Thursday, May 24, 2012

Notes on Super 8

by Robert Boyd

I've been to plenty of art events at Winter Street Studios and Summer Street Studios, but I had never been to Spring Street Studios. (There is an Autumn Lane and a Fall Street in Houston, but no art studios on either as far as I know.) Group shows at art studios tend to be mixed bags (at best) because the artists working in those places are so varied, both in style and in quality. Super Eight at Spring Street seems to have made an effort to mitigate this. The number of artists on display was limited to eight, which permitted a deeper selection of work from each artist, as well as some quality control. Beyond that, it's hard to see what the selection principle was. Most of the work is painted, but there is a large variety of styles and subject matters. And there is some sculptural work, including an installation. I don't think it's important that I know how the artists were chosen and by whom, but it does make me wonder what these particular eight artists have in common. Perhaps they are all friends, which is as good a reason to display work together as any.

For the most part, Tito Fabian's art did nothing for me. It was political in the shallowest, most obvious way. The thing that struck me about his work (positively) was its construction out of triangular facets of plywood, which gave it a relief quality.

Micah the Artist, Good Times

Then there was Micah the Artist [sic]. His paintings for the most part weren't memorable, but Good Times caught my eye. What is being depicted here? A burrito? The ambiguity (and the resemblance to food) make this piece amusing. Placing this enormous food item in front of a vaguely-defined tan plane with pale green filigree just adds to the over-all strangeness of the painting. Good times indeed.

Kelley Devine, The Diary, book pages, charcoal, acrylic medium on canvas, 48" x 36"

The woman in Kelley Devine's The Diary is pensive, almost anxious. Like most of Devine's women, she has big eyes and a tiny cupid's bow lips. She doesn't look at the viewer. And the image rests on a ground of printed pages.

The pages are from a book called Anaïs Nin: An Introduction by Benjamin Franklin and Duane Schneider.I thought it was interesting that she didn't use pages from Nin's actual diary. Instead, the pages are from a scholarly book by two men. Given the nature of what Nin wrote (such as her works of erotica that were published as Delta of Venus and Little Birds), there is an ironic perversity, a kind of voyeurism, in using pages of a book about Nin as the ground in this piece. It puts the woman in the picture one-step removed from being on an actual diary. Does this suggest that Devine is deliberately keeping something revealed? Given that the women in her paintings often look something like her without quite being her, I think maybe there is a sense that her works aren't really diaries--or that they are diaries that are locked shut.

Lucinda Cobley, Interval 4, 2012, monoprint on plastic, 50" x 40"

Lucinda Cobley usually works on glass (and some of that work was in Super Eight). The glass sometimes gives her work a' "artsy" feel, as if announcing that it's precious. Glass feels decorative (and I don't mean to disdain the decorative, but it makes her work seem a little less serious). I have to admit, the glass rubs me the wrong way. Which is why I liked her three Intervals, which are monoprints on plastic. They feel very matter-of-fact compared to the glass paintings. I look at something like Interval 4, and I see ink rolled onto plastic with a crappy roller (the roller part of it appears to not have been perfectly round, or else the ink wasn't applied to it evenly, which is why there are vertical stripes in each horizontal band of blue). The beauty comes out despite the materials. And this appeals to me.

Sarah Whatley, Sliced, 2012, mixed media

Sarah Whatley's pieces were made of X-ray photographs of human bodies. Most of the pieces displayed showed the Xrays cut into the silhouetted  shapes of women's clothes, and I found them a little cutesy and clever, but obvious. Perhaps they were saying that clothes are just a covering for the biological organism, the animal, beneath.

Sarah Whatley, Sliced, 2012, mixed media

But Sliced is a different story. This installation was in a darkened room. The "bed" is constructed of clothe draped over a metal frame. Inside the bed is a light source. And Whatley has constructed two lifesize "paper dolls" out of Xrays. They are depicted having sex with one another. One of them is a woman wearing what appears to be lingerie and high heels (who wears high heels to bed outside of porn films? Or am I just being naive?). The piece, glowing in the blackness of the room, is quite arresting. And much more than her other pieces here, this is very successful in foregrounding the biological underpinning of the erotic.

Kevin Peterson, Rocket, oil on panel

With graffiti and street art becoming such an important aspect of contemporary art, Kevin Peterson seems well-positioned to benefit. But his use of street art is highly eccentric. He paints highly rendered realistic paintings of objects and walls covered with graffiti.

Kevin Peterson, Keep Out, oil on panel, 40" x 28"

Much of the graffiti he depicts is "tagging." I haven't seen tagging referred to as art (unlike the more ambitious variations of "wild style"), although one could make a case for it in terms of being a kind of vernacular calligraphy. But he will sometimes paint "wild style" graffiti, as in the pieces on the dinosaur in Keep Out.

Kevin Peterson, Inked II, oil on panel, 57" x 46"

But Inked II suggests that Peterson is not interested in graffiti per se, but redrawing art in situ. So art on a piece of playground equipment, art on a wall, art on a dinosaur sculpture--or art on a blonde woman. Of course, the art he repaints in his paintings is art that arises from (and is often created by) the working class. It's not the art of MFAs (more and more ambitious graffiti artists are getting MFAs these days, though). Tattoos and graffiti art have only impacted bourgeois and elite sensibilities after spending many decades as the art of ghettos and sea ports.

But it would be interesting to see Peterson branch out a bit. What if he did paintings of art installations? Highly rendered realistic paintings of, say, a Cildo Meireles, an Ernesto Neto, a Daniel Buren, or a Tara Donavan installation. Particularly of ephemeral installations. I, for one, would find that pretty excellent--painting paying homage to post-painting.

 Kevin Peterson, Chipmunk, oil on panel, 32" x 21" (with actual playground "chipmunk")

With Chipmunk, Peterson displayed both the painting and the subject, which begs the question. Did Peterson acquire this worn, graffiti covered playground ride like this, or did he buy a relatively clean one and cover it with graffiti himself? Is it a found object, or a found object that he manipulated after the fact?

several small piece by Matt Messinger

One of Houston's most under-rated artists in Matt Messinger. He recently started showing at Devon Borden, which may change his status a bit. But here he was, selling great work cheap. (Full disclosure--I bought one of his whale prints, which you can see above roughly in the middle of this photo.)

Matt Messinger, Pluto

Messinger uses found images, often from 30s-era animated cartoons. That by itself is interesting (why such old images, redolent of the Depression and its rich popular culture?), but the way he combines them with drippy paint and ink and deliberately distressed painting surfaces adds another layer. They don't feel like they were created--they feel like they were excavated.

Matt Messinger, 3 Bears Button Stack

His sculptural works also have a nostalgic feel.  The ceramic collectible that form the basis of 3 Bears Button Stack is like something your grandmother might have bought.

Matt Messinger, Fox

Another subject matter that pops up in Messinger's work are animals. Fox has an illustrational image of a fox, which may or may not be appropriated. But the patched-together ground and drips of white paint or gesso give it the damaged look that typifies so much of Messinger's painted work.

Matt Messinger, #9

In this exhibit, there are several pieces where the figures are white and the ground is black. In addition to the painted images, he has written on these black paintings. In #9, he is tallying something up. There are columns of hashmarks, marking every five things (whatever he was counting). This kind of casual note-to-oneself right on the canvas reminds me a bit of Jean-Michel Basquiat. There a lot of artists in Houston influenced by Basquiat, and I guess Messinger falls into that category to an extent. But his work has its own vocabulary and style.

David Hardaker, MM-Destroyed #1, 2012, oil and household paint on canvas, 40" x 30"

David Hardaker also gives his paintings a deliberately damaged look. His paintings are appear damaged by violence, usually by pouring house paint over a highly-rendered image, instead of by wear and tear (as Messinger's appear to be). The images under the house paint are paintings of high-fashion models, presumably taken from magazines or catalogs. (Although I guess it's possible that Hardaker hires models.) The notion of throwing paint onto these images of women is disturbing. Because they are elegant, fashionable and sexy, it could be interpreted as a violent fear or disgust of women's sexuality. They might be seen as a metaphor for acid attacks, which are sometimes perpetrated against women in Pakistan and elsewhere by jealous husbands or religious fanatics. If interpreted this way, they are very disturbing images.

David Hardaker, JS-Destroyed #2, 2012, oil and household paint on canvas, 40" x 30"

In a piece like JS-Destroyed #2, the house paint covers the figure's entire face, erasing her identity. As an image of a model posing in kimono-like dress with a plunging neckline, there was already objectification taking place. But in JS-Destroyed #2, she is completely dehumanized.  Now another way to interpret this is that Hardaker is pointing out that this kind of high-fashion image is inherently dehumanizing. Pouring paint on it could even be thought of as a protest of this kind of commercial vapidity.

David Hardaker, Head Like a Hole, 2012, oil on canvas, mounted on board, burned, 16" x 16"

But it's hard not to conclude that Hardaker likes putting the women he depicts through hell; he douses them in house paint, and in Head Like a Hole, he burns a hole through his subject's forehead. No matter how you interpret them, they are unsettling.

The space, Spring Street Studios, turns out to be a pretty ideal place to display work, especially flat work. Four very wide hallways (built to accommodate a forklift, it seems) form a square. Each artist had plenty of space. There was very little salon-style hanging of works. I hope there will be more shows like this there.



  1. To me, "Good Times" looks like a giant pill.

  2. I can see that--and it fits with the title (depending one what the pill is).

  3. Yeah! on Messinger. I own one and not enough. And what is wrong with these representational painters in Houston? There doesn't seem to be a one without their easel facing a wall. Talk about empty commodity. Staley's foray is so teachable in this regard. He could of done it with some authenticity and life. Like what he did before and since. Who cares about the drawing if you preclude the former. Man, it makes me sad.