but has also given shows to Galveston-based artists Kamila Szszesna and Ann Wood. The current show is Charlotte Smith, a painter from Dallas who shows with Anya Tish.

Milky Way IV
Charlotte Smith, Milky Way IV, acrylic on canvas

As far as I can tell, Smith's thing is to pour thick liquid acrylic onto the canvas to create thick buttons of paint.

Milky Way IV detail
Charlotte Smith, Milky Way IV (detail), acrylic on canvas

The effect is to create a heavily textured all-over composition. I like these works, but they seem purely decorative. I don't feel like the artist is communicating anything to me beyond prettiness. And that's OK--pretty things are nice. I don't have any knee-jerk reaction to beauty, even though I often find I prefer ugly things. They both have their place in the world.

Repeat Offender
Charlotte Smith, Repeat Offender, acrylic on canvas

I like this one because it reminds me of patterns of fungus on a giant petri dish.

This was also the night of Galveston's Artwalk. Most of the galleries in Galveston are on Post Office, a few blocks away from the Galveston Arts Center and the GAR. And they are what you would expect--places that sell decorative items to tourists. Two deserve special mention.

Affair d'art International

This is Affaire d'Art International Gallery. The art was mostly pretty bad (imitations of better art), but what got me was the pompous name of the gallery. Its logo is a stylized fleur de lis. That night, they had a large ice carving of the logo in the gallery. Classy!

The other gallery was Peck Arts (mute your computer before you open this website). This gallery had a kind of tropical theme. The work they were showing was not cutting edge by a long shot--it, too, was purely decorative. But decorative in a specific way. If you have a big beach house on stilts out on West Beach, this might be the kind of art you want to decorate it.

Homer Allen, Wildflowers

These electric-colored wildflower paintings by Homer Allen, for example. You totally imagine them on the beach house wall, with some Jimmy Buffett on the stereo and the frozen margarita machine cranked up.

Bahama Mama
John Olvey, Bahama Mama, carved surfboard

And as for John Olvey, fire up the bong, baby. This surf board art is clever and very well-made. It'll never be in a museum, but it'd look great in a beach house!

It's easy for me to look down my nose at the art offered for sale in the galleries on Post Office, because I'm a highly educated art snob. But in terms of art that accomplishes what it sets out to do, I have no complaints about the art of Olvey and Allen. They're both really talented and both make art that seems ideally suited to beach culture. And these galleries are part of our weird fragmented art ecology. My tastes are going to generally lead me to GAR, but popping into Peck Gallery from time to time might be fun too. Especially after a margarita or three.



  1. "It's easy for me to look down my nose at the art offered for sale in the galleries on Post Office, because I'm a highly educated art snob."

    This made me laugh. I like Charlotte's work, but I have a thing for round shapes. For decorative art, I'd rather have that in my home than the technicolor flowers.

  2. FYI:
    The Cargill sculpture of the Men of Vision is actually on the lawn of the Art Museum of Southeast Texas. The Men of Vision were not only instrumental in the developemnt of the City but also instrumental in the growth for the Beaumont Art Museum- a sleepy little house full of art to the Art Museum of Southeast Texas a valued REGIONAL museum servoing all of East Texas. Beyond that, the Rogers family were a much lauded philanthropic family, their children continue that work today.

  3. Stumbling through the internet after doing a search for "Beaumont Art" I came across this blog. I know I am more than late to this party, but I see you missed a couple of places in Beaumont that may have been worth a visit- The Art Studio Inc. on Franklin St. and the Dishman Gallery at Lamar University. Perhaps they had nothing on display at the time.